Do You Make These 5 Mistakes with Salt in Recipes?

Sep 242013
 

Using-Salt-in-RecipesWhenever I edit recipes, I feel my blood pressure rising (and I haven’t even consumed the salt yet!) Three things about using salt set me off:

Why do so many recipes fail to specify the amount of salt? Why do recipes say to season with salt when you can’t know if you’re adding the right amount? Why do recipes say to add salt at the wrong time?

As you know, I have opinions on recipe writing, and specifying salt is no exception. Here’s my take on where many recipes go wrong, and how to fix them:

1. Adding “to taste” to salt in the ingredients list. The ingredients list comes before the dish is assembled, and therefore it’s pointless to tell people to add salt to taste. They haven’t made anything yet.

2. Not specifying the amount of salt. Sometimes I just see “salt” listed as an ingredient, with no amount. The problem is that you know how your food should taste. Reader’s don’t.

You might argue that people can add as much or as little salt as they like, so there’s no reason to specify. Not true. Often the amount of salt will make or break a dish.

You also might argue that some people are watching their salt. If people are doing so for health reasons, they’ll use less. If people like salty food, they’ll use more. Give them a starting point.

3. Asking readers to season to taste at the wrong time. Typically, the wrong time is when the dish is unfinished. This applies to any dish that cooks for a while, such as sauces and soups; or dishes that chill so flavors can meld. When you have told readers to salt “to taste” in the middle of cooking, they won’t know how much salt to add. Flavors will change. With soup, for example, the liquid reduces and salt will intensify the flavor. With chilling, foods taste less salty.

I’m not saying not to salt during the cooking process. Tell readers the amount. And don’t tell them to salt “to taste” at the wrong time. Here’s an example:

“Scoop out the squash and place in a blender. Add the milk, butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the crumbled bacon.”

Wrong! Bacon is salty. Salting the mash “to taste” before adding the bacon could ruin the dish.

So when is the right time to season to taste? Right before eating it, most of the time. Before that, you’re going to have to tell them an amount.

4. Telling people to taste raw food. I often see recipes that say to add salt “to taste” when making a marinade. Most people don’t want to taste a marinade. They also have no idea how salty it should be.

That’s why they’ve come to you. You are the expert. Just as you tell them how much garlic or miso or oregano, tell them how much salt.

With meatballs, no one wants to taste raw meat either, so it is common to fry up a little bit and then taste to see if seasonings need to be adjusted. Give a specific amount of salt to add up front, and then if people want more, they can adjust it.

5. Not knowing the difference between seasoning and sprinkling. Don’t tell people to season something raw before it goes into the oven. Seasoning implies tasting, and no one is going to take a bite out of a raw winter squash to see if they’ve salted it enough. Tell readers to sprinkle salt over the acorn squash.

Okay, that’s my rant. Let the discussion begin. Am I on target, nuts, or only partially correct? You tell me.

(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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  118 Responses to “Do You Make These 5 Mistakes with Salt in Recipes?”

  1. My salt pet peeve is a recipe not specifying the type of salt. “Sea salt” is way too general. There’s fine sea salt, coarse sea salt, and in-between. Even kosher salt varies by volume a lot between brands, so where does that leave us? In a perfect metric system world, we’d all be able to measure salt in grams, so the inconsistencies of volume would not matter. That will never happen. And yes, seasoning is the toughest thing for home cooks to nail. It takes years of diligent tasting, so a carefully recorded amount of salt can make the difference from a recipe that’s a keeper to one readers will not make again.

    • I have found this when I shop for sea salt. Some is in flakes, some tiny balls, and some is fine like regular salt. They would make a great deal of difference in the end result if used interchangeably in a recipe. When all we had was salt and kosher salt, life was simpler.

      I have written about using grams in recipes, and I think it might be possible in our lifetime!

      Today at lunch I seasoned a salad before I added a little salty cheese. My husband (AKA my proofreader) laughed at me, as he had just read my post. But I did know how much salt to add, and it was fine (really good salad, BTW: cucumber, avocado, corn, cilantro). The average reader doesn’t think about this stuff.

      • Yes! Not in just our lifetime but how about now. I would love to see weight measurements for salt. We habitually use Kosher salt, which is quite fluffy in comparison to fine-grain table salt Here is what I discovered when I was ranting about salt a couple of years ago:

        ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
        If you want to use kosher salt for table salt, multiply the table salt quantity by 1.5.
        1 teaspoon table salt = 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
        1 1/2 teaspoon table salt = 2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
        2 teaspoons table salt = 3 teaspoons kosher salt
        – from goodeatsfanpage.com 400s FAQs: Food
        …………………………………
        Typically when a recipe calls for “salt,” it’s referring to fine sea or table salt. Most sources, including Bakewise and Cook’s Illustrated, say that 1 teaspoon fine salt = 1 1/2 teaspoons Morton’s kosher = 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher. But I found this ratio to be quite off. Look at my results after weighing the different salts:
        1 teaspoon fine sea or table salt = roughly 1 1/4 teaspoons Morton’s kosher salt = roughly 1 3/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
        -Jill Santopietro, ’91That’s So Salty! It’s Not Salty Enough.’91 chow.com
        ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

        Excellent article, by the way. I confess that I have been guilty, in the past, of simply specifying “salt” or “salt, to taste” in my recipes. I’ll try to mend my ways.

