We know, don’t we that we ought to be reducing certain elements in our food, those that the modern world has invented, corrupted or pushing at us in unhealthy quantities. Whilst I’m firmly in the ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’ camp, lessening consumption of certain things like ultra processed foods, sugar and salt is good to consider. Here I’m going to look at ways to lower our intake of salt in homemade bread.
Salt is necessary for body function, but we’re all eating way over our required amount (ref: Gov.uk). While it may not be a worry for you now, you may need to adjust your salt intake as you get older or (hopefully not) develop certain health problems. By reducing salt now before these circumstances arise you will get more accustomed to a lower level of salt in advance and work to reduce your reliance on it.
Many of these ideas here for bread can be worked in equally well to flavouring other cooking, so you’re not automatically reaching for teaspoons full of salt to flavour your food.
Over the past year or so I’ve started reducing the amount of salt I add to my bread. There are a number of ways I’ve done this so as not to compromise on flavour and there are some radical alternatives too!
Salt in bread for flavour
Many people are under the impression that salt is necessary in bread baking. It’s not, but it does do more than just add taste. Certainly, its primary function is to add flavour and stop a loaf being bland, as the process of milling grain takes a lot of the natural flavour away. Or, as Elizabeth David rather cannily put it, salt is added because it “corrects insipidity”.
As a flavour enhancer, a certain amount of salt will draw out the taste of other ingredients. Because of this property salt is often added to sweet recipes, where you may think its appearance would be incongruous, such as in cakes and biscuits. Salt should be added into sweet recipes at a level where it only enhances and does not overwhelm or provide an actual salty note. This is the reason why you should adhere to the specified amount of salt in a sweet recipe and not be ‘liberal’ with the amount (as well as health implications).
Salt’s other properties
Salt has a minimal effect on the moisture content in the loaf as sodium dissolves readily in water and will even attract moisture direct from the air. This hygroscopic nature will take some of the water in bread dough away from being absorbed by the flour and yeast. Therefore, if you remove the salt completely, the dough will be wetter and you may have to tweak the recipe to reduce the water. [Frankly though, in reality, I’ve found this effect minimal so if the dough turns out to be a bit sticky just add a flourish of extra flour while kneading or shaping to compensate.]
Yeast does not like salt. Salt inhibits the yeast and will eventually actually kill it off if you just leave them together. Have you read a recipe that says put the yeast on one side of the bowl and the salt on the other? That’s to keep the salt and yeast away from each other until the liquid is added, so protecting the yeast. If you don’t add salt then there will be a little more rise. Without salt, yeast can work to capacity (unless you’ve inhibited it in other ways – see my post on how yeast works).
Crust and texture
Salt dissolved in the dough contributes to a crusty crust as it helps tighten gluten structure. Also, salt will dehydrate in the oven and begin to return to its crystalline form. Want to test this crusty theory? Dilute salt in water and brush it over the top of your loaf before baking.
Salt, I’m sure you know, is a preservative which humans have utilised for thousands of years. Your bread will last longer with salt than a no-salt bread.
How to reduce salt
Just. Don’t. Add. It.
There; simple huh? Well you could do that, such as with the famous pane Toscano (Tuscan bread) recipe. However, pane Toscano is often used to accompany ribboletto, the very rich and pretty salty soup – or some other food with a high salt content such as a highly seasoned salame. So, yes, you can entirely remove salt from a bread recipe but it really depends on how you’re going to consume it and what with. I suspect you would not notice a total lack of salt in pizza dough, bread rolls for BBQ meats or bacon butties for instance, as they incorporate all salty, highly flavourful ingredients in a meal. However, for the most part I’d recommend adding at least a little.
Reduce the salt amount and add pepper.
This is a great go-to method for everyday breads. Here, you get a little of the benefits of salt without eating too much in your bread. Using half pepper: half salt will give you a very flavourful bread. Make sure it’s freshly ground pepper to ensure a strong flavour (and not that grim, grey pre-ground stuff).
Reduce the amount (in part or entirely) and add seaweed flakes.
