Reason for Not Eating Out #17: Because You Can Salt to Your Taste

There’s a beautifully vague term found frequently in recipes: “Add salt to taste.” Or perhaps, “Salt and pepper to taste.” Usually hidden at the end of a recipe like an unwelcome guest, these tiny words go against the grain of everything that a recipe is — suggesting freedom, not followership, discernment, not exactitude, you, not them. But who could deny its importance to cooking?

Recently, I dined out in New Jersey for my father’s birthday. My family had chosen a new restaurant whose forte was simple yet elegant North Italian fare. So curious/nervous/excited I was about eating out, I barely ate lunch that day. While crossing the Hudson River on the train, I could hear my stomach growl, eagerly awaiting what surprises it might soon be filled with. When we arrived at the restaurant and took our table, everything was just as proper as I had expected. The waitress took our wine to be chilled (it was BYOB), the dishes on the menu sounded succulent. There were Venetian carnival masks on the walls, and the tables were dressed with understated polish. Everything was just right — the service, the meal. Except: It was just a tad too salty.

I first detected this in their fresh tomato bruschetta. But this could happen easily, I shrugged — you let the tomatoes sit for a while, saturating in seasoning, and it’s another league of saltiness in no time. Then my main course arrived, sea scallops in a thin white wine sauce with chopped tender asparagus and tomatoes. I sopped up a bit of the pale golden sauce with a stub of asparagus. I continued to the scallops, which were seared lightly and salted… heavily. There was no mistaking it now. It wasn’t horribly salty, mind you. It certainly wasn’t enough reason to send the dish back to the chef (though I doubt I would ever dare do this in my life). It was just this little nagging, annoying thing, though I still liked the dish enough to finish every bite.

Incidentally I also finished my ice water — twice. I’ve always thought my palate to have a high tolerance towards salt and spice — I’ll take salty over sweet any day. But for those with extra-sensitive palates, something like this could make or break a meal, rather than merely annoy it. And what to do if the dish isn’t salty enough? If it’s bland? Salt shakers on dinner tables are rare at any restaurant slightly more elegant than a diner, and at upscale establishments, it’s almost a crime to ask for one.

I can kind of see why, now, Gordon Ramsay hollered the way he did at the contestants of Hell’s Kitchen when it came to seasoning. As I rode the train back to New York that night — and, consequently, to not eating out — I wished I’d taken just one more sip of water. The dryness in my mouth intensified with each chug of the car. It wasn’t the spectacular quality of the food, but its minor imperfection that had managed to last well after the meal was finished.

11 Responses

  1. Mrs.W

    Wow–there’s nothing worse than an over-salted dish! It really does ruin the restaurant experience. Sounds like the chef is just a bit heavy-handed with the salt.

    Everyone has a different idea of how salty is too much. But I think at a restaurant they have to be very careful to find that balance. Not to mention consideration for any patrons who need to control sodium intake.

  2. LM

    I completely agree, salt is overused at way too many resturaunts. It’s a pet peeve of mine and a great reason to cook at home.Once you start noticing and tracking how much salt is in things (for health reasons,etc.) you realize you could do with much less.I’m very sensitve to salt and once I started buying low salt foods, like cheese, crackers or even ketchup,I got used to them and hardly stand the “regular” versions anymore. I hardly use any salt in my cooking (except potatoes, they always need some)and if anyone doesn’t like it, I hand them the shaker.

  3. cath

    My hand is up too…salt is way overused and a lot of people are just not aware of how much they are consuming. As we have a farm, and a lot of our food is cooked at home, we buy very little in the way of ‘made’ or ‘convenience’ foods, which means we are not exposed to huge quantities of salt on a regular basis. It almost ruins the thrill of going out when we know the flavours of the dish should be fab…if only we could get over the saltiness.

    For some reason though, i still l can’t get enough salt on my potato chips. go figure!

  4. Chewy

    I’d like to defend restaurants by saying that a professional cook’s palate is trained to tolerate more salt. (An interesting fact: A person’s salt palate can be changed in about a three month period). If you are accustomed to a low-sodium diet, then it’s your responsibility as a diner to alert your server and the chef about this.

    Also, it bothers me when recipes say to season at the end – as using salt at the end of a recipe yields different (and less delicious) results than salting at the beginning or along the way.

  5. Jennifer

    Interestingly enough, I have a pretty sensitive to salt tongue. I don’t really like it at all, and tend to leave it out of recipes, though I always buy the ordinary canned beans.

    A few days ago, I decided to cook DRY beans in my new pressure cooker. The recipe called for salt and LOTS of different spices.. it was an authentic Indian recipe. I left the salt out. With almost a half cup of various spices, I thought it wasn’t necessary.

    After cooking it, I took a great big spoonful… it was so BLAND! I couldn’t believe it. I ate for a while trying to figure out what went wrong, when I realized that there was NO salt at all in it! (Usually I would use presalted beans). I put in 1/4 of what the recipe called for… and perfection. Instantly, all of the other spices brightened up.

    In general, restaurants are WAY too salty, though. I’ve learned to avoid things in a butter sauce (for health as well as salt), and (sadly) to avoid garlic dishes… both generally have WAY too much salt for some reason.

  6. cathy

    Wow, I’m amazed to hear all the differing sides to the restaurants’-use-of-salt debate. The palate is such an individual little detector!

  7. MaLo

    Hi! Stumbling on your website was one of these moments when I hit my forehead and think “Damn! Why didn’t I think of doing this myself?!” I am a home cook myself and went to the restaurant yesterday for my birthday and I regreated it! The wait was crazy, the place packed, the waiter not so pleasant, the food not impressive and way too salty and of course the bill up the roof. I hate to admit it but I really sound like my mother now: “Why going to restaurants when it tastes better at home?”


  8. […] anything with a kick — you can adjust the spice to your preferred level (and, not to mention, the salt). Just taste as you cook, the hot version of this jam is actually […]

  9. Melinda

    I didn’t realize how much salt is used in Chinese food until I tried to make Chinese food at home. My food in comparison was bland.

  10. […] Lately, though, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with restaurant meals in general. Aside from the expense, most are mediocre and unmemorable. Cooking for oneself is a luxury because you can always make everything to your own taste! […]

  11. weight eating

    weight eating

    Reason for Not Eating Out #17: Because You Can Salt to Your Taste » Not Eating Out in New York

Leave a Reply