September 6, 2016

Low Carb Cooking Class! (LC3) -- Pro Tips for Home Cooks

Class is back in session!

The theme of this series is: if you have time to wait for fried chicken, pizza, or Chinese food to be delivered, then you have time to whip up a completely yummy low-carb, Paleo, or ketogenic meal. In earlier posts, we covered how to stock your freezer, fridge, and pantry to make meal prep a cinch, and tips for cooking in bulk and in advance. That’s sort of “prepping the battlefield,” as they said when I was in the military. Setting the stage, if you will. Now, it’s time to start talking about how to take these ingredients and starting points and turn them into meals.   

Professional chefs will tell you their “secrets” aren’t really secrets at all. They’re actually basic, fundamental things that the pros simply employ differently in the kitchen than home cooks do. Sure, maybe they went to culinary school, did a few years staging under more established chefs, and know way more than you or I do about creating culinary magic, but that doesn’t mean we simpletons can’t hold our own and serve ourselves and our families delicious low carb food. We’re not out to win Chopped All-Stars, after all, just to put some edible food on the table, right? If you want to impress people, then quit reading my blog and go read this one instead, for Paleo. (Or this one, for low carb.) (Or this one, for keto.)

For the rest of us, who just want to make easy and convenient low carb meals, here goes.

There are three things professional chefs use to their best advantage that home cooks are afraid to “go big” on and mess with:
  • Salt
  • Heat
  • Acid 

I would add a fourth thing home cooks underutilize, to their great detriment, and that’s herbs & spices. (Or is that a fourth and fifth thing?) But I’ll leave that for next time, since I’ll have some good examples and I swear, I am trying (but failing, so far) to keep these posts shorter than my usual. The good news is, now that we’ve gotten all the preliminary stuff out of the way in the first few posts, I think the next ones will be shorter, since they’ll focus on specific examples of how to make low carb work in the real world.


Salt—sodium and chloride (both of which happen to be essential nutrients)—has become every bit the misunderstood conventional nutrition whipping boy that saturated fat, cholesterol, and red meat are. Are there people who consume too much sodium? Yes. (Especially in relation to too little potassium.) But does everyone need to reduce their sodium intake? No. No, no, no, no, no. In fact, there may be people at risk for consuming too little sodium. This is kind of a pet peeve of mine, and I keep promising to do a deep-dive on sodium here on the blog after I finish with the series on cancer and the one on insulin. So at this rate, maybe mid-2017! HA! (Seriously, though…)

Depending on how the diets are constructed, people on low carb, ketogenic, and/or Paleo diets might fall into the category of too little sodium. If your diet consists of a ton of low carb, keto, or “Paleo” packaged and processed foods, then there’s a chance you’re consuming just as much sodium (and as little potassium) as people consuming the SAD. Salt is used as a preservative, and the vast majority of salt in people’s diets in the industrialized world comes from processed foods and foods we consume at restaurantsnot from being too liberal with the salt shaker in our homes.

ON THE OTHER HAND:  if the majority of your meals are whole, unprocessed foods that you prepare at home, you might very well benefit from increasing your salt intake. Very low carbohydrate diets change the way the kidneys hold on to sodium and other minerals (via lowering insulin). Due to the natural diuretic effect of such diets, minerals get flushed out pretty easily. This is why some of the world’s top low carb and keto researchers make a big deal of making sure people get enough sodium (and potassium & magnesium) on these types of diets, going so far as to recommend drinking broth made from straight-up bouillon cubes during the first few weeks to try and prevent the symptoms of “induction flu.”

An increased need for sodium is also particularly true if you sweat a lot, whether from working outdoors, or from working out a few times a week. Not only will your food taste better, but you might be surprised at some of the unexpected benefits you experience: better energy and less fluid retention/swelling/edema. Via the hormone aldosterone, the adrenal glands play a role in sodium dynamics in the body. Back in the day, when I was exercising too hard and not eating enough, and I started to feel sluggish and fatigued, I started adding more salt to my food and I felt much better! And we know that as an electrolyte, sodium plays a crucial role in fluid dynamics, muscle contraction, and electrical impulses in the body. Too much sodium makes sodium-sensitive people retain water (including in the blood, hence “sodium-sensitive hypertension”), but too little sodium can do the same, and it can cause imbalances in where that water is retained. For example, if it’s in the interstitial or extracellular fluid, rather than inside the cells, you might have ankle swelling or generalized edema pretty much anywhere. Bottom line: salt is “bad” for us in the same way saturated fat is bad for us—i.e., it’s not. Should we be mainlining it to the exclusion of all other nutrients? No. But it need not be avoided like the plague, and avoiding it too much can actually do harm.