        • Elizabeth, this is a very useful list of equivalents. Thanks so much for sharing your research with us.

          • If you would use table salt like God intended, none of this would be an issue. All salt is sea salt, even that dug out of the ground.

  2. My problem with salt and recipes is that we eat a low-salt diet and our palates are just fine with very little or no added salt. Most folks, however, are used to eating higher levels of sodium in their diet. While I might be happy with a pinch or 1/4 teaspoon of kosher or fine sea salt, many people would want a teaspoon of the stuff. So, do I write recipes to satisfy my taste buds or my readers? I remember your “salt rant” (just kidding) during our food-writing seminar, Dianne – sometimes I cringe and just hope you aren’t reading my recipes ;)

    • Liz, like you, we eat very low amounts of salt for health reasons. I am incredibly sensitive to it and I do tell people to salt, to taste. I really can’t even hazard a guess what mainstream America considers a normal amount of salt in something after being used to salt being dumped on so liberally in packaged foods, restaurants, etc. What they think is normal would likely send me into water retention mode for a good year or two. Good thing I don’t feature many savory dishes – because I would still tell them to salt, to taste.

      But Dianne – I think I say it at the appropriate time at least. Ha! :)

      • Probably anyone who cooks regularly consumes less salt than the rest of the population. But you can still salt to the level you think is appropriate. If you only like 1/2 teaspoon total in a dish, that’s what you say.

        With your blog, Averie, you probably don’t have to worry about it often.

    • This is an interesting question, Liz. Have your readers complained that there’s not enough salt in the recipes? If not, then perhaps your salt levels are fine.

      It is your food, cooked the way you like it, so you should do it the way you please. You two are eating this stuff, right?

      You might want to add to your bio that you and Larry follow a low-salt diet, just to let people know.

      Please don’t cringe! I do read your recipes often.

  3. I always give a specific amount of salt. I don’t know if I put it on the list or in the instructions in the place where professionals would but that doesn’t concern me since I am a home cook sharing my home cooking. I list the ingredients in the order I use them. I find it irritating when I see “salt to taste” in a cookbook because I want that starting point you mention.

    As to “seasoning” versus “sprinkling” – I have no idea if I’ve ever said seasoning when I should have said sprinkle. I’ll have to go back and check – I think that’s a great point and something I have never thought about.

  4. I agree with the staging problem, but in terms of “to taste” I find that people have wildly different palates when it comes to salt–so generally I will give a suggested amount and then add “or to taste.” My personal salt tolerance seems to be lower than most, and I agree with the above comment that many Americans seem to be accustomed to heavily-salted foods. I think it also depends on the assumed skill level of your audience.

    • At least you give both an amount and “or to taste.” That is a better solution than leaving it all up to the reader.

  5. Thanks for this reminder Dianne.

  6. I am going to half-disagree with you here. Like some of the commenters below I eat with very little salt. In fact, I spent the first 18 years of my life on a salt-free diet for health reasons, which totally skewed my perception of what is salty. Nearly everything I eat at a restaurant can be classified as salty to too salty. I know this.

    Since I know this, I only add specific amount of salt when the recipe wouldn’t work otherwise (like bread-making), or when salt is to be added at the beginning of the process and the food is raw (like seasoning chicken). Even then I go for low, and whenever I can, I give the reader the chance to add more salt at the end of the process if it is possible.

    • I don’t care how much salt you add, Aunt Clara. What I care about is that you state the amount. If readers want to add more salt they are welcome to do so.

  7. Thank you Dianne!

    I always tell my clients how important it is to specify an amount of salt as a starting point and that amounts can be adjusted to taste at the end of the preparation. It’s amazing how many authors are reluctant to comply. I think it might be either the author’s not being sure of the correct amount or not wanting to take responsibility for the decision. Interestingly, no one has any trouble specifying amounts of pepper or cinnamon or basil.

    I can advise them on the correct amounts only if I am testing the recipe; I can’t know how much salt to use if I am just editing the recipe. I can make a guess, but, without tasting the dish, I cannot give the starting point.

    I am so glad you wrote the article and am happy to see that we agree!

  8. I think this is a great post. When I see vague instructions and “loosey-goosey” amounts, I stop reading the recipe and rarely return to that site or blog. While seasoning is highly personal, it can easily be addressed in the recipe instructions and the head note, too. I could go on a rant, but I’ll sign off:) Thank you for surfacing this issue and I hope you continue the series.

