Over salting food happens. Banish that stomach-sinking feeling by taking simple steps to fix your salty dish. Use these tips on salty store-bought processed foods, like pasta sauce, ham, and bacon. You’ll never need to throw out over salted food again.
During the Roman and Middle Ages, salt was a valuable commodity. You’ve probably heard the famous stories that Roman soldiers were frequently paid in salt, leading to our modern use of “salary” to mean wages.
We’ve come a long way since Roman times when humans were super careful cooking with salt, a precious ingredient nicknamed “white gold”.
Today, we can accidentally spill salt or pour too much into our cooking without hurting our wallets. Nevertheless, over salting food still causes panic. “What do we do with the salty food?“
Let’s look at different ways to make food less salty, starting with the most important element that’s within your control.
The best solution against over salting food is prevention.
It sounds simple: add less salt.
You can always add more later. But it’s difficult to subtract salt.
That said, here are my tips for how to save food when you’ve got a salty dish in front of you.
How to fix salty food
The methods vary a lot depending on what the dish is and how salty it is. Here is an overview of the most effective techniques (from my most to least preferred method):
- Add more of the core unsalted ingredients (best strategy): If your dish can handle it, add more vegetables, meat, rice, or noodles first. Increase the volume of food so you can disperse the salt across these bland ingredients.
- Dilute with milk, cream, broth, wine, water: If your dish is wet, like a stew, soup, or casserole, you can add unsalted liquids to balance out the salt. Opt for flavorful ingredients first, like milk or unsalted broth. Even low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth help.
- Balance out the salt by tweaking the other tastes — sweet, sour, fatty, umami:
- Add sugar to blunt some of the saltiness. You can add a teaspoon at a time tasting as you go to avoid accidentally adding too much sugar.
- Add acid: This works well when you’ve over salted salad dressing, mayonnaise, or seafood. A squeeze of lemon juice brightens all ingredients so it can distract from the salt.
- Add fat: Butter, cream, milk, and plant-based oils like olive oil can help reduce the perception of saltiness by coating the tongue with fat.
In addition to the high-level tips above, here are additional tips for how to serve salty food:
- If it’s savory: Eat the dish with plain rice, bread, or noodles. Serving plain vegetables or salad greens alongside would help too.
- If it’s dessert: You can double the other ingredients, such as in baked goods. If that’s not possible, consider adding more sugar or serving with whipped cream or yogurt. You could also try drinking masala chai or hot chocolate with the dessert to balance out the salt.
- Worst case, throw it out: Sometimes there’s nothing else left to do. Use the Learning Filter to boost your confidence and remember to avoid the mistake in future cooking.
WARNING: While potato trick has been debunked, if you’re cooking a potato dish, go ahead and add more potatoes!
For people who dislike abstraction, let’s dive into more precision.
How to make soup less salty
If it’s a watery soup like chicken vegetable soup, I add a low-sodium broth to make the soup less salty. You can add water if you don’t have low-sodium broth. I also like to add frozen corn and peas to dilute the salty soup.
If it’s a cream soup or a soup purée like butternut squash soup or split pea soup (especially canned split pea soup — that stuff is always too salty), I add heavy whipping cream, sour cream, or yogurt to reduce the saltiness.
If it’s a noodle soup like pho or ramen soup, you can add more noodles and low-sodium broth. I also like to add bean sprouts, baby lettuce, or shredded cabbage to make the soup less salty.
NOTE: If your soup has complex flavors like clam chowder or French onion soup, you may not want to add vegetables or broth to dilute it. These ingredients would water down the flavors. In these cases, I dip crusty bread like slices of French baguette into the soup to tone down the salt.
How to make gravy less salty
Add a tablespoon of unsalted butter to the gravy. Does this fix the problem?
If not, add unsalted broth to the gravy. You could also add water. Both ingredients will thin the gravy.
If your gravy ends up too thin, the easiest way to fix the salty gravy is to set it aside and make new gravy. Since gravy takes about 5 minutes to make, making more gravy isn’t too onerous.
When you make new gravy, don’t salt it. Make the roux, and add the salty gravy to the new roux. Mix together, and add low-sodium broth or water to dilute it.
How to make sauce less salty
Tweaking the balance of the 5 tastes is the best approach to fixing a salty sauce rather than diluting it.
This means play around with sweet, sour, fat, and umami tastes. For example, add brown sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, olive oil and/or tomato paste. Taste as you go.
If it’s a cream sauce, like this creamy mushroom pasta sauce, you can add more cream, crème fraîche, or unsalted butter to dilute the sauce. If it’s a tomato-based sauce, add some sugar to tone down the salt and acid. These are great strategies for fixing salty pasta sauce.
If it’s a salad dressing, add more olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar.
If it’s a stir fry sauce, add 2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of tapioca starch into a bowl. Mix and add into the stir fry. Cook until the sauce is transparent.