Anyway, back to cooking!
You would be amazed at how a generous sprinkling of salt can deepen the flavor of just about any and every dish, even sweet ones. (There’s a reason most cake, cookie, and other baked goods recipes call for salt!) But don’t wait until the very end to put salt on the food. Salt in stages during the cooking process. If you wait until the end, the dish is likely to just end up tasting too salty. But salted here and there throughout cooking, the salt has a chance to be incorporated more fully. I’ve heard chefs say that the right amount of salt makes other foods taste more like themselves, and I’ve found this to be true. It brings out other flavors. Too much salt will make things just plain salty, but the right amount generally makes just about everything taste better – including fruit! I’m telling you, after a hard workout, when you’re covered in sweat, bite into a peach or plum, sprinkle some salt onto it, and take another bite. Heaven!


I have three words to say about heat: crank it up!

(You didn’t think that was all I had to say, did you? Haha! You know me better than that.)
Seriously, though, there isn’t much more to say about it. There are certainly some dishes that lend themselves to being cooked low & slow (pulled pork, anyone?), and good cooking cannot always be rushed. But the consequences for avoiding the judicious use of high heat are foods that should be crispy, juicy, or seared & crusty, but instead turn out soft, soggy, and limp. Boooo.

Want to sear a steak? High heat.
Want to sear a roast and then cook it low & slow? High heat.
Want vegetables that are brown & crispy on the edges, but soft & sweet inside? High heat.
(Actually, I’ve been told this one works at low heat, too, if you let it go for a long time, but this series is supposed to be about quick & easy cooking. So: yummy, crisp on the outside but soft on the inside veg? High heat.)

For searing, don’t be afraid to let your pan get hot.
For roasting, don’t be afraid to crank the oven up plenty past 350°F (180°C for my European readers…and what do they use Down Under and in South Africa? I have readers there, too, woohoo!) When I roast vegetables, it’s usually around 425°F.


In case you thought I was encouraging something illegal, the kind of acid I’m talking here is the stuff that adds “brightness” to food. A sort of zing that wakes things up and makes the flavor just a little more interesting.

The most common sources of acid in the kitchen are:

  • Citrus: usually fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice, but also orange, grapefruit, tangerine …
  • Vinegar: any kind you like and that suits the dish you’re making—apple cider vinegar, red wine, balsamic, plain white distilled, champagne, rice wine…
  • Other condiments: most of the condiments we love contain vinegar -- ketchup, mustard, mayo, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, sriracha, pickles, salsa, Worcestershire sauce. I would argue that in addition to the sweet, salty, and tomatoe-y aspects of these items, what the human palate seems to really like is the vinegar. (I need not go on about how great vinegar is, since I covered that back in the post, The Virtues of Vinegar.)

For those of you who are fans of Diane Sanfilippo and her killer—KILLAH!—book, Practical Paleo, you’ll notice she uses fresh citrus in many of the dishes. (News: an updated and expanded second edition has just been released! New meal plans and lots of new recipes!)

An acidic element isn’t right for every dish, and certain types of acid might pair better with other ingredients than others, but when something seems a little bland, don’t be afraid to do some experimenting and see if a squeeze or splash of one of the above helps any. (Ex: grilling steak, peppers, and onions for fajitas? See how the flavor ratchets up with some fresh squeezed lime. Baking a bland white fish? Serve it with a sprinkle of salt and some fresh squeezed lemon, and it becomes much more appealing. Pork chops kind of plain? Apples and pork were made for each other. And if you’re low carb and not eating apples, use apple cider vinegar! Combine with mustard and EVOO and you’ve got a great dipping sauce for your less-than-sensational swine.)

Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.


  1. you have readers from Brasil too! and we used Celsius degree... and don´t speak, neither write, english! I don´t haha

    1. Ha! Yes, I know. There's a Brazilian guy who translates some of my blog posts into Portuguese! :)

  2. Yep. Degrees C in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
    I was amazed at the fierceness of leg cramps with too little mg k and na. I supplement them twice daily now. Never eaten so much salt in my life before.
    Thanks for your blogging. I've learned a lot. Warrick

  3. ging. I've learned a lot. Warrick