Here’s How to Make Food Less Salty

Estimated read time 7 min read

Picture this: you’ve spent an afternoon lovingly tending to a stew simmering on the stove as you gear up to serve dinner to your friends and family. The table is set, the candles are lit, and mealtime is moments away. In the final countdown to dinner, you give it a taste only to be hit with a flavor saltier than the sea. Whether you were a bit too heavy-handed when seasoning, were out of unsalted butter and thought salted would be fine, or just used the wrong kind of salt (yes, that’s a thing), the meal can be saved. We’ve rounded up some foolproof techniques to make food less salty and bring your dinner back to life, as well as some cooking tips and hacks to help you avoid oversalting in the future.

Water it down.

If you’ve added too much salt to a soup or stew, try diluting it with cold water and bring it back to a simmer. Add a little water at a time, tasting as you go, until you no longer have a salty soup. Note that in addition to reducing the saltiness, this method may dull other seasonings in your dish, but that can be amended after you get the salinity right.

Bulk it up.

“I understand this is a luxury in both money and time,” says chef-owner Antonio Mora of Tiny’s sandwich shop in Hamden, New York. “Depending on the level of saltiness, I will double or bulk up the [ingredients in the] recipe,” avoiding the addition of extra salt. For a too-salty soup or stew, consider adding starchy ingredients like noodles, grains, or potatoes, which are especially adept at soaking in salt, as well as veggies or canned beans (low-sodium, please!) to reduce the salty flavor. These additional ingredients will balance the excess salt, helping to even out the flavors. If you’re worried about food waste, freeze the leftovers for later use.

Put a whole potato in it…maybe?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the ole potato trick? This old wives’ tale says adding one whole, unpeeled raw potato to soups or stews is a surefire way to eliminate saltiness. The potato will absorb some of the extra salt while simultaneously releasing starch into the dish. Mischief managed, you can then pluck the spud from the broth and discard it (or save it for another use). While we understand the thought process, the results of this practice are mild at best. That said, if you’re really desperate, it doesn’t hurt to try: To really make an impact, add a substantial amount of potatoes, diced, as in the “bulk it up” section above.

A bowl of Lettuce Soup on a counter garnished with olive oil and fresh herbs.

If your lettuce soup is too salty, blend in an extra potato and extra bunch of greens and move on with your meal.

Photo by Elizabeth Coetzee, Food styling by Tiffany Schleigh

Add acid.

Of all the ways to cut down on saltiness, adding acid might be the easiest. A squeeze of lemon juice, lime juice, or spoonful of vinegar (any kind) can do wonders in dialing back the perceived amount of salt. Depending on the recipe, you can experiment with processed tomato-based products, like tomato paste or canned tomatoes, which add a subtle burst of acidity. Or opt for a neutral option like distilled white vinegar, which can work with many cuisines. Other vinegars like apple cider vinegar, Champagne vinegar, or red or white wine vinegar work well in a pinch. It’ll add a punch without changing the flavor profile of the dish. Unless you feel the dish could use some sweetness too (more on that in a minute), avoid balsamic vinegar—and other more expensive bottles—to avoid further food waste.

Deploy some dairy.

A splash of dairy can go a long way in culling the salty taste of a dish. In addition to adding creaminess, the fat in dairy will coat your mouth, acting as a barrier between your taste buds and the salt. Dairy products like heavy cream and milk are all obvious choices, but a dollop of sour cream, knob of cream cheese, pat of unsalted butter, or a spoonful of yogurt work well too. Nondairy alternatives, like oat, almond, or soy milk also make good choices.

Sweeten things up.

Adding a pinch of sugar is a common practice for balancing out the acidity of dishes, like tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, pad thai, and more. This same principle works well in reducing the levels of salt in a dish. Since you don’t want to run the risk of turning a savory dish sweet, start with a teaspoon of your sweetener of choice and slowly add from there. In addition to granulated sugar and brown sugar, other sweeteners like honey and maple syrup can be used.

Tips to avoid oversalting:

The best way to avoid oversalting a dish is to never get there in the first place. Here are some best cooking practices to ensure beautifully seasoned food, every time.

Season in stages.

Ask any chef how to make restaurant-quality food and they’ll tell you to build layers of flavor as you go. Instead of salting your dish at the end, season throughout the cooking process. Salt draws out the moisture of ingredients resulting in a more concentrated flavor. By seasoning during each stage of the cooking process, every element of the dish is enhanced, rather than just the exterior. Not only will you have a more flavorful dish, but you’ll also avoid oversalting.

Taste along the way.

It’s imperative to taste your food while you’re cooking, not just at the end of the meal (i.e., try your sauce before tossing it with your pasta). This will give you the ability to adjust the flavors—meaning all the flavors, not just saltiness—before putting the finishing touches on your dish.

Consider your ingredients.

Saltiness doesn’t just come from salt. Condiments like soy sauce and aged cheeses like Parmesan will add their own saltiness to the dish, so go lighter when seasoning recipes with these ingredients. Other ingredients which are often umami bombs of flavor, like olives, capers, and miso paste, also have a salty intensity about them. To temper the salt, pairing them with something acidic is crucial.

Measure mindfully.

We’ve all made the mistake of measuring out salt directly over what we’re cooking or baking only to accidentally pour in a little too much. The easiest way to avoid this is to simply measure your salt on the side before adding it to your dish.

Remove excess salt.

Before you start cooking, remove excess salt from store-bought ingredients: Drain and rinse canned goods, like beans, to reduce the sodium content of the dish you’re making. Similarly, you can rinse heavily cured meat or salt cod in water to remove some of the salt. Consider choosing ingredients like low-sodium soy sauce or unsalted broth, which give you more control of seasoning and can help avoid oversalted dishes.

Use the right salt.

While we all have our go-to salt, it’s important to heed your recipe’s directions and use the type of salt called for. Many food publications, like this one, call for kosher salt in their recipes. Kosher salt is beloved for its uniformity and coarse, easy-to-pinch granules. But keep in mind that, as with any other type of salt, kosher salt’s…uh, saltiness…varies by brand. Long a favorite of chefs and recipe developers, Diamond Crystal is the test kitchen’s kosher salt of choice. But Bon Appétit and Epicurious recipes also include a conversion for another popular brand, Morton.

The salt of choice varies from website to website, so use a trusted source who’s clear about what they used in development for best results. In cookbooks, check out the introductory pages, where this information is often included.

Iodized salt, which is typically found in salt shakers as table salt, is significantly saltier by volume than kosher salt—it can also impart a bitterness to your food when used in excess. If you use an equal measure of fine-grained salt when kosher salt is called for, your dish will be oversalted, full stop. Similarly, some varieties of sea salt have a higher salinity by volume than kosher salt, which can result in a salty dish if you’re too heavy-handed.

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