In the quantities used in most home canning recipes (with the exception of fermented and long-brined ones), salt is a flavouring agent, and not a safety preservative agent.
Informed home canning authorities up to date on the research now acknowledge that (you will still see some extension agents that aren’t up to date and don’t know that.) However, all will advise still against using salt substitutes on the basis of quality, not safety, concerns. The concerns are flavour and performance related.
- 1 Why do canning authorities still recommend against using salt substitutes in home canning?
- 2 Salt substitute quality concerns
- 3 How to compensate and address the concerns about salt substitutes in home canning
- 4 Salt substitutes we have evaluated for home canning
- 5 I don’t like any salt substitute, what should I do?
- 6 Conclusions about salt substitutes in home canning
We have to remember: salt substitutes have come a long way since the canning authorities last looked at them — almost a generation ago. A lot of the experimenting that they did (and there wasn’t much, to start with) is consequently now dated: it was done with the limited range of poor products available on the market at that time. Most of the opinion you read appears to re-quote the same few sources dating from that era.
Today’s salt substitutes are night and day different compared to those that were available even 10 years ago.
They are citing advice they have read, which dates from 40 years ago in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the USDA did its big push at Penn State under Dr Gerald Kuhn, which resulted in the first USDA Complete Guide.
Since that time, which has now been a generation in human time (and multiple generations in product times), modern salt sub products have come onto the market which address those quality concerns.
Canning authorities are always slow to change, however. At the end of 2016, Ball and Bernardin had yet to accept steam canning, which the USDA approved at the start of 2015, and it will be a long while yet before they test, let alone accept, the idea that modern salt subs aren’t the old salt subs they advised against a generation ago. So you will see the very idea criticized for some time to come — while people’s blood pressure continues to skyrocket based on the dated high-sodium recipes they still push, and people abandon the notion of home canning when they see recipes calling for 1/2 cup of salt.
And you will absolutely see the following dichotomy from them: while in FAQs and in “general knowledge” pieces, they will state that salt has no safety role (except for fermented and long-brine products) and can be left out of recipes, if you ask them about actually doing that and leaving it out of one of their recipes, they will have a bird and tell you not to alter their recipes in any way.
When on Healthy Canning we suggest salt sub as an alternative in recipes, we generally suggest “non-bitter, non-clouding salt sub”, and that is not only to suggest that that is the kind you’d want, but it’s also a way of informing people that yes, such products do now exist. We recognize that this is a quality-opinion area that we are breaking rank on.
You may wish to review this page: The role of salt in home canning .
Salt substitute quality concerns
Remember, neither salt itself nor salt substitutes act as safety preservatives in home canning (aside from the exception above of fermented goods.) So swapping in a salt substitute is fine safety-wise.
The quality concerns about salt subs that the researchers expressed when the issue was last looked at were:
- They may contain additives that will react with the foods;
- They may impart off-flavors or colors;
- They may give canned goods a cloudy appearance.
This page is going to look at how modern products address those quality concerns.
But first for the record, in the interest of thoroughness and so that we know what we’re up against, let’s document their concerns in detail.
1. Salt substitute concerns with regard to taste
Brent Fountain of Mississippi State University Extension Service says, “Using a salt substitute for pickling could also cause bitterness. Use only canning or pickling salt.” 1 In his piece, though, he also notes the usual causes of bitterness in a pickle are the variety, growing conditions, and the stem ends of the cucumbers.
The Putting Food By authors warn, “never use a salt substitute as a seasoning in preparing food that is going to be heat-processed – it can have an unpleasant aftertaste from canning or even just cooking.” 2 Most old hand canners regard Putting Food By as a good book. It has been revised several times since first being published in 1973, but parts of it remain dated: this statement would reflect the salt substitutes they had access to at the time they did their testing sometime over the past 40 years, and it appears they have not gone back and revisited their testing with the new products on the market.
The product named “AlsoSalt”, which Heinz uses in their salt-free ketchup which is certainly heat processed, has no aftertaste from being heated. Neither does the Swiss salt substitute called “Herbamare Sodium-Free.”
Leaving out the bitterness question, the combination of flavours in traditional preserves with reduced or no salt might just not work for people.
“Some fresh-pack pickles can be prepared safely with reduced or no salt. Use only tested recipes formulated to produce the proper acidity. Both the texture and flavor of these pickles may be noticeably different than expected.” 3
So you definitely do probably want a salt sub, rather than just plain leaving out that taste aspect altogether.
2. Salt substitute concerns with regard to appearance
The concern that the experts have about appearance is that older salt substitutes available on the market a generation ago could cloud the water in the jar. The concern wasn’t so much about your jar of pickles losing a beauty contest at the State Fair, but rather, one presumes, that a cloudy white liquid in a jar can be a helpful visible sign that food has spoiled, and they don’t want “natural” cloudiness from a salt sub confusing the visual signals.