  9. Good food for thought Dianne. I probably am guilty of this, because as many have said, salt preferences vary widely. And salt has become complicated with so many varieties! Salts do have widely varying levels of saltiness. I try to give readers an idea on levels, but often do say season to taste. You’ve got to get used to seasoning your food when you cook. I usualy salt lightly, or what I think is just right, but my husband always wants more salt. I ask him, really? Thanks for a great post. Will be more mindful of this when recipe writing. Actually, this could be a really good post! Season To Taste. Hmmm..

    • You’ve made a lot of good points here, Sally. The bottom line for me is that you’re the recipe writer, so you should go with your preferences, just as you do in general for what kinds of dishes you develop and whether you’re more fond of basil than cumin. So if your preference is to salt lightly, then you specify that.

  10. I’ve struggled with this on my blog. It depends on the recipe. “salting to taste” is a finishing step and should be used as the last step before garnish. Salting to taste in the middle of the recipe would not be correct.

  11. I’m going to have to disagree on listing the amount of salt in all recipes. Except in certain recipes, say bread where salt is sometimes added to add flavour without it giving it an a really salty taste, I prefer to say to “salt to taste”.
    This is because I believe that the amount of salt in most dishes is usually a personal thing. I personally prefer less alt in my food whereas my husbnad likes it on the higher side. And there are plenty of cooked dishes where you cannot adjust the slat levels after cooking it.
    Then there are different types of salts and they have varying levels of “saltiness”. My grand mother used to cook with sea salt, while my mother used regular salt and I prefer low sodium salt.

    • Well, you’re entitled, but I think you’re doing your readers a disservice. You can salt on the lighter side and people can add more at the end if they want. The point is to tell them how much to add so they don’t have to guess. You don’t make them guess how much to use of other flavorings, so there is no reason to do so with salt.

      It’s true that people cannot adjust the salt in all recipes after cooking it. But I also don’t think every recipe should tell readers to salt to taste at the end. Sometimes salt needs to be cooked into the recipe to flavor the food.

      It’s also true that there are different kinds of salt, but that doesn’t mean you can leave it out of the recipe.

  12. What kind of measurement do you suggest for freshly cracked ground pepper? I often use a few grinds over my food. The amount of pepper will vary widely depending on the setting of the pepper grinder and how far you twist the grinder in a single motion. I could grind into a small bowl, and then try to measure it, but I’m sure the pepper wouldn’t fill a 1/8 teaspoon measure. Also, sometimes I use just a pinch or two of salt, which is again less than 1/8 of a teaspoon. A pinch isn’t really an accurate measurement since everyone’s pinch is different. Any recommendations?

  13. The biggest problem is that salts vary widely in taste and “saltiness.” That, and accounting for personal tastes, makes it a challenge to specify exact amount of salt (I usually do, then advise people later in the recipe when they can add more, if desired.) Like most cooking, people need to use recipes are guidelines – if you like less-salty food, dial down the salt in a recipe and add more later, if necessary or desired.

    The advice I give to home cooks (and any cook, really) is to get to know the salts that you use. If you use table salt, you’ll need to dial down the amount substantially if a recipe calls for sea salt since it’s horribly salty. Gray sea salt can be hearty and saltier than white sea salt, etc..and some flakes or crystals are larger than others. But it’s really up to the cook to make the call when cooking because only you know your personal taste. Baking is a different story as ingredients usually get measured accurately – but in most cases, salt in baked goods is a background flavor and salt is added in small amounts often to keep things from tasting flat.

    • Yes, true. The amount of salt is a guideline, and it’s a good point that salt tastes vary widely. But recipe writers have to actually GIVE the guideline. That is my problem with so many recipes.

      We have to remember that our target reader is not us. Our reader probably cooks a lot less and knows less about cooking than we do. And they probably don’t know anywhere near what you just said about salt. You could write a whole blog post about salts, David!

  14. Guilty as charged! Will try to do better. I do put warnings in when I feel extra salt would not be needed ~ like with anchovies, feta cheese or bacon because I’ve had people comment that I left the salt out of the ingredients!

    I’m English so I’m a grams person.

    • That’s interesting. It’s good to have a headnote that talks about the saltiness of various ingredients, as you have done. I bet your readers weren’t reading closely. That never happens, right?

  15. I agree whole heatedly. While living with my ex mil who likes to cook, I discovered that we have very different tastes in regards to salt and she would pile it into everything, so it all tasted like salt.. Now if I see it added to a recipe, I leave it out. After cooking, when I go to eat it, if I find it needs salt, I will add some of my rock grinder salt to my taste. And others can add salt if needed to their taste..

    • Exactly. My husband salts just about everything on his plate before he puts it in his mouth. But when I make a recipe, I still need to know how much.

  16. If you are going to suggest a measured amount of salt, it should be measured in weight. Preferably in grams. Also, all salt is sea salt.

