This summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a plan to focus its attention on the notoriously high sodium levels found in some restaurant food. Details were still being worked out as of press time, but restaurants are logical targets: Fast-food meals can exceed the whole-day sodium recommendations for adults. Chain restaurants publish their nutrition numbers, but few chefs have been taught to watch sodium when turning out their latest masterpieces. One exception is this month's Healthy Habits Hero, chef Jeremy Bearman. Until recently, Bearman helmed New York City's Rouge Tomate, the leading health-forward fine dining restaurant in America. The restaurant's dishes adhered to strict nutrition parameters—including sodium—based on the United States Department of Agriculture's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Yet there was nothing about Bearman's dishes that tasted "low sodium."
In his own life, as at work, Bearman employs several strategies to prevent over-salted food, including saving some of the recipe's allowable salt until right when the dish is ready to be served. This way, the salt flavor hasn't had the chance to diminish, and you get a perfectly seasoned dish without big sodium numbers.
Another salt-savvy point to consider when you're cooking at home, tasting as you go: "The first bite of a soup might taste good, but think in terms of eating the entire bowl. At the end, you're probably going to notice that it's saltier than you wanted it to be."
Bearman's approach comes down to considering a food's natural sodium level and adjusting the salt accordingly. For example, pasta sauce is often salty enough that you don't need to salt the pasta water. The same can't be said for naturally low-sodium foods like beans.
"When I cook beans, I put salt in the liquid to get some seasoning inside the bean. That way you don't have to put so much salt in whatever you're dressing them with because the beans are actually well seasoned on their own," says Bearman.
In light of these strategies, Bearman is not suggesting cooks abandon the saltshaker. "You're not going to eat things that are completely, utterly bland, but you have to wean yourself off salt use in a smart way," he says. "You can actually decrease your desire for salt by using a step-down approach to minimize the amount you use."
Chef Bearman's Salt-Smart Strategies> MAKE YOUR OWN LOW-SODIUM SAUCES. Condiments, such as mustard and mayo, are loaded with salt. Make a few favorite sauces yourself to reduce the sodium. "I make my own rhubarb mostarda with a little rhubarb and some mustard seed, but no salt."
> EXPERIMENT WITH FLAVOR INTENSIFIERS. "Vinegar is one of those foods that sometimes people mistake for salt. Most of the time, pickles are made by adding salt to the cucumbers and letting them ferment. That fermentation process brings out acid, so the pickle ends up tasting acidic. It also ends up being incredibly salty. We actually did a lot of our pickles without salt and just vinegar with a small ratio of sugar."
> BEWARE HEALTH FOOD HALOS. Salt can be high in otherwise healthy foods. "Some whole-wheat hamburger buns have almost double the sodium of traditional options," Bearman says. Leafy greens, like kale, have a lot of naturally occurring sodium, too. Balance these foods with other low-sodium ingredients.