April 20, 2011

Salt-Free Umami Broth


The elusive fifth taste.

The other four – sweet, sour, bitter, and salty – can be found in canned products and even more surprisingly, in natural ingredients.

Sweet is easy. Just grab a fresh strawberry or even a red pepper and taste the natural sugars that seep out with each bite.

Sour is even simpler. Just bite into a lemon. Or a spoonful of greek yogurt. Or a dash of vinegar. And bam, you’ve got sour.

Bitter can be found in a plate full of chicories, like endive, or slices of freshly peeled horseradish.

And salty, well you don’t even need the salt shaker for that. Just roast a beet, juice some carrots and celery, or make a meat broth from scratch, and the natural salt in each will appear.

But umami. Where on earth do you find umami?

Described as the “savory” taste, most people associate umami with soy sauce, fish sauce, and other high-sodium, highly-delicious Asian products. So for a very long time, I thought umami was out of the question for a low sodium diet.

Then I did some readings.

According to the Umami Information Center (yes, there is apparently a center for everything), the desired umami taste comes from a type of amino acids called glutamates which, gasp, occur naturally in food. Not just bottles of soy sauce. And the more glutamate compounds an ingredient has, the higher its umami factor.

And it isn’t just the glutamate. Other scientific sounding ingredients, like inosinate (found in bonito fish flakes – which can have 0mg of sodium) and guanylate (found in dried shitake mushrooms – which can also contain 0mg of sodium), have also recently been coined as key umami contributers in food.

So umami, it turns out, isn’t so difficult to find after all.

And while it is most conveniently  sourced from cured, fermented, and just plain old salty products – like ham, vegemite, cheeses, and anchovies – umami can also be foraged from a regular old tomato. Or a slab of pork. Or chicken bones, which is why homemade stock is so delicious. Or potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms.

Umami actually occurs naturally in a lot of the foods we eat every day. And by roasting, toasting, and reducing these ingredients, we can up the umami factor in any low sodium dish.

So when a recipe calls for a product that is high in salt, but also high in umami flavor, just think of how you can replace it with any of the other whole, low sodium ingredients that have the same taste. Forget the fish sauce and swap it with a stock made of pork bones and mushrooms. Or can the parmesan cheese and increase the chicken stock and tomato paste.

Just another point of proof that a low sodium diet does not have to limit your flavors. Not even the fifth one.

Chow on.

Brooke Bure April 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm

So I recently discovered my added weight isn’t exactly that I just got hungerier this winter, but that I have a salt tooth. “Water weight” and “bloating” and “holding water” are new and terrifying terms for me. So. Here I am, googling “sodium.”

And I found you. And I’m a little bit more ok now.

Mary January 8, 2012 at 7:10 pm


I just discovered your website and it offers some really interesting ideas, but I am wondering how to find recipes just by inputting the item like for example fish sauce, it came up under improbable eats so I assume you don’t want to go there any further on that subject…just want to make sure I am following your website correctly….please advise the easiest way to locate recipes for particular items. Thanks so much and I look forward to continuing on reading thru your ideas!

jessg23 January 9, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Hi Mary! There are a few ways you can find a recipe: 1) You can type the ingredient or type of dish you are looking for in the SEARCH box on the right hand side of the screen and some posts with those words will pop up in the results. OR 2) you can click on the link for the RECIPE BOX and then choose from all the categories to find recipes that relate to that ingredient, theme, or type of cuisine. And always, 3) if you have trouble finding what you’re looking for, just leave a note here or on SG’s Facebook page or Twitter feed and I’ll get back to you!

As for IMPROBABLE EATS, it’s my favorite subject! I love tackling foods, like fish sauce, that are high in salt and sodium Get ready for the Sodium Girl cookbook this fall, cause it is filled with this kind of stuff (i.e. Bloody Marys). But as for fish sauce, I haven’t tackled it yet, so that’s why nothing is under that link…for now.

Hope this helps!

Mary McKenna April 25, 2013 at 7:46 am

Dear Sodium Girl,

Glad to see your writing on sources of Umami and the link. I use carmelized onions and mushrooms to get some oomph in flavors. Our favorite no-salt tomato product is Pomi brand, in case you have not tried it. It passes the foodie hubby test.

I have a question about your cookbook. Are most of the recipes also low in refined (simple) carbohydrates? And do you use a lot of grains in your cookbook?

Many thanks.


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