  17. For me stating the amount of salt depends on when I add it to a dish and what I am making. If it’s a meatball or marinade recipe (I do do the taste-testing of the marinade or meat!), I state the amount, since I add it to the meat prior to cooking. When it’s a dish, where I’ve added the salt at the end and haven’t measured (I rarely do, when I add at the end), then I state “to taste”. And when it’s a baking recipe, then I add the exact amount. So, it depends… I think cooking and baking (and I don’t mean to say I’m an expert of course) is an artistic, creative, and alchemist process, where many times being precise and exact is required (baking) and other times a bit of personal creativity is preferred (general savoury dishes). When it comes to other ingredients, I would agree that being precise all the time is more essential. However, salt is one ingredient, that although a bit more or less can make a dish, it truly is a matter of preference in savoury cooking…so some things can be left to the reader.. in my opinion. ;)

    • Yes, definitely cooking and baking is artistic and creative. But recipes are a form of technical writing, and they are meant to be exact. And since salt is critical to the success of a dish, it makes no sense to leave out this one measurement.

      Your preference is your right as the creator of the dish. Just as you prefer less garlic, you can prefer less salt. Whatever you prefer is fine. The issue is to state it.

  18. Obviously, when baking I specify salt amounts. When cooking I do not. Because I learned to cook from my husband who rarely cooks from a recipe and if he does he ad libs anyway… he basically just tosses salt in generously and then tells me to taste and adjust at the end so that is what I do. I find that although important to suggest the type of salt used, I think it is very hard to give specific quantities as people do have different tastes. Although getting the terminology right only makes sense.

    • Cooking is different from writing recipes. Recipe writing is about precision, and if you have precisely measured all ingredients except salt, it makes no sense.

  19. Here’s the problem: As food professionals, we use kosher salt. A majority of home cooks (at least those that I’ve asked) use table salt. And maybe don’t understand the measurement difference between table salt and kosher salt. So if you put a kosher salt amount (even specifying kosher salt), and they swap it out for table salt, the dish is going to be way too salty. So is solution here that food professionals should start testing with table salt? But that’s what hinders it for me, in addition to the fact that people’s salt preference wildly differ. I don’t want the dish to be ruined just because of the use of table salt versus kosher salt by a cook.

    • Yes, that’s an interesting dilemma. The question is who are you writing the book for? If it’s for yourself and other professionals, then go with what you like. But if you are truly writing for home cooks, and you’ve asked them and they use table salt, perhaps that is what you should specify.

  20. I agree with almost all your points except for #5, seasoning. Seasonings, to me, imply salt and pepper and you can say “Season the meat well with salt and pepper” as a step before putting it in a pan. One of my pet peeves is the word “sprinkle”! When you watch chef’s salt meat, etc before cooking, sprinkle just doesn’t catch the action.

    Meanwhile, I think it’s okay to list Salt or Sea Salt or whatever in the ingredient list if it is used several times, or in an indefinite amount, for instance to salt boiling water for blanching something.. If used a second time, then call for the amount: 1/2 teaspoon, etc, in the method.

    Since salt is such a basic, like water, it needs to be treated differently than other ingredients, as you rightly point out.

    • Interesting. It’s true that sprinkle sounds lighter than season. I wonder if people even understand the difference between them. If they watch TV they will see that chefs season their meat prodigiously. But they don’t season it to taste!

      I think it’s okay too to list salt generically and then call for amounts. There’s no other way to do it if it’s used several times.

      Funny how salt is so basic to a recipe yet so many people are loathe to specify the amount.

    • I just say “sprinkle generously” in those cases. I have plenty of readers who wouldn’t know what “season the meat…” means. But “sprinkle”, they get that. I have no problem with it.

  21. The problem, as I struggle with it and as an earlier respondent alluded to, is the strength of different salts.
    Kosher salt is half as salty as table salt and sea salt, according to tests by Cooks Illustrated
    Diamond kosher salt (what I tend to use) is also even less salty than Morton kosher salt.

    Writing a new recipe yesterday, I added a total of 3/4 teaspoon of diamond kosher. If someone making this at home used table or sea salt, the dish would probably be too salty. I often will go with 1/2 teaspoon salt in the ingredient list, and later in the instruction say add additional salt to taste. But I don’t really like the impreciseness of this, especially as you say, I’m the one testing this, ofter 2 or 3 times.

    I would like to add the exact amount, especially in the case of soups or blander dishes salt can be key in determining in the overall flavor, but I’m stymied. I do write in the book a bit about salt in general and what I test all the recipes with. But someone might not see this when making a specific recipe. I also don’t want to write 1/2 teaspoon Diamond kosher salt – or really tell people what type of salt they should use. A tricky area for sure, and one I have struggles with.

    • I suspect that most people still use table salt. If you’re writing a book for a more sophisticated reader, maybe they also use kosher salt and sea salt. And maybe the gourmets have a few different kinds of salt in the closet that they have no idea how to cook with. They probably sprinkle some sel gris on top of a fancy dish once a year and that’s it.

      I guess you could address some of this at the front of your cookbook, if you think it’s an issue. It’s a dilemma, for sure.