It’s for that appearance reason that they didn’t even want table salt being used for canning: Penn State says, “Table salt is safe to use for canning. However, it usually contains anti-caking additives that may make the brine cloudy or produce sediment at the bottom of the jar.” 4. And, “Table salt is used for baking, cooking and normal table use. However, it is not recommended for canning recipes because the calcium silicate may cause clouding or settle to the bottom of jar. Furthermore, the iodide may discolor some foods. Neither of these effects make the food harmful to eat. However, the visual quality of the product is adversely affected.” 5
Salt can also help to fix colour.
3. Salt substitute concerns with regard to getting some excess water out of veggies
Salt was also traditionally used in recipes such as relishes, etc, to leech water out of vegetables to make the relish product less soupy.
Emerie Brine of Bernardin says there are two ways to get rid of moisture: salt overnight, or, simmer longer:
With this recipe, it says to stand overnight with the salt, you really don’t have to do that, if you want to do it the same day, the only problem is, salt draws out moisture, so when this sits overnight, it is drawing out the moisture, so when you drain it, a lot of the moisture comes out. You don’t have to do that if you want to do it right away, but the problem is, it’s going to have to cook on the stove top a long time before it thickens. So just keep that in mind. Because there’s a lot of moisture. You don’t want to can a relish that is soupy. You want to can a relish that is thick and chunky.” 6
Getting excess water out would no doubt also help to keep a good, high acidity in your recipe.
4. Salt substitute concerns with regard to texture
Salt helps to firm and crisp vegetables, giving them a more interesting texture in preserves.
Linda Ziedrich says,
“Salt and vinegar not only preserve foods, after all, but they sharpen flavours, and salt firms the texture of watery vegetables. … There are two basic kinds of pickles: those preserved with vinegar (or, occasionally, lemon or lime juice or citric acid) and those preserved with salt. Vinegar pickles, also called fresh pickles because they aren’t fermented, usually contain salt as well. Likewise, fermented pickles, which are always made with salt, sometimes include vinegar. Although salt is not an essential ingredient in canned fresh pickles, a pickle is hardly a pickle without salt. By drawing off excess liquid from vegetables and fruits, salt firms their texture and concentrates their flavour. Salt also balances the flavour of the finished pickle, though the right flavour balance is a matter for each pickler to decide….”7
Note though that Ball does not list salt as a factor in crunchy pickles: 8
Why do home canned pickles lose their crunchy texture? There are several factors that may cause a soft pickle:
- Using a vinegar with an acidity level that is less than 5%;
- Pickles were not processed or not processed long enough in a boiling-water canner to destroy spoilage microorganisms;
- Variety of cucumber used;
- Brine was too weak when fermenting cucumbers;
- Cucumbers were not completely covered with brine while fermenting;
- Cucumbers were not completely covered with liquid when packed in the jar;
- Scum was not removed from top of brine while fermenting;
- Improper storage or handling of cucumbers before pickling.
How to compensate and address the concerns about salt substitutes in home canning
A salty taste is definitely needed in most savoury preserves. Providing that is not a problem with modern salt substitutes.
And putting up with a bitter aftertaste is just not necessary with today’s modern salt substitutes. At least two salt sub products, Herbamare Sodium-Free and AlsoSalt, can up with a clean salt taste with no bitterness.
The two salt substitutes tested by HealthyCanning.com, Herbamare Sodium-Free and AlsoSalt, do not cloud the liquid in jars, even after 18 months of shelf-storage (6 months past the USDA’s expected shelf life recommendation.) Jars of pickles 36 months old made with Herbamare and AlsoSalt, held on hand for testing, show no sign of clouding.
If fixing colour is a concern, a small amount of citric acid could be investigated: “Citric Acid: A form of acid that can be added to canned foods. It increases the acidity of low-acid foods and may improve the flavor and color.” 9
3. Getting excess water out of veggies
Simmer relishes longer, and / instead of salting overnight, blanch vegetables to get the cells to relax and release water
“Blanching also relaxes tissues so pieces dry faster,…. Water blanching is recommended over steam blanching or blanching in a microwave because water blanching achieves a more even heat penetration than the other two methods.” 10
“Blanching… sets the color and … soften(s) the tissue walls so moisture can escape or re-enter more rapidly. In water blanching, the vegetables are submerged in boiling water. ” 11
Pickle Crisp® (aka food-grade calcium chloride) can be used as a crisper. It’s sold by both Ball and Bernardin.
You add it to the jars being canned. The package directions call for 1/8th teaspoon per half-litre (US pint) jar, but that can be raised. Bernardin for instance calls for 3/4 teaspoon per half-litre (US pint) jar to crisp up a carrot and radish pickle recipe. 12
You can also use Pickle Crisp in a pre-soak “brine” made of a salt sub and pickle crisp, when, say, soaking onions overnight to crisp them and help them absorb a salty flavour.
