When is the best time to add salt?

Salting food

Watch almost any cooking show or chef's demonstration and you are likely to hear an admonition to season in stages - that is, you should use salt throughout the cooking process instead of just adding salt at the end. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats decided to put this theory to the test, cooking a complex recipe in two different ways. He made Hearty escarole and Parmesan soup, seasoning one batch as he went along and adding the salt all at once, near the end of cooking, in the other. In both batches he used the same amount of salt. In addition to the soup, Kenji cooked potatoes in salted vs. unsalted water and pieces of beef in salted vs. unsalted broth.

The verdict? If you are cooking a starch or meat in liquid, you should salt beforehand or the food won't pick up the flavor. However, for more complex dishes, "there's no real need to salt until the very end." One caveat: for those who taste as they go, salting throughout allows you to balance other flavors as well. As Kenji notes, "one factor that seasoning at the end ignores: when I cook, I generally like to taste things as I go and make adjustments as necessary. Do I need a bit more lemon rind in there? Is that sauce acidic enough? Without having at least a base level of salt in the mix, it's difficult to detect other flavors and adjust accordingly."

Will this finding change how you season when you're cooking?

Photo by J. Kenji López-Alt

5 Comments

  • ellabee  on  5/15/2014 at 2:37 PM

    Nope. I learned through early experience that salt needs to be added to cooking liquid before the food goes in, and have finally in recent years become a taste-as-you-go cook. But it's good to know that undersalting can be repaired at the end in many cases.

  • hillsboroks  on  5/16/2014 at 2:35 PM

    My mother-in-law went on a no-salt fad diet many years ago. When we had holiday dinners at her house everything was cooked with absolutely no salt and you had to add your own at the table if you wanted it. I always thought that this made no sense. The food was incredibly bland with no salt but when you added table salt at the table it always seemed that you were putting on a lot more salt to get the flavor right than would have been needed if a little salt had been added during cooking. I was sure that my salt intake for any of her dishes was far exceeded what a normal cooked dish would have been. I have always tended toward adding a moderate amount of salt during cooking but not salting too heavily so that all family and friends can all enjoy whatever I am making and letting individuals adjust for their own tastes. I haven't had any complaints so far. Several years ago a new restaurant opened up in our town that had a chef that believed more salt was better. Everything that came out of that kitchen was so salty you couldn't taste much else. We complained and were told that the saltiness was just the chef's style. We weren't surprised when they closed a few months later.

  • Cubangirl  on  5/18/2014 at 3:05 PM

    My mother also went to a no salt diet and I too found myself using more salt at the table than ever before. I do salt as I go along especially for onions and veggies. Since I switched to kosher salt, I use less salt overall. I seldom need to add salt at the end. One of my pet peeves is folks that add salt and pepper at the table without tasting first (whether at my home or in restaurants.) I stopped this with my in-laws by not putting salt at the table, then bringing it after they've taken a taste. Pleased to say that they don't salt and pepper as often as they used to do anywhere.

  • adrienneyoung  on  5/18/2014 at 3:50 PM

    A few years ago (bless you, Judy Rogers!) I started to salt (not brine) roasting chickens, steaks, pot roasts and other such things a day or three before roasting or grilling or braising. I always wash off the excess before cooking and I *believe* (no, have not tested) that it makes For less salt in the dish at the end, and a far more savory outcome on the plate. So I think the salt ahead rule is a very important one, and certainly for more than just meats cooked in liquid.

  • Rinshin  on  5/19/2014 at 6:09 PM

    No, sorry I don't see this. It is one person's opinion of taste. For example, it is a standard practice to salt most fish before cooking and letting them sit for at least 15-30 minutes to draw out the unpleasant fishiness out. The fish are wiped before cooking. Mot meat are always salted ahead of time too but not wiped. I can tell the flavor of unsalted pasta versus salted pasta (cooked with salt in water) without any sauce.

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