  22. This is such a great topic. I had this conversation recently when I was helping someone test recipes for a chef cookbook. Whether or not to specify salt type is one question as is whether or not to specify amounts–most of these recipes don’t because the audience for the book presumably knows how to deal with these ingredients. Also, there’s a whole other element to this discussion: food tastes flat without it. There are real chemical reactions going on when you add salt to food, just like when you add acid. I’ve been learning from a pro about this and there is a fine line between not enough salt and too much, when you are doing this to taste at the end of the dish. Food really wakes up when it’s properly balanced with the right salt, pepper, acid, etc. To me it’s the difference between a dish that’s talking to you and a dish that sings.

    • I don’t understand why recipe writers think their readers know how much salt to add. They don’t! At least if you give them a guideline there is a starting point.

      I’m with you about what salt adds to a dish. I undersalted for years, and now that I am not afraid to salt, my food tastes a whole lot better.

      • I don’t get it either. But for this book–Marc Vetri’s Mastering Pasta–most of what I have seen so far (and we’re only a bit of the way through testing), it’s salt and pepper to taste. I suppose the assumption is that if you are buying a book like this, you probably have a pretty good handle on how to properly salt and pepper your food. I’m going to ask about this tomorrow….we just had a conversation about different salts recently.

  23. Interesting article and great responses. But one of my pet peaves is when a dash or smidgen of salt needs to be used. This must be a measurement below 1/8th tsp. Though depending on your fingers could be such measurement. What is it?

  24. Thank you Dianne for sharing this very interesting article. I have subscribed to your blog and will be looking forward to your articles. I have shared it on Facebook with a comment, so I won’t be repeating it here. Hope to have your reply there.

    • Hi Ivy, yes I saw the comment before I even read this and replied there. Thank you for becoming a subscriber and sharing my post with your followers. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in future posts.

  25. Point well taken about “seasoning to taste.” That must come at the end, and a good cook usually needs to salt food in layers at different times in cooking process, and yes, I agree, amounts should be given.

    • That is difficult about recipes, to specify using salt in many places. Then we get to the dreaded issue of using the term “divided,” which so many people don’t like.

  26. What a fantastic article. Salt is such a powerful ingredient to cooking and is taken as an afterthought. I love this.

  27. Hi Dianne! You and I have had this salty discussion in the past. In my new e-cookbook, I tackled the issue by listing the amount of salt in the ingredient list AND allowing the reader to use is as needed. For example in my Beef Brisket Stroganoff recipe, the ingredient list includes 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon course black pepper. The instructions call for salt in both the brisket and the sauce directions. The reader decides how much salt to use in slow cooking the brisket and how much to use in making the sauce. My personal preference is to use a small amount during the cooking process and just a bit at the end to finally season the dish. This works for those watching their salt intake and allows for those salty chaps to additionally season at the table.

  28. In my country cookbooks almost never give precise measurements or too much instructions for that matter. It was even worse at the time of my mother and grandmother. That is how people learned how to cook. A recipe is a guideline but it should not prevent you from being creative, experimenting and learning how to season to your taste. Baking is more of an exact science and in that case the salt amount should be specified.

    • True, recipes are guidelines. So specifying the salt is one of the guidelines. People learn to use their own judgement over time.

      Agreed that in baking, you should always specify the salt.

  29. Thank you for your honest comments, I really like them! Salt is a character itself…
    My dear mother, said that salt its also required in dessert, changing just the amount of salt.
    You are mostly right, and you forget to include the universe of differences of kind of salts, raw sea salt, with minerals or not, french people are great to do that! they also include another kind the “salted in advance…” which basically means for example; in case of lamb roast, when sheep or lamb has been growth at the sea side the meat it contains “per se” salt in natural ways, as vegetables does also…

    • Interesting about how the proximity of the sea affects the salt in animal flesh. I did not know that.

      There is a whole other discussion about all the kinds of salt. In the old days, there was just iodized salt from the supermarket. Now we don’t know what readers are using.

      • I just remembered some few minutes ago, when I was a teen ager, my cousin Frank -he is a surgeon in my country now :) – his classic recipe for salt chicken, it is a old recipe I am not sure if its medieval or even ancient Roman, the basic thing is doing a “bed” with some nicest coarse 1 inch thick sea salt, in a oven proof container and placing the whole chicken belly down first 25 minutes at 400 F or so, then turning the chicken another 25 minutes. It is a easy way to get a golden brown light and crispy chicken, believe it or not you will be getting a juicy birth at the end…! You may use pork or tender beef cut for roast also, the method is so ancient… but lovely also…!!!

  30. I love this article, but I do have to debate the issue you have with no measurements for salt in recipes. I come from a family of traditional Italian cooks that never measured anything they prepared and I am now recreating recipes based on my memories and my mother’s notes and comments.

    It is difficult for us as we were trained to season and to taste throughout the cooking process. I explain this issue of salting to my followers that they should season lightly as they cook and alter the dish in it’s final presentation.

    I have few followers who are just learning to cook and their results have been very good and their confidence in their own instinct and sense of taste is growing rapidly.

    Thank you for always sharing the most interesting articles and if you are ever in Southwest Florida, contact me and we will share one of my famiglia’s favorite meal together with a great bottle of wine.