You can read more in detail about Pickle Crisp / Calcium Chloride.
Another way to address firmness in pickles is to use the special slow processing method, but that should only be used with recipes tested for it: “To further improve pickle firmness, you may process cucumber pickles for 30 minutes in water at 180°F.” 13
As a final note, we’ve seen people suggest using celery juice for crisping, but we have no experience in that one way or the other at all, and in no way should it be added to tested recipes that do not call for it as it would lower the acidity.
(Note that the National Centre for Home Food Preservation says that alum is only of use in fermented pickles14 )
Salt substitutes we have evaluated for home canning
The last time home canning experts were able to look at salt substitutes was a full generation ago, and the have had no funding to look at them since.
To recap, the concerns that they said at the time to watch out for were:
- They may contain additives that will react with the foods;
- They may impart off-flavors or colors;
- They may give canned goods a cloudy appearance.
We have found those concerns addressed by the following two salt substitutes:
- Herbamare Sodium-Free (somewhat pricey)
- AlsoSalt (used by Heinz, but many — MANY — individual shoppers report delivery issues when purchasing directly from the company and have lodged Better Business Bureau complaints.)
That being said, there is no pleasing everyone, ever, and everyone’s taste buds are different. For instance, some people can’t stand pickled beets, no matter what you make them with, and you are never going to change their minds.
We’ll just emphasize / re-emphasize two things:
- Salt substitutes may NOT be used with fermented home canned foods such as fermented dills or sauerkraut, where the salt is absolutely required for safety to control bacteria;
- If you are on blood pressure or heart medication, as always whether for canning or daily cooking, consult your physician before using any salt substitute (may be best to bring the canister in for your visit).
I don’t like any salt substitute, what should I do?
There is no universal answer for everyone sadly.
So you should either just use salt, or, skip making home canned products with salt in them.
Conclusions about salt substitutes in home canning
The experts have no safety concerns about using salt substitutes in home canning (provided you don’t muck with brined or fermented products.)
Their concerns are quality ones.
They never did a lot of experimentation, and what little experimentation there might have been was a generation ago with inferior salt sub products. Since then, most advice you will see is everyone quoting the one or two people who might have tried some salt sub’ing a few decades ago, but who probably don’t have much if any first hand experience themselves.
Today’s salt sub products are far superior to the ones of a generation ago.
The two products we have found that address the concerns about taste and appearance are AlsoSalt and Herbamare Sodium-Free. ( Note: not the Herbamare low-sodium or Herbamare Original, but the Herbamare Sodium-Free in the blue canister.)
In terms of leeching out excess water, we’ve found that a bit longer simmering times, or blanching, can do the trick.
And in terms of texture, Pickle Crisp® has delivered great results (in addition to using quality, fresh produce and following the great processing advice in the tested recipes being used.)
NOTE: AS with anything you look at on Amazon, prices can vary wildly by vendor and a few vendors ask impossibly high prices. Check and compare.
Fountain, Brent. Home Canning: Questions and Answers. Mississippi State University Extension Service. Publication 99. Accessed March 2015 at http://msucares.com/pubs/publications/p0993.pdf. Page 10. ↩
Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan. Putting Food By. New York: Penguin. 2010. Page 32. ↩
Penn State Extension. Types of Salt and Salt Substitutes in Canning . 24 July 2012. Accesssed January 2015 at http://extension.psu.edu/food/preservation/news/2012/types-of-salt-and-salt-substitutes-in-canning ↩
Penn State Extension. Canning and pickling salt: Why is table salt not recommended for canning and pickling? Accessed January 2015 at http://extension.psu.edu/food/preservation/faq/canning-and-pickling-salt ↩
Bernardin Chef Emerie Brine hosts a canning workshop in Northumberland County Ontario. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vioxqZAg28U. :0:30 Accessed 10 January 2015. ↩
Ziedrich, Linda. The Joy of Pickling. Boston, Massachusetts: The Harvard Common Press. 2009. Pp 3, 5 – 6. ↩
Accessed June 2015 at http://www.freshpreserving.com/tools/faqs ↩
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 2015. Complete guide to home canning. Agriculture information bulletin No. 539. Available at: http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html (Accessed Feb 2016). Page 1-8 ↩
Drying Vegetables. By P. Kendall, P. DiPersio and J. Sofos* (11/12). Colorado State Extension Service. November 2012. No 9.308. Accessed June 2015 at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09308.html ↩
Henneman, Alice and Nancy Malone. Drying Vegetables. University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension. 115-94 http://lancaster.unl.edu/factsheets/115-94.htm ↩
Bernardin Guide to Home Preserving. Toronto, Canada: Bernardin Ltd. 2013, page 86. ↩