Salt has been used worldwide for centuries. As the oldest form of seasoning, it is well known as a culinary staple. However, it may surprise you to learn that salt has also been used medicinally for thousands of years. It is a key ingredient in several classical Ayurvedic formulas, such as hingvastak, to promote digestion or clear congestion.
Despite the many benefits of this mineral, salt has been questioned and demonized by the modern medical system. But eliminating salt, or reducing it too much, can have great consequences.
From a holistic perspective, salt itself is not the problem. It is when salt is overused, misused or used in a highly refined form (commonly called table salt) that health issues arise. Use this gift from nature in appropriate amounts and you’ll find it has tremendous benefits.
The different types of salt
Not all salt is the same. What our ancestors knew as salt is quite different from what is most commonly available to us. Formerly a naturally mined element taken from the seas or ancient sea beds, salt is now most often a highly processed commodity more fitting for industrial use than in cooking. Despite the popularity of table salt, there are still plenty of forms of natural salt that you can find at most natural food stores.
Here is a breakdown of the three main types of salt found today:
For the purposes of this article (as well as in all of our recipes), assume that when we refer to salt, we are talking about either mineral salt or naturally harvested sea salt.
The benefits of mineral or sea salt
Salt is used medicinally in Ayurveda, particularly in cases where vata dosha has gone out of balance. Salt is made up of the fire and water elements, and small amounts regulate moisture levels in the body, promote better absorption of nutrients from food, regulate blood pressure and are vital to the functioning of the brain and nervous system. However, higher amounts result in kapha imbalance (such as edema), hypertension, kidney disorders, osteoporosis and other issues.
Salt is best known as a culinary aid. When used in cooking, it enhances flavor and softens food to make it more easily assimilated in the body. But another reason that salt has earned its kitchen staple status is because it stimulates digestive enzymes.
Before meals at Hale Pule, we often take a “ginger appetizer” (recipe below), which uses salt, ginger and lime to stimulate agni, digestive fire. Take this whenever agni feels weak:
1 thin slice of fresh ginger (or ¼ tsp. finely diced)
Small squeeze of lime
A light sprinkle of mineral salt
Combine all ingredients and eat 10 minutes before a meal to enhance digestion.
How to cook with salt for balance and health
One of the best things about salt is its ability to improve the taste of food. However, this is also why salt is overused when the senses are in the driver’s seat.
We use salt in all our cooking, even when we bake Ayurvedic cookies, because it lifts the taste of all the other ingredients. The key is using moderate amounts and cooking it into your food.
Using the right amount of salt allows the taste to blend with the other tastes present in the foods. You’ll know if you’ve used too much salt if your meal tastes, well, salty. About ⅛ teaspoon or less per person is all a dish needs. This amount of salt allows the taste of the food to become a more vibrant version of all the ingredients.
Cooking salt is key to unlocking its flavor-enhancing abilities. While it is common to see salt shakers on dining tables, salting food after it has been cooked (even with mineral salt) is too harsh for the body. Salt is quite heating and eating it this way concentrates the effects and will cause pitta imbalance. In addition, salting your food after cooking numbs the taste buds. While cooking salt into food brings out the subtleties of the tastes in your meal, salting at the table does the opposite.
Don’t forget the salt
We wrote a post a few months back on how to use Ayurvedic spices. In it, we included several spice combinations, each of which also contains salt. This was so that you can begin to see the right use of salt as a necessary component of any Ayurvedic kitchen.
To incorporate salt in your cooking, use this tip we give to our Ayurvedic chef students: Warm your pan, add the ghee or oil first, then the salt, then the spices and let it simmer together for about a minute. Following this method ensures that you won’t ever forget to add the salt.