    • This is wonderful to come from a family of cooks. And I like that you are passing this info down to your readers about how to cook, specifically when to salt.

      Recipe writing is not the same as cooking. Cooks can cook without measuring, from instinct or experience. But it is impossible to write a successful recipe where you never measure anything. So if your intent is to be a recipe writer, it comes with the territory to measure, including salt.

      I would love to come to your home and have a family meal! Thanks for the offer. Now I need a reason to be in SW Florida.

  31. Thankfully I have this gift called a cortex, that is linked with a thing called my tongue, and generally I can sort out the salt in my recipes on my own. I mean as a writer, you know that you need to start with an ‘assumption of knowledge’ about your reader. Are you writing for children or adults that know their way around a kitchen? If you want to rant about salt, how about some basic standardization in recipes. What generally can’t be known is what kind of salt the recipe is calibrated from. So regardless of whether they write 1 teaspoon or one tablespoon salt, the recipe won’t be accurate anyway. So you have to taste and sort it out on your own. When i read season to taste in the ingredients list, I log it as it was intended, a mental note. I mean I see getting your blood boiling by injustice, poverty or something important, but salt?

    • I assume the reader is not me, that they have probably never made this recipe before, and that I am giving them every possible tool to succeed. Not specifying the salt is unprofessional, when every other ingredient amount is specified.

      Some people follow recipes slavishly. I was in that camp for many years. Now I use them as starting points. In both these circumstances, I want to know how much salt.

  32. I prefer the “season to taste” approach. When cooking for people I know, I will always respect those who are watching their salt intake and exercise restraint in seasoning.. You can add salt, but not subtract it. If I think a dish should be garnished with a finishing salt like salt flakes, I will specify that. But not everyone will rush out to buy some if they don’t have it, so it pays to mention if it is more a garnish than a seasoning. As for measurements in baking where a little salt is often needed to avoid a bland taste, I will give a guideline such as 1/2 a teaspoon. Not everyone has kitchen scales that can accurately measure a gram or two of salt

    • I hope you mean you use “season to taste” when cooking, not when writing recipes. When cooking you can decide if the amount of salt specified is right and adjust it, most of the time. But if none is specified in the recipe, there’s no guideline as a starting point.

      Yes, most Americans don’t use scales when cooking, so we are stuck with teaspoons.

  33. Yes!!! Thank you for putting into words something that has driven me crazy for years! I agree 100% with every point. Thank you, Dianne!

    I make a point to measure the salt I add when creating recipes, and to specify the type of salt I use. I worry that it may make novice cooks feel overwhelmed with information, but I do it anyway. ;)

    • Thanks Alanna. I don’t think it’s overwhelming to specify an amount and type. Salt is an ingredient just like any other. If readers have strong feelings about how much to use they will adjust the recipe.

  34. Oh Dianne, I am guilty on all four counts! And every time I write, “to taste,” I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help myself, like eating the second chocolate chip cookie when one will suffice! Maybe because salting food is subjective? No telling what my reason(s) are behind it. Ha! It’s certainly no excuse. I can foresee an inexperienced cook over-salting fresh fish because I write, sprinkle with salt and pepper before cooking! A waste of a perfectly good piece of fish (or other protein) if overdone, or not enough. Thanks for the reminder.

    • It’s funny, isn’t it, this hesitation to state a definitive amount of salt. You are not alone, Maureen. You can see that from the comments.

  35. Thanks for the tips (rant) on this topic. Obviously there is are differing views, which it sounds like come from perspective and who the perceived audience is for the recipe — if we believe the end user is experienced there is a looser interpretation of measurements, if we are writing to someone who needs cooking 101 every time, we want to specify.
    I can usually tell how much I’ll need by experience with the salt/ingredients I use regularly, like boullion, bacon, feta, Parmesan, soy sauce — when I read a recipe it is something I add/use by intuition/taste. Your post helped me see I need to be consistent and pay closer attention to when I’m adding it, measuring it, and suggesting a starting point when possible. I have included this as one of the things to watch when editing my cookbook.
    This is helpful, thanks.

    • Hah! Yes it was a rant.I admit it.

      There is a tendency, when writing recipes, to believe that the reader is the same as us in terms of experience. That “everyone knows that.” It’s typical of experts to believe this. But they don’t. Just as they need specific amounts of other ingredients, they need specific amounts of salt.

  36. Dianne, I agree that most home cooks want very specific amounts given in a recipe, including salt. In my cooking classes, the type of salt (sea, kosher, etc.) to be used is always a major topic. I assume we’re talking about cooking vs. baking where the amount of salt is very important. In some cases, a specified amount of salt to be used at the beginning of a recipe is advised; however, toward the end of a recipe, especially sauces, stews, vinaigrettes, soups, etc. I think a cook should “salt until it tastes right” (salt, taste, salt, taste). I find that the amount of salt between my index finger and thumb is probably much less, but does the trick, than an amount specified in a recipe. I encourage my students to use their palate as an indicator. It is important to be aware of other ingredients that affect the saltiness of a dish (cheese, capers, olives, bacon). That information can be included in a recipe’s notes or description. Just looked over the recipes I’m using tonight for an egg class, and not a one, except for aioli, give a specific amount of salt. Just my thoughts.

