Salting Your Food 101

Adding the right amount of salt at the right time in the cooking process will deepen the flavors of a dish, doing more for your meal than a last-minute sprinkle of salt at the dinner table can do. 

Here, executive chef Justine Kelly and executive R&D chef Alan Li explain what “salt to taste” means, and share their tips for salting food as you go and for repairing oversalted food. 

When should you season food?

“The default answer to “when” is early and often, so that you can layer flavors and seasonings,” says Li. “But this varies according to what you’re cooking.” 

“For me, it’s about what I want the water in the food to do,” adds Li. “A good example of this is cooking mushrooms in a pan. If I’m cooking button mushrooms and want them to retain all their juice, I’ll salt them only after they’re done cooking. If I’m sautéing maitake mushrooms, I want all of the water to come out so I’m left with crisp edges and slightly chewy centers, so I’ll salt early to make sure I get all that water out. Understanding how ingredients interact with salt is the key to knowing when to season.” 

Salt becomes more concentrated in such long-cooking foods as stocks, stews, and soups, so season lightly to begin and then adjust the salt before serving.

The takeaway: Learn how salt interacts with the ingredients you’re cooking. In most cases, salt as you go, and taste as you cook.  

What’s the best technique for salting food?

  • Get rid of the salt shaker. Keep your salt in a bowl big enough that you can easily grab the appropriate amount while you’re cooking. “I prefer a three-finger pinch,” says Kelly. “However, the most important thing is finding a pinch that gives you consistency and control. Do whatever is most comfortable and easy to repeat.” 
  • Go high. “For even coating on larger foods, like a whole chicken or a steak, salt from about 6 to 8 inches above the food,” says Li. “For precision salting, like seasoning a fried egg, I get right in its face at about ½ to 1 inch above it.”

Which salts do you prefer to use and what do you use them for?

Both Kelly and Li use kosher salt for everyday cooking. They recommend finding a salt you like and sticking with it, so that every time you grab a pinch of salt you know how it’s going to season a dish. For finishing a dish, try a flaky sea salt with big, crunch crystals. These salts are excellent on many sweets. Sprinkle them on top of brownies, chocolate chip cookie, or even ice cream.

How do you avoid over-salting and how do you rescue something that’s too salty?

“Taste everything that can be tasted as you go,” says Li. “Your palate will be your best teacher when it comes to understanding seasoning. Taste immediately after salting, then adjust as needed.” 

If you do over-salt something, don’t despair, we’ve all been there. While there are several ways to mute saltiness by adjusting seasonings, Li recommends adding more ingredients to the meal to help balance out the saltiness. Yes, you’ll increase the portion size, but the salt will be more evenly spread out among the ingredients, so you’re not consuming a large amount of sodium. “But, if you don’t have extra ingredients,” adds Kelly. “Try adding acidity or sweetness to the dish. My favorite trick for saving something that’s slightly over-salted is to add a squeeze of lemon juice.”