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How to Add Flavor Without Adding Salt, Sugar or Fat

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about our obsession with (or dare I say addiction to) salt, sugar and fat, and I recommended the book by Michael Moss, to learn more about how big food manufacturers keep us hooked.  There is of course, a reason food companies add so much salt, sugar and fat to most of the products we buy – they make food taste good! 

Even if you swear off all packaged “convenience” foods, and go the home cooked route, you may still find yourself adding ample amounts of salt, sugar and/or fat to make your recipes taste better.   Unfortunately, if you’re trying to cut calories to lose weight, or you want to limit sodium for your heart, you may feel that you’re missing out on flavor.

Lucky for you I’m in a sharing mood!  I have a few tips and tricks that I use to boost flavor of some recipes, without adding large amounts of salt or sugar, and to give the creamy mouth feel of fat, while still keeping the calories on the down low.  Here are a few of my favorites:

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Saute and sear like you mean it!  All vegetables used in soups or stews (especially onions), should be sautéed in a bit of oil, until they give up their liquid, and start to turn slightly brown.  This browning reaction is known as caramelization – and it results in a sweeter, nuttier, more intense flavor in vegetables, all of which have natural sugar.

The same goes for meat-chicken, turkey, beef, even fish. Place your meat in a hot, dry pan, and do not disturb until you strongly suspect that a golden crust has formed.  Then flip and repeat.  It’s similar to caramelization, except with protein, it’s called Maillard reaction (for anyone interested in food science).  Maillard is what produces those delicious crispy bits that you love to pick off the pan.  Ever notice how they taste sweet and salty even though they’re not?

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Always use herbs liberally!  Experiment with different herbs (look for a post on this in a few weeks).  Dried herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano can give a nice depth of flavor and should be added during cooking.  I almost always use more herbs than a recipe calls for.  Add tender, fresh herbs like basil, parsley, tarragon, cilantro and even some chopped green onion at the very end or cooking– they will give your dish a fresh flavor and a bit of crunch that complements any cooked vegetables and herbs.

Add umami instead of salt.  Umami is Japanese for “pleasant, savory taste”, and many consider it to be the fifth basic taste along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter.  Foods that are rich in umami include soy sauce, ripe tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and mushrooms.

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My favorite umami tricks include sautéing a bit of tomato paste along with vegetables, tossing a rind from Parmigiano -Reggiano in the pot while soup is cooking (pull it out before serving), and my all time favorite – adding finely chopped porcini mushrooms to any meat-based dish like stews, soups, or Bolognese sauce.  Even people who don’t like mushrooms will love the rich layer of flavor porcinis add.  Soak about half an ounce of dried mushrooms in hot water to soften, and then chop.

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Brighten flavors just before serving.  When plating anything from salad, to poultry or seafood dishes, to cooked vegetables, brighten up the flavor with chopped fresh parsley (flat leaf), lemon zest, or lemon juice OR all of the above.  A bit of fresh parsley and grated lemon zest makes an incredible difference in almost any dish.

Instead of cream in your soup, just one word – potatoes.  Well maybe two, potatoes and bread.  I know you’re thinking, “why not Fat Free Half and Half?” Because it will break apart when heated, but it’s fine if you’re making a cold soup or sauce.  Instead, cook a diced potato in the broth, or add a slice or two of toasted bead cubes to the pot, hit it with your immersion blender, and voila- instant non-creamed soup! I also think the potato or bread trick gives your soup a thicker, creamier feel in your mouth.

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 Check out this great conversion chart from Chobani for lots more ways to decrease fat and boost protein in recipes using Greek yogurt.

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And a word about sugar…Most people’s tastebuds can be retrained to prefer less sugar, but it takes a bit of time.  Cut back on sugar you add to foods like coffee, tea, cereal, etc, and eventually you will find that you don’t miss it.  While sweetness may be a matter of taste, however,  sugar itself does play an important role in baking, browning and jelling. Reducing sugar too much, will affect the quality of your baked goods, and even some jams or jellies.  Even so, I have found that sugar can usually be cut back by ¼ to 1/3 in most baked products with very acceptable results.

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For non-baked foods, or course, sugar can be reduced with no problems.  Adding a bit of extra vanilla helps to boost the flavor, and in some dishes, spices like cinnamon, allspice or nutmeg often accomplishes the same thing.   For chocolate dishes, I love the complement of coffee or even a hint of spice from cayenne in the mix.  How about this recipe for Sriracha Chocolate ice cream from Vegan Yak Attack?

Try a few of these tricks in your cooking, and let me know if they help you reduce salt, sugar or fat.  Do you have any other tips to share?

Eat well!

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