I learned how to cook from my mom, which is to say I was never formally trained; rather, I learned by watching her sear, sauté, and (indeed) season. Regarding seasoning, what I absorbed via osmosis involved a complete lack of any type of measuring device, meaning that I still tend to eyeball things. Where this becomes particularly problematic is in the salt department, as there's something so satisfying in dumping artisanal pink Himalayan sea salt into a pot of fresh vegetables or pasta. Not so satisfying? The taste of overly salted food, which is *thumbs down emoji.*
"Salt helps to bring out the natural flavors in food, but if you go overboard it can be jarring," agrees celebrity chef and holistic nutritionist Shauna Faulisi. Once I've been liberal with the sodium chloride, I've always assumed it's too late to salvage a palatable meal; however, kitchen experts tell me this isn't true. "It happens to the best of us—that sprinkle of salt can sometimes turn into one too many," says Faulisi. Thankfully with the right tricks up your sleeve, you can still salvage your dinner in no time.
How to make something less salty, according to pro chefs
1. Add extra fat to balance out the salt.
There are a few ways to go about de-salting your dish. Faulisi says that generally speaking, the best thing to do is round out the flavors using fat. "Full-fat canned coconut milk is staple in my kitchen because it does wonders for flavor and for saving dishes," Faulisi explains. "I love it because it's not super heavy on the coconut flavor, and when combined with salt it really rounds things out." She says you can also add coconut oil for some sweetness if the coconut milk doesn't go the distance. "The sweetness can help counteract the saltiness as well," she says.
2. Add water to soup, greens to salad, and acid to roasted veggies.
Jenny Dorsey, host of Alt-Baking Bootcamp, meanwhile, offers a smattering of more specific tips. If you're dealing with soup, she says you can dilute it simply by adding more water. A salty salad can be remedied through the addition of more of the base green. "For things like roasted vegetables, casseroles, etc. you can try to ease the feeling of saltiness by adding a sour component like vinegar or lemon juice, as the two are opposite each other on your tongue and can 'cancel' out the taste of the other," she explains, "but of course, you have to be careful it doesn't get too sour either."
3. Mellow the saltiness of baked goods with extra icing or toppings.
Rescuing an over-salted baked good is a bit tougher. Since you generally shouldn't taste-test batter that has raw eggs or flour in it, you likely wouldn't realize it's too salty until it's fully cooked. If it's not so salty that it's totally inedible, Dorsey suggests adding toppings or frosting, especially if they include a sour component like cream cheese.
4. Try the potato trick.
Rounding out this salt-fail panel is professional chef and holistic health coach Carla Contreras. "The age-old advice is to put a potato in whatever you are cooking to absorb the salt," Contreras says. However, she notes that if you, like her, don't keep potatoes in your house, you can use other starchy foods when appropriate such as raw sweet potatoes, quinoa, farro, sorghum, or buckwheat.
5. Consider contrasting flavors, and double down.
Alternatively, you can also add acids such as balsamic, apple, or sherry vinegars, or fresh lemon or lime juice. Or, as Dorsey also suggested, you can throw in more greens, which Conreras says will help not just in salads but also in soups and stews. Heat is also a salt diffuser, so if you like things hot, add red pepper flakes, hot sauce, or fresh peppers like jalapeños. In certain scenarios, you may also be able to dilute the dish, not just with water, as Dorsey suggested, but also with (unsalted) canned tomatoes, a splash of wine, or your favorite alt milk. For best results, says Contreras, you may want to try two or more of these tactics in order to salvage your dish.
How to measure salt when cooking
When employing any of these de-salting methods, it's important to do it slowly and taste as you go so you don't overcorrect. "Try one scoop, stir, taste, add another, stir, taste, and keep it going until you've salvaged your dish," Faulisi says. If all else fails and you have the ingredients to make it happen, Contreras recommends doubling the recipe and skipping the salt on your do-over batch to even out the overall taste of the finished dish.
Another similar chef-approved method is to salt in 1/4 teaspoon increments after each key ingredient instead of dumping all the salt in at once. So if you're making a dish such as a stir fry with multiple vegetables, add the onions, then a 1/4 salt, next broccoli with 1/4 teaspoon salt, and salt again after adding your protein (and always taste as you go as Faulisi mentions above).
The best way to prevent overly salted food? Tread lightly.
The *actual* best way to avoid overly-salted food is simple, but worth stating. Contreras offered us a common sense—but commonly overlooked—tip for avoiding the problem altogether: "A good rule of thumb is to go lighter on salt as you can always add but it's not so easy to take away." It's true, and also explains why I spent my entire childhood dying of thirst.
Article originally published September 9, 2019 with additional reporting by Betty Gold.
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