Recipes often tell you to “season to taste” instead of specifying exactly how much salt to add. What does this frustrating advice mean? This article provides tips on how to “season to taste” and pitfalls to watch for.
Years ago, during an unremarkable afternoon of meal prepping and batch cooking, I decided to use up a 2-quart (1.9 L) bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce. The half-finished bottle from Costco was taking up precious space in the cabinet, and I was ready to be done with the Kikkoman flavor.
In a moment that felt like brilliant thinking, I poured almost a quart (1 L) of the soy sauce into a baking pan along with chopped garlic, sugar, rice vinegar, and spices to prepare a marinade.
Once the baked tofu cooled, I took my first bite. The salty tofu shot out of my mouth as if it were fired out of a cannon. The tofu was too salty. Disgusting.
In this listicle, I’m exploring the often frustrating advice of “season to taste” or “salt to taste” in recipes (I too am guilty of overusing this phrase without explanation). How do you “salt to taste”?
We’ll answer this question and cover tips on how to season your cooking for different taste buds.
1: Consider the grain size you need
Salt comes in various sizes and shapes. Each size serves a different purpose.
For example, think about the last time you salted popcorn. Did you experience the annoying problem where the salt falls to the bottom of the pan instead of sticking to your popcorn?
That’s why popcorn salt exists.
Popcorn salt is much finer than table salt. This allows popcorn salt to adhere to the craggy surface of popcorn.
TIP: Think about the grain size of your salt when you’re cooking. If the salt you use isn’t sticking, switch to a smaller grain of salt.
2: Weight versus volume
Because salt comes in different shapes and sizes, it matters whether the recipe writer was measuring salt by weight (grams or ounces) or by volume (teaspoons and tablespoons).
Let’s take the example of kosher salt versus table salt.
If your recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and you’re using table salt, will you need to use more or less salt? (The answer is less salt because table salt has smaller grains.)
There are bigger gaps between the grains of kosher salt, which means that 1 tablespoon of kosher salt is less salty than 1 tablespoon of table salt.
TIP: While cooking is more forgiving, baking requires precision. Get out your kitchen scale to measure the amounts of salt you’ll need to make your baked goods (like this pie crust) shine.
3: What if the recipe doesn’t tell you what kind of salt?
Sometimes, recipes call for a measurement of salt but they don’t tell you what kind of salt to use.
If the measurement is by weight (grams or ounces), weigh whatever salt you’re using to get the exact amount.
If it’s a cooking recipe that measures salt by volume (teaspoon or tablespoon), I usually assume the measurement is for table salt.
If it’s a baking recipe and there’s no clarity on the type of salt or the weight, I recommend finding another clearer and better-tested recipe because the lack of precision could result in a baking failure.
4: Remember many foods already contain salt
Most foods already have sodium, such as sauces, cheeses, and processed foods. Many unprocessed foods contain more sodium than you might think, such as seafood.
TIP: Peek at the label of ingredients when you’re cooking. If one serving provides you with more than 10% of your daily sodium needs, that food is pretty high in sodium. If this is your situation, I recommend adding the minimum amount of salt before cooking. Then salt to taste at the end. This is especially a problem for pasta sauce, which tends to be very high in sodium.
5: What about “low-sodium” foods?
From soy sauce to bread to gravy to ketchup to pickles, you can usually find food products that advertise a “low-sodium” option. There’s even “No Salt” salt, which is sodium free (usually potassium chloride or nutritional yeast replaces the sodium chloride). These can be great choices for people whose doctors recommend lower salt intake.
TIP: Because processed foods contain a huge amount of salt, “low sodium” could still mean a lot of sodium, just less than the original version. Check the label and remember to add less salt if the low-sodium version is high in sodium. Cooking at home helps with this problem because you control the salt content.
6: The mechanics of salting
I like to grab a pinch or a handful of salt and sprinkle it over the food as it cooks. This means I keep a bowl of kosher salt in a pinch bowl (a small bowl like what you would serve ice cream in) next to my cook top.
I avoid sprinkling salt directly from the salt shaker while cooking because the steam that rises from my pan adds moisture to the salt grains. I find this clogs the holes in the shaker, stopping the salt from coming out.