Seaweed has sodium in and is naturally salty but you also get a mix of flavours, added iodine and other vitamins. If you’re worried, I can tell you a loaf with seaweed in does not taste fishy! I love making bread with seaweed flakes and do it very regularly and my favourite is sea salad from the Cornish Seaweed Co. Add it into the dough instead of (some or all) the salt or sprinkle it on top, which looks beautiful. Seaweed goes particularly well in breads like grissini, focaccia, baguettes, rustic breads and marries well with ancients grains such as spelt and khorasan. My recipe given further below incorporates seaweed.
Add herbs or spices.
Go for a different bread taste and put in half the total amount of salt and add chopped fresh herbs. Use your favourite herbs or search out new ones for specific flavours. Everyone knows rosemary goes nicely in bread, but use parsley, thyme or basil for a mediterranean taste. Lovage and hyssop add a gently liquorice tang. Ramsons (wild garlic), chives or Good King Henry are great in savoury uses. Mint, lavender, thyme and nasturtium leaves are nice in sweetened brioche. Use spices as you would with a main recipe – add according to cuisine or pairing rules. Or break up the rules and just try your favourite spices.
Also, you might want to pre-prepare some salt infusions for this. See both my following recipe posts on salt mixes:
Add the seasoning in the liquid or other ingredients.
For instance, you can add miso or yeast extract to the water content. I often also add a spoonful of something ‘extra’ to my loaves, such as balsamic vinegar, malt extract, grape must, pomegranate or grape molasses, verjus or cider vinegar.
The other alternative is to use a low-salt alternative.
I cannot comment on this as I’ve not used it. It’s supposed to be about a third of the sodium, but I wonder what else is in it instead? I prefer to lower simple salt and add other flavourings – I know then what’s going into my bread.
Low salt loaf recipe
This will also work in a bread machine. Add the seaweed flakes into your nut/seed dispenser and the yeast into the yeast dispenser, but everything else can go in the bowl. Choose a function that produces a medium sized ‘normal’ loaf.
- Large bowl
- Dough whisk or stand mixer is helpful, but you can mix by hand
- Small ovenproof tin
- Baking tray
- Tea towels or other covers for the bread, while proofing
- Scales, measuring spoons, measuring jug
- Wire cooling rack
- 400g strong white bread flour
- 3g fine salt
- 1g freshly milled ground pepper
- 1 – 2 tablespoons of Sea Salad from the Cornish Seaweed Co – but use any edible dried seaweed flakes (whether bought or foraged)
- 1 tablespoon of grape must. If you can’t find this – I buy mine in a Polish store – then use a rich Balsamic vinegar (I’d recommend Filippo Berio’s Premier Cru) or pomegranate molasses (such as from Odyssea), which are both easier to find
- 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
- 270ml water
- 1 teaspoon of dried, fast acting yeast
- A little extra oil and flour
- Mix together EVERYTHING in a large bowl, until it’s combined but a really rough mix. Use a Dutch whisk or a stand mixer if you have it as it’s a bit messy this mix
- Leave to autolyse for 10 minutes
- Knead (or turn on your stand mixer) for 10 minutes. It will eventually come together nicely without the need for extra flour (try not to add more, but use a little if you really think you can’t cope with it being that sticky!)
- When the surface is smooth, oil a large bowl and place the dough in. Cover (tea towel, couch, shower cap or cling film) and leave to rise for 45-60 minutes
- This loaf will almost double – probably about an extra 75% again of its original size
- Tip out the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knock back gently
- Shape and place into your preferred banneton, bowl, bread tin or it can be plaited
- Cover again and leave for about 25-30 minutes until it appears fluffed up. While it is doing this final proof, turn your oven on to 220C fan / 240C non-fan and place a small tin at the bottom of the oven
- When ready (and after the oven has reached temperature) lightly flour a baking tray. Invert the loaf from the banneton/bowl or place the plait or tin onto the baking tray
- If you want and have inverted the loaf from a banneton, you can slash the top to aide the rise and make the loaf prettier (such as the wave pattern above)
- Place in the oven and immediately put a cupful of water into the little tin you left in the bottom of the oven. This creates steam and helps the loaf rise
- Time for 35 minutes, but after 10 minutes turn the oven down by 20 degrees (whether you have a fan or non-fan over).
- After the 35 minutes the bread should be golden, risen and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom
- Leave to cool over a wire rack
I’d love to know if you tried this loaf and found that you did not miss the normal level of salt. Please leave any comment below.