How To Save Dinner from a Salt-Astrophe

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I love the ocean. Cool, seaweed-scented breezes roll off turquoise waves, coaxing up goose bumps on your sun-soaked limbs and surprising your sinuses as if you were just taking your first breath. The thing is, as much as I love seeing, or feeling, or smelling the ocean, I definitely do not want to EAT the ocean. We’ve all experienced salt shaker betrayal, when the little cap falls right off and into the frying pan. Or we added a few shakes too many to the pot. A minute ago dinner seemed right on track. Then you go to test taste, and the whole thing smacks of Poseidon’s underarm. What now?

Don’t order that pizza just yet. There are a few culinary first aid answers for exactly this type of snafu.

home chef the table how-to salt recipe
this is salt.

Step 1: Take stock of the situation

First things first: remove excess salt. Scoop out whatever salt has not yet dissolved into your dish. Sounds obvious, but speed is key here, since you’re trying to get as much salt out as you can before it completely blends into the dish.

Removed the dry salt? Fabulous. Now, before you start scurrying for next-step solutions, you need to categorize the problem. Is this a case of soup/stew, veggies, or an essentially dry dish (like stir fry or skirt steak)? We’ll start with the trickiest fix: dry dishes.

Too salty “dry” dishes

No, I’m not calling your pork chop overcooked. By “dry” I just mean that you aren’t boiling the dish in a liquid or steaming a food that gives off a lot of water, like veggies. For these dishes, you have two options: (1) dilute or (2) balance.

Diluting is your most effective option, but will mean making a lot more food than you originally intended. If you’re cool with leftovers, this is your best choice. Add an absorbent ingredient, like additional rice, quinoa, pasta, or cauliflower and stir until the new food is evenly distributed throughout the dish. The extra food will help spread the salt out a bit so that it’s not as concentrated. You can also accomplish this with a fatty ingredient, like nut butter, sour cream, or coconut oil–just make sure the flavors you add pair well with the flavors you already have.

If making more food isn’t an option, you can try to balance the flavors in the dish. Some sources will tell you to add acids, like lemon juice or vinegar, which does not make much scientific sense, since acids usually intensify our perception of salt (think of salt & vinegar potato chips). What you can add is a little bit of sugar, which does counterbalance salt. Remember that this technique cannot diminish the saltiness of the dish; it just evens out your perception of the salty flavor with your perception of other flavors. This is the culinary equivalent of covering up an eyeliner mistake with a thicker, more dramatic eyeliner pattern. For this technique, it is particularly important to taste test as you go so that you don’t end up with an overpowering, Franken-flavored dish.

Save the veggies!

Does your steamed spinach taste like a mermaid bouquet? No worries. If you act quickly, this one is an easy fix.

Drain the extant liquid from the pot/pan, then refill it (along with the veggies) with fresh water, let it sit for a minute to absorb the salt, and then drain this liquid too. Finally, pour an unsalted liquid (water, milk, unsalted broth, etc) into the pot/pan with your veggies–just enough to cover the bottom of the pan–and cook this out over the stove. Chances are, your veggies may still be a little saltier than usual, but the amount of salt will be significantly reduced.

For briny soups/stews

Of any over-salted dish, this kind has the best chance at recovery.

If it makes sense to do so, drain the salty liquids from the soup or stew. Obviously, draining won’t work for something like tomato soup, but it could be the right choice if you’re working with something like a chunky potato stew. If you drain your liquids, you can then essentially start over with the same solid ingredients and fresh, unsalted liquid.

If draining isn’t an option, you’re going to have to go the dilution route. Be prepared–this will mean making a lot more soup than you originally intended. The good news is that soup generally holds up really well when refrigerated and reheated as leftovers. Your first step is to add a neutral liquid (water, broth, milk, cream, etc) to the soup. To absorb even more of the salt, you can incorporate additional servings of starches, like rice or pasta.

Some tips for next time

  • Salt like a seasoned chef. Pro chefs know better than to shake salt straight into a dish. Instead, the best method is to pour a little salt into your hand first and then empty it into the dish with your fingers. This way, you can feel exactly how much salt is going into the food.
  • Taste test often! Sampling your meal throughout the cooking process is the only surefire way to keep track of the flavors in your dish, and it’s a great excuse to do a little snacking.
  • Know when to start over. If the salt overload is severe, it’s better to throw the ruined food out and start afresh than to add a bunch of ingredients and end up making four times as much food that still tastes awful. Accidents happen. Learn to forgive yourself and keep going.

Don’t be duped by the potato myth

At some point in your cooking exploits, someone has probably recommended that you add a potato to soak up excess salt in your food. Despite the popularity of this advice, the science just doesn’t hold up. Adding potatoes can help thin out the concentration of the salt (just like adding pasta), but it won’t miraculously vacuum the salt up for you.

There you have it. I hope knowing some go-to kitchen solutions frees you up to experiment a little more with your seasonings. Remember, a mistake is just another step toward success. Try these tips today with this week’s recipes.