Watching your sodium intake can be challenging, but this recipe proves that you can skip the salt without losing the flavor. Plus, it’s easy to make and the leftovers can be transformed into a brand new meal!
(For those who may be interested, there is a link to a video above the recipe card.)
Over the years, I’ve responded to many emails from readers who have been encouraged to follow a low-sodium diet. Perhaps the most common question I receive is “How do I replace the flavor?”
The short answer is that it can, in fact, be difficult. But there are ways.
When I was challenged recently by Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health to create a delicious recipe with no added salt, I knew I had to deliver. I feel strongly that people who are forced to give up something－be it gluten, dairy, nuts, or in this case, salt－shouldn’t have to feel deprived. My goal was a recipe that would appeal to all－even those who have no salt restrictions and sprinkle the salt shake freely.
The following recipe, which starts with boneless, skinless chicken breasts for a great source of lean protein, derives a good bit of its namesake flavor from smoked paprika.
Smoked paprika is one of my favorite spices. Unlike regular paprika, the peppers used to make it are smoked, and it’s that process that creates truly memorable flavor.
Because the flavor of smoked paprika has much more depth, it can overpower recipes that call for regular paprika. As a general rule of thumb, when I substitute smoked paprika for regular, I use half the amount stated in the recipe.
For this recipe, I combine smoked paprika with a few other spices for a simple rub for the chicken.
In my final testing stage, I did a side-by-side comparison of a batch that had been cooked with no salt and a batch that included a quarter teaspoon of salt. The flavor of the no-salt batch fell flat at that point, while a meager amount of salt provided that hint of flavor I desired.
For the record, using ¼ teaspoon of salt for this recipe is quite reasonable and acceptable for most low-sodium diets. But I had been challenged and I wasn’t ready to give up!
Ultimately, I found the key to flavor success through a simple squeeze of lime. The pop of citrus made the flavor of the saltless recipe come alive, and at that point I was unable to differentiate between the chicken with low salt and that with no salt.
Rather than adding the lime juice to the chicken while still in the skillet, I like to plate each portion with a freshly cut wedge of lime. That way, people can squeeze as much or little as they like. My recipe testers also commented that the action of squeezing felt like a replacement for sprinkling the salt shaker. (Several squeezed a few drops on every bite in order to fully enjoy the flavor boost.) The garnish of green looks pretty on the plate, too.
You could serve this with a fresh green salad or your favorite vegetables – and even add a bowl of berries for dessert. These choices will add antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins for a complete heart healthy meal.
The pictured plate includes a simple slaw I made with slivered cabbage, kale, and carrots. I used a vinaigrette inspired by this cumin and lime-infused slaw, which also pairs beautifully with the chicken. Bagged slaw mixes offer a convenient shortcut.
Yet another serving option would be topping the chicken with a simple salsa of diced avocado, grape tomatoes, minced red onion, chopped fresh cilantro or parsley, adding the squeeze of lime to the mixture. For those who would like a specific recipe, I recommend Avocado Tomato Salsa, which is as easy as it is satisfying. It’s versatile, too, and will add welcome moisture and flavor when stirred into to plain cooked rice, quinoa, or another grain of choice.
For a final piece of added value, the the smoke paprika chicken recipe is easy to pull off and leftovers can be repurposed into a brand new meal, like these Mediterranean Chicken & Hummus Bowls.
What’s the “right” amount of sodium?
Sodium is an important electrolyte in our body and plays a role in nerve and muscle function, so sodium is essential for health. At the same time, it’s important not to have too much. The average American consumes more than 3,400 mg daily, while the US Department of Health recommends that adults consume between 1,200 and 2,300 mg a day.
It is recommended that those with existing health issues such as high blood pressure or kidney disease err on the lower side of these guidelines. Excessive sodium intake and high blood pressure are risk factors for developing heart failure and related complications. Over time, high levels of sodium can create a higher risk for conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.
What are the best salt-free flavor boosters?
Fresh herbs, citrus juice and zest, a splash of balsamic vinegar and other vinegars, and dried spices will all provide flavor. Fresh and dried fruit supply natural sweetness and bold flavor, so working them into your meal assembly will also offer benefit. (Think diced pineapple or mango, fresh mint, a squeeze of lime, and an optional drizzle of honey as a topping for chicken, pork, and fish. Or reach for dried apricots and dates as alternatives to the more commonly used dried cranberries in green and grain salads and pilafs.)
Similarly, taking advantage of fresh, seasonal produce (or flash-frozen alternatives) ensures that you’re starting with the most flavor possible.
I find that layering flavors is the most effective tool, just like we do with the squeeze of lime over the spice-rubbed chicken.
If you find even mild balsamic vinegar to be too tart for your tastebuds, you might appreciate an easy reduction that can be spooned liberally over a variety of meats, vegetables, and even rice or couscous. Click here for the easy how-to, which relies on an inexpensive bottle from the grocery store.
All members of the allium family are similarly good flavor boosters. A sprinkle of fresh, snipped chives for example, or slowly cooked onions and garlic (which concentrates and sweetens the flavor) will ratchet up the taste, too. Consider roasting a whole head of garlic, which will turn the cloves into a flavorful paste, which can be mashed into potatoes, spread on bread, etc.
Roasting vegetables will similarly enhance their flavor, as it cooks out moisture and creates good texture and caramelization. Tomatoes and mushrooms are especially rich in natural glutamates, which produce what we think of as “umami,” and roasting further concentrates those glutamates. Try mixing slow roasted tomatoes and mushrooms that have been cooked down to release all of their moisture into cooked pasta, grains, and salads or even using them as a salsa of sorts for various meats.
When you want to add salt, a light sprinkle just before serving, where it will readily touch your tongue, may satisfy the most.