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How do you know how much salt to add?

So many recipes call for adding "salt to taste", and I often find that I don't add enough. For example, last night I made lamb kofte, using 1.25 pounds of lamb, and they were decidedly undersalted - but of course I don't know how much I added - maybe a large pinch. I'm going to try to be more rigorous about measuring how much I add and then noting the results, but are there any guidelines out there for how much salt to add to a dish?

(I've come to live with the fact that my husband adds salt to almost everything I cook, even things that I think are slightly salty.)

Thanks!

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  1. Well, are you actually doing the "to taste" part? I don't measure, but I *do* taste (with a raw meat mixture, of course, you have to quickly cook a small bit first).

    1 Reply
    1. re: tatamagouche

      Good point. I do that occasionally - when I make Swedish meatballs and pate - I guess I was in a bit of a rush yesterday and didn't think about doing that.

    2. If soy sauce or some other inherently salty ingredients, i.e. capers, are included in a recipe I tend to use less salt as I cook. However, my unscientific measure is a about a teaspoon to start and after tasting I adjust as needed. My 'pinch' is probably a little more than 1 teaspoon.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Gio

        Thanks - mine was probably a bit less than a tsp - that sounds like a good approach. And I do take note of the saltiness of other ingredients - if I'll be adding parmesan at the end of the preparation, for example.

        1. re: MMRuth

          For years I cooked using no added salt at all...relying on a variety of herbs and spices to create the balance of flavor I was looking for, and never adding salt at the table. My family didn't seem to mind, thank goodness. However, lately I've been bumping my salt usage and I find that it does produce a taste that is decidedly different than the no-salt approach. Low sodium is still a priority when I don't have any control over such items as packaged goods, however.

      2. In a nutshell, I say no, there are no hard and fast guidelines around how much salt to add. To taste is just that. And it's always better to err on the side of undersalting than oversalting.

        Myself personally, if I'm making something liquidy (eg. soup, stew, sauce) with no other salty ingredients added (be it boullion, canned tomatoes, parmesan cheese, soy or fish sauce, ketchup), I will add 1/2tsp per 2 cups of liquid, and adjust again before serving--but this depends on how long I'm simmering it, as the liquid will reduce, intensifying the saltiness.

        For 1.25lbs of lamb, assuming no other salty ingredients, I probably would have added at least 1tsp, maybe more depending on the volume of binders in the recipe.

        Salt fun fact: *generally* speaking, I find that smokers prefer more salt in their food. When I was in cooking school, we'd find out which teacher-Chefs smoked, so when we presented our food to them we'd bump up the salt and other seasonings a bit. Worked everytime!

        1. Cooking to taste with salt is one of the most difficult things to do I think when you are learning how to cook. It is that leap that you ultimately want to make to trust yourself about if something tastes properly right or not, and it can come down to the salt. (Acid and fat can be involved as well, but I'll stick to the salt.)
          Try making something like a white sauce, which relys almost completely on the salt for it's taste base. Once you have the flour and butter in the pan (equal amounts) over low heat, add a little pinch of salt and whisk until the flour and butter taste like a shortbread (about four minutes). If you haven't added enough salt at this point, it will taste like a cookie without the salt. Turn off the heat and slowly, slowly whisk in the milk (2 tablespoons of butter, 2 tablespoons of flour, 2 cups of milk are fine for the experiment). It should be completely smooth. Turn the heat back on and whisk gently until slightly thickened, or when you drag your finger across the back of a wooden spoon that has been dipped into the white sauce, it leaves a path. If you want to, divide the white sauce into little cups so that you can really notice the difference between the amount of salt in each one. Now add a little pinch of kosher salt from a salt bowl (the larger crystals will give you more control). Whisk and taste. It might taste "OK" but bland. Add another bit. Taste again. What you are looking for is for the salt to pull out the flavors of the toasted flour and butter and the milk, not so you taste the salt, but the full potential of the ingredients that you have used. When you have the right amount of salt, you will taste it and say WOW that tastes good. When I started cooking professionally, it took me nearly a year before I had the confidence to season something on my own. The beautiful thing about cooking is that you can practice every time you eat, and you have to eat, so eventually you are bound to get it. fayefood.com

          5 Replies
          1. re: fayehess

            Thank you! The sad thing is that I've been cooking for 15 plus years and - and I do think that my "output" is generally v. good (not to toot my own horn), but I wish I were more comfortable with the salt thing. I think just being more aware of it will help. I did like the fact that, in her recipes, Suzanne Goin put specific amounts of salt - and discussed her decision to do so in the introduction.

            1. re: MMRuth

              Yeah, I always wish cooks would at least give me an amount that could serve as a guideline. I'm always fearful of oversalting something, but dishes really do lose something when they're undersalted. Adding it at the table just isn't the same.

              1. re: MMRuth

                I know what you mean about wanting to know amounts, but whenever I teach I equate wanting someone to tell you exactly how to salt something and wanting someone to tell you exactly how to kiss. Every dish is different, every time you make it, is different. Every person, every time you kiss them, is different. Think about the difference in kissing by instruction, and then making the leap to kiss by instinct, by trusting your senses to tell you the difference between good, and GOOD.fayefood.com

                1. re: fayehess

                  Great analogy! And I realize that it is not (well, it is in a way) science, but because I'm always afraid of oversalting, I think I may add too little, which is why I liked this concept of guidelines - at least a starting point where I know I'm not going to oversalt by adding a certain quantity. Appreciate your insights.

                  1. re: fayehess

                    Your analogy is wonderful! Many thanks.

              2. I'd point out that you also just have different palates. My husband just likes things saltier than I do. We see this in food we eat at restaurants as well as at home. So, I generally under-salt, because he can add it - but I can't remove salt if it is too salty. Add slowly and keep tasting until you think it is right.

                1 Reply
                1. re: katecm

                  I think my objective is to add the right amount of salt to maximize other flavors, without having an obviously salty/over salted outcome, FWIW.

                  My husband thinks his taste for salt came from growing up in the DR, where the cooks tend to use bouillion cubes in all sorts of dishes. Although I occasionally crave something salty, I don't want to feel like I'm just eating salt. He'll even salt the spiciest of curries.