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May 11, 2009 05:06 PM

Salt in Restaurant Food

Just saw a news item that was mind-boggling: I've always assumed that most restaurants over-salt their food to make up for sub-par ingredients. What I never suspected that there were menu offerings such as Red Lobster's Admiral's Feast that have 3 1/2 teaspoons of salt PER SERVING. I don't understand how there could be so much salt in a dish that doesn't taste over-whelmingly salty.

When I cook, I salt as I go. I don't think I ever use more than a teaspoon of (kosher) salt for a dish that serves 8. Certainly, if I used 3 1/2 teaspoons, the food would be unpalatable. What gives?

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  1. This doesn't surprise me. Whenever I go to a place like Red Lobster I tend to find the food way saltier than it would be if I made it at home. But 3 times your daily salt requirement in one meal is crazy and totally unnecessary.


    1. is that 3 1/2 tsp of sodium? or added salt?
      it may be that they are listing the Total Sodium content.

      1. If you are ever in the mood to watch "Secrets of a Restaurant Chef" with Anne Burrell on Food Network, she throws handfuls of salt at different stages of cooking. She even tastes her pasta water to see if it is "salty enough". Until this, I always assumed that the real reataurant secret was butter, but apparenty it is also salt.

        Not surprising if you ever calculate how much sodium is in pre-cooked frozen dinners. Scary.

        18 Replies
        1. re: RGC1982

          Salty water for cooking the pasta is the norm. There is no other way to make the pasta taste good.

          1. re: KTinNYC

            Sauce makes the pasta "taste good". Salting the water is really just adding extra sodium which is not needed. I highly doubt if anyone can taste the difference between pasta cooked in salt water and pasta cooked in plain water after they've both been topped with marinara. Even if you could taste the difference, the enhanced flavor is not worth the extra sodium.

            1. re: stricken

              Haha, are you eating pasta or are you eating sauce? In Italy, sauce is just an accompaniment not the star.

              1. re: stricken

                Oh it most certainly is. Pasta that is cooked in unsalted water tastes so flat, even with sauce. I know, because sometimes in a rush I've forgotten to salt the cooking water, and lamented it upon tasting.

                Sodium is not the enemy.

                Marcella Hazan says to add 1.5 tablespoons of salt for 4 quarts of water for 1 pound of dry pasta. Presumably, that's table salt, so it would be 3 tablespoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt if you used that. That's roughly 30 grams (30K milligrams) or 1 ounce. Most of which would stay in the water - pasta would absorb a fraction of that, it would seem, but enough where its absence is noticeable (as is so true of salt in sooooo many things). Dry pasta generally absorbs its weight in water, doubling in weight in cooking. So a pound of pasta absorbs a pound of water, which is about a pint of water (or 1/8 of the volume of the water in the pot). That would mean on average about 470 milligrams of salt (which is 235 milligrams of sodium, since salt is only 50% sodium) per 4 ounces of cooked (2 ounces dry) pasta.

                1. re: Karl S

                  piling on to agree 100%. every professional cook will salt pasta water, it is essential not only for the taste of the finished product but the texture as well. don't get me started on salt being essential in salad dressings, soup stock, water used to blanch vegetables, etc.

                  i agree that sodium is not the enemy, and salt has been prized and warred over for the whole of human existence. the word "sale" and "salary" are from the same root word as "salt" because salt was so valuable that it was currency in many societies, and wages of soldiers and government officials was paid in salt. at the risk of sounding like a wingnut, salt is *still* sacred in many societies, food is made holy by salting it, salt is used as an offering to the gods and it should still be revered. if folks think there's too much salt in a cookie that has 1 tsp/5 dozen, for example, those folks probably aren't getting enough physical activity.

                  please don't compare carefully seasoned restaurant food with overprocessed "frozen dinners" or dreck like that.

                  leaving food improperly seasoned is incompetent, uncaring and disrespectful to whomever consumes the food. salt is the most important ingredient in 95%+ of recipes, because if the salt was omitted, the recipes would suck.

                  1. re: soupkitten

                    I agree with everybody who said salt the pasta water. (I use ample salt daily - it is important for people with low blood pressure, not everyone is the same in terms of sodium tolerance.)

                    That said, not everything needs tons of salt. I love brined green olives. I'll take popcorn with a LOT of fine salt on it. And maybe some fresh cracked pepper. For sushi and many other things, I rarely if ever dip into the soy sauce. The dumpling sauce - I'm going to finish that, though.

                  2. re: Karl S

                    To that you add the sodium in the sauce, to which you add the sodium in the water that goes back into the sauce to which you add the sodium that's in the cheese -- before long you have a single serving of pasta with over 1,000mg. of sodium. I lived in Italy for a long time. Some folks salt the water. Some don't. I've been served great pasta both ways.

                    1. re: charitytd

                      De gustibus. For me, salting the water properly increases the sodium content of the meal only marginally, but the flavor factor more noticeably, and I am far far from alone in that regard.

                    1. re: stricken

                      You may not find a lot of posters who agree with either conclusion.

                      jfood can absolutely taste the salt in the pasta and the enhanced that jfood experiences is absolutely worth the extra sodium, what little it may have.

                      1. re: jfood

                        Yup. There have been threads on this and almost all 'Hounds (and, as has been noted, all professional cooks) salt the pasta water. Minimal extra sodium, but essential for taste.

                      2. re: stricken

                        I can absolutely tell the difference. Salt is essential for pasta.

                        1. re: stricken

                          Those of us who remember our high school chemistry will recall that adding salt to water increases its boiling point. I've never tested this with pasta, but perhaps it's like the difference between roasting at 400 degrees vs. 350. The former is going to give you a much crisper exterior (and perhaps burnt!) than the latter.

                          1. re: FrankDrakman

                            It's de minimis. Even when I make salt potatoes (where you create a dense brine), it raises it only a couple of degrees (but that's enough for the water in the pototoes to steam out with a vigorous hissing action).

                                1. re: BobB


                                  Also: they are delicious. By far the best way to have a boiled potato. Too many so few restaurants are aware of this wonderful thing (salt potatoes also keep better than other boiled potatoes).

                                  They arose because central NY state has huge salt mines, and potatoes grow well there. There are salt potatoes in other cuisines (IIRC, the Canary Islands, for example), but it's a staple dish in that region, and for good reason.

                        2. re: KTinNYC

                          Yes but Anne overdoes it. I love her but the recipes of hers that I've made have in fact been too salty for my taste _ and I like salt.

                      3. Shellfish is naturally high in sodium. Processed foods are really high in sodium which is what a lot of chain restaurants use, Red Lobster is a combination of both so it doesn't surprise me that the sodium is so high.

                        1. You think RL is bad? Go check out a Chilis menu!!!!!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: KiltedCook

                            Chilis, applebees, tgi Fridays, all of those McFuntime cookie cutter restaurants cater to the "canned food and frozen package in a microwave" crowd. You can't blame them, it's what the people want. the last time I went to an applebees, I ordered a simple burger. the salt crystals were visible on top of the patty. I scraped them off like sludge with my knife. Yes, that was the LAST time I was there.