Friday, January 20, 2012

Three of Ireland's top chefs tell us to take it with a pinch of salt

This blog is not a place for scaremongering. I have no desire to hit you over the head with admonitions to eat healthily. I'm sure you get enough of that nagging elsewhere...

I am going to whisper some advice: take a look at how much salt you're eating.

In my day job, I recently had to write an article for The Irish Examiner about the role of salt in our diet. What I found out while researching it has me worried.

Irish people are eating far too much salt. Four grams is a healthy daily intake. Six grams is the maximum recommended. But most of us consume between nine and ten grams every day - and don't think this doesn't apply to you if you live outside of Ireland: it's a problem in most western countries.

So what, I hear some of you asking. Salt makes food taste good so what's the harm?

I can see where you're coming from. For not only does salt bring out the flavour of food, we also need a certain amount of it to maintain water balance and for healthy blood pressure, muscles and nerves.
But - and this is a big but - too much causes high blood pressure which increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. In fact, the Irish Heart Foundation goes so far as to say that if everyone in Ireland reduced their salt intake by half a teaspoon a day, 900 deaths would be prevented every year.

And don't think this doesn't apply to fancy sea salts, celery salts and whatever-you're-having-yourself salts; it's true of all of them.

How come we're eating so much salt?  According to research, only 5% of what we eat occurs naturally in food. Another 10 to 15% is added in cooking or at the table. The other whopping 80% comes from processed foods, fast foods and food we eat in restaurants.

When you consider that a single cup of instant soup contains 2.2 grams of salt (more than half what you need in a day), it's not hard to see how people who eat a lot of processed food could easily overdose on salt. It makes me glad I don't eat much (if any) of it.

However, I do like eating in restaurants. Should I be worried about what chefs are adding to my food? I spoke to three Irish chefs to find out about their approach to salt.

Derry Clarke of L'Ecrivain in Dublin thinks we underestimate its power. "Just look at what it does to aubergines," he says. "The way it draws all the moisture out of them shows it's a powerful thing."
Derry has been cooking in kitchens for 40 years and during that time, he has learned a few things about salt. "I've seen how most of my customers add salt to their food automatically, without even tasting it first" he says. "I've seen how chefs overuse salt too."

He advises diners to taste their food before adding extra seasoning. And he also thinks people - including chefs - should change their approach to salt. "Seasoning is the key to good food but it depends on how you do it," he explains. "I add salt to soup when I'm starting off, along with the onions and vegetables. By adding it at the beginning, it develops with the food and is not at the forefront of the taste. Salt should add depth to the flavour. Food shouldn't taste salty. By seasoning at the beginning, you'll only have to adjust the seasoning at the end." 

Neven Maguire of MacNean House agrees with Derry. He too recommends seasoning at the beginning of the cooking process and laments the Irish habit of adding salt to food before they've tasted it.

He thinks it might have something to do with people becoming immune to salt. "The more you eat, the more you want to eat," he says.
Neven takes salt so seriously that he and his chefs don't add any salt to their food one day each month. "It readjusts our palates," he says.  "It proves to us that we don't need as much salt as we actually eat."

Rachel Allen is just as conscientious about her own personal salt consumption.

"I don't eat any processed food so I know exactly how much salt goes into my diet," she says. "That's fundamentally important as when you don't know how much salt you're eating, it can cause problems."

She uses a dairy salt as a basic table salt and Maldon sea salt or Atlantic Sea Salt when seasoning and at the table.

In fact, all three chefs used sea salt. Not because they thought it was healthier but because of its deeper, more natural flavour and coarse texture.  

I'm going to stop banging on about this now. All I'll say is that while salt definitely underscores the flavour of food, if you eat a lot of processed foods or eat in restaurants where the food is cooked by chefs who aren't as conscientious as Derry, Neven or Rachel, it's easy to consume too much.

Take your food with a pinch of salt - the smallest of pinches!


  1. Well done! I use very very little salt which confuses people sometimes!

  2. How do they get confused, Margaret?
    I find seasoning one of the most difficult things to learn when you're first starting to cook. It's so hard to get it just right. But I do find that if you season at the beginning - like Derry says - it seems to bring out the flavours more. What do you reckon?

  3. Like you say, it's mainly processed food you have to worry about. If you're trying to really limit your intake because of an existing problem with high blood pressure, adding a bit of acid (vinegar, lemon juice, etc.) can enliven food that tastes a bit flat. Often, it's acid and not salt that's missing.

  4. You're absolutely right, Bill. Processed food is the real killer. And all of the chefs I spoke to mentioned other flavourings too - such as the lemon juice and vinegar you're suggesting.

  5. Great post Sharon! We use very little salt and I never put it on the table. A little seasoning at the beginning of cooking is most beneficial.
    Also huge congrats on your new venture. I hope to visit Dingle very soon!

  6. Thanks, Nessa. Try to put your trip to Dingle off until my café is open. I'd love to welcome you there!