7: Salt from up high
“Cheffy” people like to salt their food from up high. You might see a dramatic flourish of the arm on reality TV cooking programs. There’s logic behind this action: when you sprinkle salt from a foot (30 cm) or higher above the food, the salt disburses over a wider area. You want to be farther from the food to season it evenly.
If you’re finding that your food has uneven patches of salt, try sprinkling from a higher distance away from your plate to see whether this adjustment fixes the problem.
8: Always measure the salt over the counter
Here’s my number 1 tip for avoiding over salting.
My mum taught me: always, always, always measure out the salt using a spoon, spatula, or your hand first and then put it into your food. Never pour salt straight from the container into your pan, plate, pot, or bowl in case you accidentally dump a whole container of salt into your food.
Have I always followed this advice? Nope, I definitely dumped a half cup’s worth of salt into my pan and had to throw out the food. Lesson learned, mum!
If you transfer the salt instead of pouring it directly into the pan, you can see exactly how much salt you’re adding!
Even for soy sauce, I don’t tip the bottle directly into the pan. I pour the desired amount onto my spatula and add that amount to the pan.
9: When to salt your food
Most of the advice you’ll hear is: salt your food along the way at every step of cooking. Not just at the beginning or the end. Why?
- The Just-In-Time Principle: If you salt along the way, you can taste along the way. This gives you time to fix mistakes. If you salt too little, you can add more to achieve the correct balance. If you added too much salt, you still have time to add bland ingredients to fix the mistake.
- Time to absorb: If you add salt along the way, it changes the chemical reactions while you’re cooking and gives your food sufficient time to absorb the salt to perform the magic of seasoning.
If you’re watching your sodium intake, salting along the way might introduce too much salt for you. Read the next tip on how to season less without compromising taste!
10: How to season if you’re limiting your salt intake
As my parents get older, they’re watching their salt intake. If you’re in the same boat, I love Paul Breslin’s advice on how to salt. He’s a professor at Rutgers University who studies human perceptions of taste.
In this interview on The Splendid Table, he explains that sodium ions attach to molecules in food. The bigger the molecules, the less salty the food tastes. This means when your food has larger proteins, “you just don’t taste that salt.”
His advice is to add salt at the beginning and end of cooking.
It’s critical to salt at the beginning of cooking because salt is necessary for chemical reactions, such as caramelization, the Maillard reaction, and browning.
Then salt to your taste preferences at the end. Instead of salting along the way, you can add the minimum amount of salt the recipe requires at the beginning and then just enough salt for your taste buds. This helps you avoid “hidden salt”.
11: The Ultimate Goal: How to salt to taste?
When food is salted correctly, it should taste more flavorful than before you salted it. While there are applications of salt designed to taste salty (like salted caramels and potato chips), mostly, you want the salt to enhance flavors, not taste salty.
The only way to know how to salt to taste is to practice. Experiment. Figure out what your taste buds like. Look for your Sweet Spot.
This “Goldilocks amount” is where food tastes great to you. Even a bit more sodium would taste too salty and a bit less would make the food blander.
- Taste the food without adding any extra salt. If you’re happy with it, then you’re done.
- If you are curious whether it could taste even better, add a pinch of salt. Taste again. Does it taste better? If you’re happy with the taste, stick with it.
- If you believe it could taste a bit more flavorful, add another pinch of salt into half of the food. Taste it again.
- If it tastes over salted, you know your tolerance for salt now. Fix the over salting problem by mixing in the other half, which wasn’t over salted.
- If it’s still under salted, repeat step 2 until you’re happy with the level of salt.
12: How to salt for different taste buds
Alex loves salty food. He has a tolerance for restaurant levels of salt that amazes me. It can make home cooking a perilous task for balancing our different taste buds.
13: Experiment to gain confidence
The best part about gaining experience with cooking is that you will quickly be able to eyeball how much salt (and other ingredients) you need to add to your dish. You’ll become a confident cook who can improvise and adjust dishes while tasting along the way. Soon, you’ll make fewer and fewer salting mistakes until it becomes second nature how to salt to taste!
So start experimenting with seasoning today. Relax about it. It’s almost impossible to do it wrong. And even if you add too much, it’s only food 🙂