Cutting the Salt

From purchasing to service, operators share tips to reduce sodium.

At Colorado Springs School District 11, low-sodium bases
work well for dishes like Orange Chicken with Rice Pilaf.

Salt is an essential flavor component, but stricter dietary guidelines and growing awareness around healthy eating means many diners want to eat less of it. Happily, non-commercial operators are meeting the demand with a variety of strategies.

Since packaged foods are a major source of dietary sodium, choosing lower-sodium versions of ingredients like meats, cheeses and flavoring agents can translate to significantly less sodium. At Colorado Springs School District 11, Executive Chef Brian Axworthy purchases low-sodium beef and chicken bases for dishes like Orange Chicken with Rice Pilaf. He also relies on fresh herbs and spices for flavors rather than premade blends for dishes like Pulled Pork BBQ Sliders.

Choosing more all-natural meat products helps, too. At Heatherwood Retirement Community in Honeybrook, Pa., Director of Dietary Services Chris Darmastaetter uses bone-in, shankless ham that hasn’t been injected with water or sodium. It’s a similar story for Kettering Medical Center in Ohio. “Natural meats aren’t subjected to sodium solutions, which can lower overall sodium counts by as much as 300%,” says Network Director of Nutrition Services Cheryl Shimmin.

Opting for fresh or frozen ingredients instead of canned versions can cut sodium levels even more, says Tim Gump, executive chef at Illinois State University, in Normal. He’s also started relying more on salt-smart fats like oil instead of butter or margarine in dishes like Toasted Barley with Fresh Vegetables.

Cooking foods from scratch rather than relying on premade items is another salt-reducing tactic that non-commercial operators employ. Once they’ve committed to cooking from scratch, though, operators rely on additional techniques to push sodium counts even lower. Axworthy opts for cooking methods that naturally enhance a dish’s flavor, such as braising or slow roasting.

At Illinois State, Gump adds water to soy sauce in Asian concept dishes like General Tso’s Chicken. “It reduces the sodium by a third, which is the equivalent of using low-sodium soy sauce,” he says. For pasta dishes, like Cavatappi Pasta with Marinara and Cajun Pasta Fresca, Gump skips salting the pasta water, too.

Another technique: Switching from iodized to kosher salt. This has yielded a 60% net sodium reduction in the dishes at Illinois State while yielding a cleaner, more neutral taste, Gump adds.

For some populations, leaving out the salt completely also can work. “Since our assisted living residents are older they’re more sensitive to salty flavors,” says Heatherwood’s Darmastaetter. “They give more positive feedback when we omit the salt from our recipes.”