By now, you probably already know that overdoing it on sodium can lead to high blood pressure and up your risk for stroke. But giving up salt can be tough. One way to slash your intake right away is to check labels on processed foods, and avoid fast food restaurants, the menus of which are often chock full of sodium bomb after sodium bomb. But you can also chip away at your salty total with a little bit of kitchen creativity. Many recipes rely on salt as a way to improve the aroma, reduce bitterness, and balance out the flavors of a dish. But real food whizzes know there are plenty of substitutes that add just as much flavor—and provide some health benefits, too.
HEALTH.COM: 13 Foods That Are Saltier Than You Realized
We went to a few of our favorite chefs as well as some registered dietitians to find out their favorite easy swaps.
Ah, humble parsley. It’s available fresh in almost every season, and you can use it to add a complex, fresh taste to everything from soups and stews to eggs, says Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything Fast (October 2014).
Pro tip: “Don’t mince it,” Bittman says. “You want to be able to chew it to get the most flavor out of it.”
Health bonus: Parsley is an excellent source of vitamin K, which helps blood clot and keeps your bones strong.
Ginger is a unique flavor that’s both sweet and spicy. You can use it when searing any protein: fish, chicken, pork, and even beef, says Libby Mills, RD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dietetics.
Pro tip: Combine it with garlic for double the flavor—and the health benefits, Mills says.
Health bonus: “Anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols can bring relief and mobility to those with arthritis. It also protects us from damaging free radicals, so it’s perfect for winter months when you want your immune system at its strongest,” Mills says.
HEALTH.COM: How to Peel Fresh Ginger With a Spoon
Fresh basil is a dream on tomatoes (which people love to salt), sauteed vegetables, or even grilled meat or fish, Bittman says.
Pro tip: “It works best raw, which is why people use it to make pesto. But if you want to use it when cooking, throw it in the pan at the last minute so it doesn’t lose flavor,” Bittman says.
Health bonus: “Basil contains flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage,” Mills says.
HEALTH.COM: 6 Health Benefits of Basil
This herb has a very strong, woodsy flavor that works in pasta sauces. Or any time you sautee something, use garlic, oil, and add a few whole sprigs of rosemary, Bittman says.
Pro tip: “The good thing about rosemary one is it keeps for weeks,” Bittman says. “Just put in a baggie and then keep in the fridge.”
Health bonus: Rosemary is an old folk remedy for heartburn. “It’s a delicious way to stimulate the digestion,” Mills says.
People have a love-hate relationship with cilantro. Some absolutely adore it, while others say it tastes like soap. Fun fact: Studies show that whether you fall in the love or hate camp depends on your genes. If you can stomach it, cilantro is great for Asian-inspired stir-fries or other rice dishes.
Pro tip: “Cilantro doesn’t keep that well so it’s best to use it pretty soon after you buy it fresh,” Bittman says.
Health bonus: This herb is a powerful antimicrobial. Cilantro leaves have even been found to fight back against salmonella germs.
Mint is great in spaghetti or any chilled grain dish like couscous or quinoa salad because it adds a bright freshness.
Pro tip: Grow it yourself! Mint can easily be grown indoors through the cold winter months, so you can pick it fresh each time you cook.
Health bonus: Mint is an excellent source of vitamin C, which helps the body build important proteins that keep skin healthy and hair shiny, Mills says.
HEALTH.COM: 5 Ways to Use Fresh Mint
Mostly thought of as a sweetener or sugar substitute, you can use cinnamon to reduce sodium by combining it with low-sodium broth when preparing whole grains, like barley, millet, or quinoa.
Pro tip: Use it to make a spicy-sweet chicken rub: combine 1 to 2 teaspoons of chili powder (two if you like it hot), half a teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder. This will give you enough for four to six medium chicken breasts.
Health bonus: What can’t cinnamon do? “Cinnamon has essential oils that are both antiinflammatory and antimicrobial,” Mills explains. “It can also be helpful in reducing PMS symptoms, but it’s most famous for it’s ability to slow stomach emptying and thus reduce the rise of blood sugar after a meal.”
You can use wine to deglaze after sauteeing meat to create a nice pan sauce. “Also, even just enjoying your meal with a glass of wine helps distribute the food flavors in the mouth,” Mills says.
Pro tip: Here’s a step-by-step guide to making a red wine reduction pan sauce.
Health bonus: If you use it in your recipes, much of the alcohol will cook off. But studies have linked a nightly glass of wine to a reduced risk for heart disease. (If you’re not a drinker, this would be no reason to start, but one glass for women and up to two for men would be within healthy reason, Mills adds.)