Looking to reduce salt in a recipe? Here’s how and when you should – and shouldn’t – do it

Lightly-salted roasted potatoes. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Scott Suchman

Salt is the most important seasoning tool in your kitchen – while also perhaps the most maligned. “It’s an essential nutrient, a chemical that our bodies can’t do without,” Harold McGee writes in “On Food and Cooking.” But whether due to actual medical advice or their own perceptions about its nutritional value, many seek to reduce their level of consumption of this vital mineral.

In this piece, we’re specifically looking at recipes to tell you when you should and shouldn’t reduce the amount called for in the ingredient list.

Keep in mind that by cooking at home you are already well on your way to managing or even reducing your salt intake, because you can control how much you use. Salt in homemade food is less of an issue than prepared food, where it may show up in large quantities or in unexpected items. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 70 percent of sodium in American diets comes from restaurant and processed food. “Only a small amount comes from the salt shaker, either during home cooking or at the dinner table.”

Let’s start with quick refresher on the role salt plays in food and our enjoyment of it. Not only is salt one of the five tastes, it also impacts others. Salt reduces bitterness, making ingredients such as cocoa and kale more palatable. It enhances aromas, which plays a big role in our perception of flavor aside from just taste. It can also add texture, such as the crunch of flaky salt on top of a soft and chewy chocolate chip cookie.

Simply put, salt makes food good and is one of the easiest ways to transform a dish from bland to exciting, but should be doled out with a measured hand. (As always, this shouldn’t be a substitute for professional medical advice if you have particular health needs. In that case, be sure to consult your doctor or other nutritional professional, such as a registered dietitian.)

Here’s how to understand salt’s role in different types of recipes and when it’s okay to cut back.

Savory cooking. There is a certain point where the salt added to a dish will set off fireworks for your taste buds, but where that line is needs to be learned over time and varies for each individual. “Taste your food as you cook, whenever possible. This helps you develop a sense of how much salt works for you,” Nik Sharma writes in “The Flavor Equation.” Where one person might taste something and find it perfectly seasoned, another sampling the same exact dish could find it either dull or over-salted. This is why phrases such as “salt to taste” are frequently used in recipe writing, because only you know when something is seasoned to your liking.

“The preference for a certain level of saltiness is learned through repeated eating experiences and the expectations they create in us,” McGee writes. “Preferences can be changed by constant exposure to different salt levels, which changes expectations.” This perhaps explains why many professional cooks tend to have a predilection for the mineral compared to home cooks. Once the power of salt is understood and the realization of how much salt foods can take before becoming “salty” (spoiler: more than you might think), some cooks start to use it with abandon.

However, we’d argue that any recipe writer worth their salt knows all of this and keeps the home cook in mind when doing their work. As such, we may leave the salting of a protein entirely up to the reader, or when an amount is listed, it’s meant mostly as a reference. We might give a slightly scaled back quantity compared to how much we would use as a starting point, and then instruct the cook to taste and adjust as desired to get it where they want it to be.

There are certain instances when using more salt is a good thing. “When cooking pasta, add a bit more than you normally would,” Sharma writes. “Salt helps prevent pasta from getting too sticky by reducing the gelatinlike layer that forms on the surface of pasta as it cooks.” While you might be adding palmfuls to a large stock pot, much of that salt will end up down the drain instead of in your food. And nutritionally speaking, it’s actually better to use thoroughly salted water for blanching vegetables. “Properly seasoned cooking water encourages food to retain its nutrients,” Samin Nosrat writes in “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking.”

So unless you’re encrusting food entirely in salt, the amount you should use is entirely up to you. If you do choose to use less salt than a recipe calls for, keep in mind that it will likely taste flatter than intended. To combat this, increase the proportion of other spices in the dish. A splash of acidity in the form of citrus juice or vinegar can act similarly to salt in awakening the other flavors. And if you look at the salt quantity of a recipe and find yourself in shock, be sure to take a glance at the number of servings it creates before deciding whether you want to alter it.

Baked goods and desserts. Let’s cut to the chase, with this neat and tidy observation from “The Baking Answer Book” by Lauren Chattman: “The proportion of salt to other ingredients is minute in most baked goods, and presents little risk to people trying to watch their salt intake. So unless you are on a strict no-salt diet, use the recommended amount of salt for optimum flavor results.”

Nosrat makes another compelling point about salt in baking. “The foundational ingredients of sweets are some of the blandest in the kitchen. Just as you’d never leave flour, butter, eggs, or cream unseasoned in a savory dish, so should you never leave them unseasoned in a dessert. Usually just a pinch or two of salt whisked into a dough, batter, or base is enough to elevate the flavors in pie and cookie doughs, cake batters, tart fillings, and custards alike.”

Salt does much more than compensate for mild-tasting ingredients, though. It can help bring other flavors into focus, such as the chocolate in brownies or the corn in cornbread, Chattman says. It is even more effective at counteracting bitterness than sugar itself, Shirley Corriher says in “BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking,” citing research conducted by Gary Beauchamp at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which studies taste and smell.

McGee shares a few other important purposes served by salt, noting that it helps ice cream freeze and lowers the point at which starches gel (absorb water, swell and set), which is crucial in baking.

Bread. Salt is absolutely critical to successful, flavorful bread (one exception: Tuscan bread, which is its own unique class). And it doesn’t take much. King Arthur Baking says that salt is usually added in amounts equal to 1.8 to 2 percent of the total weight of the flour in a recipe. We’re talking roughly 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of salt per loaf of bread, Corriher says in “CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed.” That equates to a very small amount in terms of what you will be consuming per serving (or slice). If you absolutely must cut back, King Arthur says you can generally safely reduce the amount by half without a dramatic difference. But even then it may not be worth risking the issues below for such a minimal reduction.

Salt is essential to properly risen bread. “Salt works to dehydrate yeast, slowing down the fermentation process,” Chattman says. “While too much salt will kill yeast, the right amount will allow time for the bread to develop a tasty amount of acid (the byproduct of yeast and bacteria production) that gives bread its wonderful flavor and aroma.” That slowdown also lets the rising dough have enough time to form gluten, the protein structure that gives bread its stability and chew. Dough without salt will rise too fast on the counter and then collapse in the oven.

Slowing down yeast activity has another welcome outcome – browning, key to color and flavor. Yeast thrives on sugar in the dough (it’s generated by the breakdown of starches in the flour even if the recipe has no added sugar), and if it went unchecked, there would be no sugar left to brown in baking, according to King Arthur.

Salt has a strengthening effect on the gluten network, too, McGee says, because it allows the proteins in the flour to get closer to each other. When that happens, they form a tighter bond. (This also applies in non-bread baked goods, including pie crusts and other pastry.) In sourdough bread, salt prevents protein-gobbling bacteria from damaging the gluten.

At the end of the day, it’s truly up to you, as reducing the salt won’t completely ruin a recipe in the vast majority of instances. But as with any recipe, straying from what is explicitly written will often lead to results different from what the recipe writer intended, for better or worse. So as long as you’re okay with whatever the outcome may be, then feel free to take the recipe’s instructed amount with a grain of salt.

 

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