The Scoop on Salt and Cooking for Your Family

flaky sea salt in a red dish

The Scoop on Salt and Cooking for Your Family

For such a basic ingredient, salt can be awfully confusing. I’ve rounded up answers to the questions I hear most about cooking with salt for families, including whether it’s okay for babies to have salt and which types of salt are the best to use. After reading this blog post hopefully you’ll feel more confident about using salt to make your cooking more delicious.

Why are you so obsessed with salt? 

When I was in culinary school, the first thing I learned was to taste everything before serving it. The second thing I learned was that salt is the most important ingredient in the kitchen. Like many people, I thought of salt as something to use sparingly. That it was unhealthy or that using more of it would make my food taste unpleasantly salty. But, I learned quickly that using the right amount of salt made everything taste better, more like itself. I am now a salt evangelist. Using enough of it and the right type can radically improve your cooking. And I want your food to be delicious!

What type of salt should I cook with?
When you go to the grocery store these days there are approximately a zillion different types of salt to choose from (give or take). For cooking, buy kosher salt or fine sea salt. Table salt just doesn’t taste as good! It has a more chemical-y aftertaste. I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt. It straddles the line between coarse and fine, has a clean taste, and is easy to pick up with my fingers when I’m seasoning. If you can’t find Diamond Crystal, Morton’s is fine, but use ONLY HALF of what a recipe that calls for kosher salt instructs. Morton’s is considerably saltier. You can always add more salt if you think your dish needs it.

Note to Diamond Crystal fans—the brand has new packaging! It’s on the right. Don’t look for the iconic red box anymore.

Two boxes of Diamond Crystal kosher salt

Do I really need a second type of salt?
YES. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. You need a finishing salt. This may seem like a fancy-schmancy ingredient that regular people (like us!) don’t need for everyday cooking. But, we do. A flaky sea salt like Maldon, my fave, comes in big crystals, photo below, and you can crush it with your fingers and sprinkle it on anything that needs a pop of flavor and texture. I use it to finish grilled and roasted meat and veggies, on pasta and salads, on baked goods like cookies and brownies, on anything that tastes a little meh. Nine times out of ten, finishing salt makes them sing. I keep a cellar of Maldon on the table, and so should you. I am convinced that using a finishing salt is the single easiest thing you can do to upgrade your cooking. There are lots of other finishing salts out there, and if you prefer another, go for it.

What about pink Himalayan salt?
I have tried to figure out why this salt is so popular. If you know or love it, please message me on Instagram and tell me why! It makes a fine finishing salt, but it is not meant to be measured out and used in a recipe.

Can babies have salt?
The official recommendation is no salt for babies before age 1 since babies’ kidneys aren’t mature enough to handle high levels of sodium. But, it turns out that the question about babies and salt is also complicated. First, like all humans, babies need some sodium in their diets; it is an essential nutrient. And some experts argue that there is little evidence for limiting salt for babies. Since I tend to err on the side of caution, here’s what I and Natalia Stasenko, the pediatric dietitian I worked with on Real Baby Food and Baby-Led Feeding, recommend:

  • If you’re cooking only for baby, omit the salt from recipes.
  • If you’re cooking a family meal that baby will share, either lightly salt it or omit the salt and let everyone else salt at the table. (It won’t taste as good; sorry!)
  • Balance it out. Maybe baby is self-feeding some shredded cheese or there’s a teaspoon or two of soy sauce in a family recipe they’re sharing. That’s okay. Just make sure the rest of the food they eat that day is sodium-free.

When should I salt food?
If you aren’t cooking for baby, early and often! Now, that doesn’t mean use a LOT early and often. But, your food probably needs more salt than you think. Generously salt pasta water and water for boiling vegetables (except potatoes); it should taste almost as salty as the sea. If you’re boiling potatoes, salt the water a little less since the potatoes absorb more of the liquid than, say, broccoli. If you’re stir-frying, sprinkle on a light layer of salt after each ingredient you add. When you’re cooking meat, give it a good, even sprinkle of salt before cooking and a pinch of finishing salt before serving.

How do I know when I’ve used enough salt?
Your food is salted enough when it tastes good. And by good, I mean good to you. You might prefer more or less salt than I do or than whoever wrote the recipe you’re following. This gets back to the first lesson I learned in culinary school—always taste your food before serving. And if you know you prefer food on the less salty side, don’t add quite as much as the recipe calls for. You can always add more, but you can’t take it away.

Wait, isn’t salt unhealthy? 
Like many things nutrition-related, it’s complicated. Experts tell us that Americans eat too much salt. I guess that’s true? What I know is true is that the vast majority of salt the average American eats comes from ultra-processed and restaurant food, especially fast food. If you are cooking most of your meals at home, you will automatically be consuming much less sodium, even if you salt your food properly. (If your doctor has told you to watch your sodium, obviously listen to them, not me!)

What does salt have to do with picky eating? 
Using salt strategically can also help you and your family eat more healthfully. Ever tried an unsalted brussels sprout? Or an under-salted kale salad? Thumbs down. Salt tames bitterness and makes vegetables much more appealing, like in this easy broccoli recipe. Now, if you have a kid who won’t look at anything green, sprinkling on some salt is probably not going to help. But if you have a kid who is starting to be more open, make sure that first brussels sprout they taste is as good as it can be by sprinkling it with some of that Maldon you bought. (Drizzle on some butter or olive oil, too, for good measure!) Salt will also encourage the adults at the table to eat their veggies with gusto, which eventually may help prompt kids to be open to them.

If you’d like even MORE info about salt (including what it means to “salt to taste”) or to see a short video I made about how I use salt in my kitchen, check out this article I wrote for Real Simple.

Jenna Helwig