How to make pasta less salty
The easiest way to make pasta less salty is to cook unsalted pasta noodles and add them to the salty pasta to dilute it.
If your pasta sauce is too salty, check out the tips to fix salty sauce.
If it’s hard to add unsalted noodles (such as in a pasta casserole), you can top the pasta with lower-salt soft cheeses like slices of fresh mozzarella, mascarpone, or ricotta to reduce the saltiness.
You can also add unsalted pieces of protein or vegetables to the pasta, like pan-fried tofu or steamed broccoli, to make your pasta more palatable.
How to make ham less salty
If I’m eating a few slices of salty ham, I like to boil the ham for 1-2 minutes to draw out the salt. If I’m lazy, I pour hot water from the kettle into a big bowl and soak the sliced ham for 5 minutes.
If the ham is flavored like honey-glazed ham or champagne-baked ham, I don’t want to lose these special flavors by boiling the ham.
In this case, I serve the ham with plain bread, potatoes, or vegetables to balance out the salt. Or I cook the ham with low-sodium broth and add vegetables to make a soup. Or I add it to my cup of noodles, skipping the flavor packet that comes with the ramen as the MSG-packed seasoning would make the noodles too salty.
If you’re dealing with a big country ham or bone-in ham, you’ll need to soak the ham submerged in cold water overnight (in the fridge). If the ham is very salty, you may need to soak it for 2-3 days, changing the water out every day. If you’re in a rush, you can boil the ham in a big pot of water for 3-4 hours to extract the salt.
Some people like to marinate the ham in a soft drink, such as ginger ale, coke, or sprite instead of soaking it in water. This is also a viable way to draw out the salt if you’re OK with adding the sugar to your ham.
After soaking the ham, you can drain it and roast it in the oven. Glaze the ham using a mixture of brown sugar, honey, and orange juice (or pineapple juice). Baste the ham multiple times with the glaze (here’s a good recipe as an example).
How to make bacon less salty
Soak bacon in cold water overnight in the fridge to draw out some of the salt.
If you’re in a rush, you can blanch the bacon on a gentle simmer to remove some of the salt. Or soak bacon in boiling water, similar to the tactic to desalinate ham.
Keep in mind, hot water will render out the fat. But the bacon should still be plenty fatty and salty enough.
Dry the bacon before frying or baking.
Remember, you can also serve bacon with blander foods like bread or oatmeal (as in this savory oatmeal recipe) to make bacon taste less salty.
How to make stew less salty
The easiest way to fix stew is to dilute it with wet ingredients. You could add wine, unsalted broth, water, or milk to dilute it.
If extra liquid thins the stew too much, add flour (or one of these starches) to thicken the stew.
Add additional aromatics, such as herbs and spices, to inject more flavor if desired (use a spice sachet for easy removal).
If your stew is very salty and adding a cup or two of liquid isn’t fixing it, you can add more of the core ingredients. If it’s a meat stew, add more meat (or canned beans). If it’s a vegetable stew, add more vegetables.
You can also add purée cooked rice, which will both dilute the salt and thicken the stew. You can also add cauliflower or potato purée.
How to make soy sauce less salty
You can dilute light soy sauce with a tiny bit of water to make it less salty. Better yet, opt for low-sodium light soy sauce.
For dark soy sauce, you can dilute it with a bit of water and add some brown sugar.
If you have a dipping sauce that’s too salty, there are many creative ways to dilute the soy sauce. You can add chili oil, rice vinegar, malt vinegar, sesame oil, and/or chopped fresh herbs, such as green onions and cilantro. These mix-ins will stretch the soy sauce without diluting with water so you still have a flavorful dipping sauce.
How to make broth or stock less salty
If your broth is too salty, add more water to dilute it. Add the water bit by bit and taste as you go to make sure you don’t over dilute it.
If the broth or stock tastes bland after adding water, you can add flavors back by adding herbs and spices (use a spice sachet), aromatic vegetables, and umami-packed ingredients to the stock. Even a few slices of ginger or shiitake mushrooms would make a difference.
Of course, you can also make a second batch of unsalted broth and mix the two.
How to make curry less salty and spicy
If it’s a cream- or nut-based curry, you can serve the curry with yogurt, sour cream, or heavy whipping cream. Even if it’s a tomato-based curry, you can still serve it with yogurt or crème fraîche.
Serving the curry with plain Jasmine or Basmati rice or plain naan will balance the salt and spice too.
This Food52 article shared a trick of adding simmered and puréed prunes to compensate for a too-spicy stew. It sounds like a lot of work to simmer and purée prunes so I would try a similar technique with frozen fruits or puréed baby food. For example, frozen mango chunks or frozen spinach could both be defrosted and puréed to add to your curry.
How to make people less salty
Alex recommends telling them to “go home and simmer down.”
If you have a salty dish that needs fixing, and I haven’t covered it here, leave a comment to let me know.