    • I love that you are teaching them about salt and how to cook, vs. just following a recipe.

      It’s one thing when you are there with your students to guide them on how to salt and when. But when they take that recipe home, and there’s no salt in it, what will happen 6 months from now when they make it? Will they remember to salt? And if they don’t, will the recipe disappoint them and they’ll never make it again?

      I’m still of the opinion that, in your printed recipes, you should put in an amount of salt as a guideline. You have done your work in class about how, why and whether to adjust it, so they can deal with it.

  37. Dianne, I think you’re totally right with asking for a clarified amount of salt in a recipe. I brooded over a new recipe from a magazine last weekend, trying to find the right amount of salt to use. As it involved raw minced meat I wasn’t inclined to tase the dish before it was properly cooked. I looked up some similar dishes in other books and magazines, but couldn’t find a single one with a stated amount of salt. Didn’t like that at all.

  38. Clearly, you’ve struck a nerve here! As a home cook, I’m always annoyed when there isn’t any guidance on how much salt. Recipes written by chefs sometimes do this and I can only imagine it’s because chefs have been trained to know how to salt and when to salt. The home cooks haven’t! I always like a specified amount and type since results can vary widely from one type to another.

    Often in my recipes I list “kosher salt” generically in the ingredient list when it needs to be added at various points in the recipe. For example, if you’re going to mash some salt together with garlic early in the recipe, I will include how much in the methods text (“mash 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt into the garlic to form a paste”) and then later in the recipe I’ll once again specify how much to add (“add 1/2 teaspoon of salt into the broth…”). This is especially true for recipes with components. Sometimes, I will list the amount and let the reader know it’s added at different times: 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided.

    Thanks again for bringing up this hot topic!

    • I rarely buy chef books because I find the recipes too fussy or opulent most of the time. I’m surprised to read that they leave salt out as well. I’ve always found restaurant food too salty, so you’d think there’d be tons of salt in chef recipes.

      It’s fine to list salt generically when you’ll be using it multiple times, because the method specifies how much at each stage.

  39. It’s reassuring to hear a professional editor and recipe writer say that “salt to taste” is a bad idea. That’s always been one of my worst pet peeves about recipes. Thanks for making it official, Dianne.

  40. There are so many variables at play, not the least of which is how sensitive people are to salt. I often cook with my friend Hank who has a high tolerance for salt and chili peppers. I’m yelling, “too salty!” while he thinks it’s perfect. And we are both experienced cooks. Now, add to that the type of salt. We use kosher salt. Most home cooks use table salt. Which will throw things off. Finally, there’s the inherent saltiness of certain ingredients, like chicken stock. I almost always use my homemade chicken stock which is not salted. Most of my readers use boxed or canned stock, which is salted.

    I give a guideline when I can, for example, 1 teaspoon of Kosher salt, more or less to taste.

    But “to taste” is critical. It’s important to train people to taste their food while they’re cooking it, and to develop a sense of the balance of sweet, sour, acid, bitter, salt in they are cooking. I have no problem saying “to taste” in the ingredient list, especially if salt is the last item on the list. It’s easier than saying, “optional, add 1/4 teaspoon to 2 teaspoons, depending on the type of salt you are using, how salty you like your foods, and if you are using salted chicken stock in this recipe”

    • True, we can’t know how readers will alter our recipes, or how much salt each person likes.

      Elise, since your readers use boxed or can stock, you might consider using it too, to give you a more accurate depiction of what they will make. Same with table salt.

      The problem is that sounds like heresy: we don’t want to cook like that, much less eat the results. We are not our readers!

      Re “salt to taste,” it still doesn’t make sense to me in the ingredients list. Most publishers will strike it. But the beauty of blogs is that you can do your own thing.

      • Oh, I think I would rather just continue to link my stock ingredient to my post on how to make stock. And I would rather specify Kosher salt to encourage people to cook with it instead of table salt.

        • Oh right, your stock recipe is online. Re kosher salt, well, you can try! Kosher salt is available in the supermarket, so it’s not something exotic.

  41. I’ve not read other comments. An important point to recognize is that 99 percent of recipes mean table salt when they call for salt, unless kosher salt is specified.
    We all know the difference in sodium content between the two, varies widely.

    • Yes, agreed. It’s what most people use. I didn’t know about the range of sodium until I read it in one of the comments. I was surprised.

  42. Me again. Bottom line for me: You can always add more salt to taste, but you can’t take it away if the dish is too salty. That’s why I think “salt to taste” makes sense. See Mark Bittman’s book “How to Cook Everything–The Basics”, page 13, a short paragraph entitled “What Does Taste and Adjust the Seasoning Mean?

    • I don’t have a problem with “season to taste” if it’s at the end of the recipe and if the writer has already specified an amount of salt in the ingredients list.

  43. […] 5 mistakes people make with salt in recipes. […]

  44. Guilty as charged. Good advice.

  45. Oh dear Dean of Internet Food Writing, I am a guilty of “Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black/white pepper.” But, you know what, I wholeheartedly embrace it. I do call for measurements of salt with rice and grits, but nothing else in the savory category, only in baking and pastry. However, I also season throughout the dish and always tells folks to taste and adjust for seasoning just before serving. I know I am the expert, as you say, but I think salt can be a very personal decision. And, I am a heavy salter so I leave it to my dear readers. Once again, thanks for your insightfulness and stimulating thoughts. Best VA

    • I think it’s fine to have generic salt and pepper in the ingredients list IF you tell people how much to use throughout the recipe. I think you do that, right? Is that what you’re saying, young lady?

      Salting is definitely a personal decision. That’s why you give people a guideline and they go from there.

  46. I will admit I am guilty of this myself when I create recipes. I absolutely see what you are talking about. I have not thought about how much salt is needed and have ended up putting to much salt in. It is definitely something that needs to be addressed. :-)

    • Yes, there is a general reluctance to be precise in recipes when it comes to salt. Happy to help. Good luck straightening it out, Susan.

  47. I agree with most of your post, but I think as recipe writers, we should be more forceful about the amounts of salt in our recipes and not give the reader the freedom to oversalt things.

    According to the CDC, Americans eat too much salt, and it’s causing diseases, lowering the wellbeing and life expectancy of many people. (http://www.cdc.gov/features/dssodium/) And it’s not just Americans, many Europeans eat too much salt as well — at least according to the newspaper article I read a couple of years ago. That said, I’ve developed salad dressings and measured and tasted margarines as a job and I’ve found that products for the American market typically had 3-4 times more salt than their European counterparts simply because that was the flavor profile for the American market. It’s time for everyone in the world to start eating less salt and become healthier together.

    • Agreed, particularly if people eat a diet of processed food. I’ve read that if you make most of your food, you’ll use less salt. But apparently we are still using more than Europeans. Good point.

  48. Dianne!

    I am guilty of using too much salt when I cook. I know that in the long run this could be harmful to my health so I’ve recently been trying to season my meals with different types of seasoning like mixed pepper, and herbs like coriander. So far so good – I found this article helpful, thank you!

    • That sounds like a good idea in general. However, the amount of salt you use is not that relevant to recipe writing. It’s all about whether you specify how much and when.

  49. Guilty.
    I have listed the plain word, ‘Salt’ in my ingredient list.

    And when in the method, I have mentioned “add a pinch of salt” it was because that’s how I learned to cook from the women in my family. I don’t think I have ever measured salt (or pepper for that matter) in my life, during cooking.

    But you’re right, if we’re writing recipes and sharing it for others, albeit a family legacy, we should be able to make it accessible to any reader. The Italian recipes I share on my blog are my way of telling a story. One that I’d like anyone interested to read. If readers need quantities, I probably should force myself to list them. Anyone know how much sea salt is in a pinch?

    Sprinkle vs season I did not know about. I imagined both to mean the same thing, not that one implied “tasting.”
    Grazie!

    • Don’t be too hard on yourself. A pinch is a measurement. The question now is whether it is the correct amount, since you use it as the default.

  50. OH, Dianne. You are so right. I totally have made this mistake too. I have had so much difference of opinion about how salty things are that I take the easy way out. Besides that, I “salt to taste” too often when I am creating recipes. Why is it that everything else seems so definite? Even 3 grinds of a pepper mill is easier to commit to.

  51. I think you make a valid point, and I am sad to say that I fell in this category of “salt to taste” – seriously you have opened my eyes, because I agree with you 100% – THANK YOU haha ;) Now I am going to be very aware of this.

    xo
    kristin nicole

  52. I tend to agree with all of your points, but then I struggle with recipes intended for more than one national audience. For instance a typical can of tomatoes here in the UK has no salt, whereas I notice they do in the US (and beans, etc are always a lot saltier too). If I call for a can of tomatoes plus 1 teaspoon of salt in a recipe, that would be okay here but may be over the top there. I’m not sure what the best way to go about writing recipes is in these cases. I think Americans generally are more accepting of over salted food, so perhaps it’s less an issue than I imagine?

    • Hmm, that’s a good one. I guess if the majority of your audience is in the UK, you have to go with what they buy and use. YWhile salted vegetables is the norm in canned food here, usually there’s 1 can of unsalted tomatoes on the shelf. I suppose it would be inelegant to put (unsalted) in the ingredients list, since that is the default in the UK.

      I’m not sure if the US is more accepting of salty foods in the UK, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

  53. […] Food, while on vacation! More recently she interviewed me on cooking smarter, and after discussing my rant on not specifying the amount of salt in recipes,  she wrote this feature article: ‘Salt to taste,’ taken with a grain of regret. […]

  54. FYI, Dianne: I am now including a link to this post in pretty much all my cookbook style sheets. Thank you thank you thank you!!

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