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Is Restaurant Food Too Salty?


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In a discussion of a well known restaurant in New York - several diners remarked that the food was too salty. Which brought up the issue of whether restaurants - in general - tend to oversalt their food. I am in the camp which believes that an awful lot of restaurant food is oversalted. And I'm talking about restaurants of all types - and at all price levels. In fact - some of the most expensive food I've ever eaten has also been the most oversalted (although the 2 most expensive places I've dined at in recent years - Per Se and Alain Ducasse in New York - did not oversalt their food IMO).

Now what do I mean by oversalted? I mean that the dominant flavor in a dish is salt. I mean that after I dine - I wake up at 3 am dying of thirst - I call it "New Orleans mouth" (because - apart from raw oysters - I always found it difficult to get a meal in New Orleans that wasn't hideously oversalted). I mean that when I weigh myself the next morning - I've put on 2 pounds in water weight - which is gone by the next morning after a day of normal eating.

Note that when I'm at a fine restaurant - I generally eat the food as the chef prepares it. I don't add salt - or pepper - or anything else. But - increasingly - I have been forced to tell a kitchen ahead of time to lay off the pre-serving salting before serving my food. If I think the food isn't salty enough - I will add salt. So far - I've never had to do that. I thought at some point that perhaps I was oversensitive to salt - but I ate in Japan for almost 3 weeks this year - a country where a lot of food has a reputation for being salty - and never once found the food as salty as the food I've encountered in the US.

I am a pretty decent home cook - and although I do not use most heavily salted prepared foods when I cook at home - I would say our diet is moderate in terms of salt intake (taking into account recommended daily allowances). For example - I don't hesitate to use a lot of cheese when I make pesto.

Now there were opposing points of view expressed. For example:

The problem with the general public these days is that they dont know what properly seasoned food should taste like.  the critical sin is not occuring in restaurants, it is occuring at home where no one uses salt properly.  these leads everyone to believe when they eat at restaurants that properly seasoned foods are overseasoned. 

Substituting herbs and spices is not seasoning food, it is merely adding another level to the overall flavor... 

So what do you think? Is the food at the restaurants you eat at oversalted? What do you do about it? Feel free to name names of places where you think the food was too salty - not salty enough - or just right. Robyn

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I totally agree with you ... it seems to be feast or famine (pardon the pun) when it comes to salt. Chili's and Outback Steakhouse are for me guilty of the heavy-handed salting where I've often asked the server simply to leave the pitcher of water because the food is that salty. I generally like what Panera's serves, but their soups are to my palate way too salty. In fact, I mentioned this to my mom one time (who frequents Panera occasionally, too) and now she notices the salt as well.

And although having too little salt can show a lack of skill (especially in fine restaurants), at least I can adjust the seasoning to my taste.

Then again, we learn from what we see ... how many people grew up in households where a parent or grandparent or uncle always added extra salt to food before even tasting it? I know many people that do that to this day and it drives me bonkers.

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I would say that about 5% of our restaurant meals is a dish too salty for my taste (I find that ramen, at Momofuku for example, tends to be a dish that gets too salty).

I find that about 50% of the time, the food tends to not be seasoned correctly (i.e. undersalted prior to or during cooking). IMO, there's no way to make up for food not being seasoned correctly prior to cooking (for example, salting a steak or a burger or a fish fillet) or during cooking, say in a braise.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Proper seasoning of food is probably one of the most difficult things to master as one is preparing food for many different palates. It will be impossible to please everyone, though I agree that it is easier to add salt than take it away. I also find that the more salt I use, the more I need to use. It is rare for me though to find oversalted food, but when I do, I consider the dish as ruined.

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I find it to be a a mixed bag, some places too salty, some not, but they're usually consistent - a place that's too salty for me is generally always too salty. (I usually assume the chef is a smoker.) And in these places, if I return, I always ask them to make the food less salty.

I also eat a reduced-salt diet. I'm not as strict as I should be, but one thing I notice is that cold-cuts are frequently so salty that I have to spit them out. And on two occasions I've had to return smoked fish to the store where I got it, one case being a piece of whitefish so salty that it burned and stung my mouth and I had to spit it out.

I guess it's what you're used to, though. When I was just out of college (many, many years ago) I had an older friend (sort of a mentor) who used to cook dinner for many people every night (we were in the theater business), and I would help him cook. He'd put a large batch of something up in the afternoon to cook, and of course he'd salt it liberally when he started. Then, he'd come back to taste it every half-hour or so as it cooked, and each and every time, time he'd decide it needed more salt, and add a heaping hand-full. (He was a heavy smoker, btw.) By the time a dinner for 10 was done, he'd have put several cups of salt in it! A lot of times, when we sat down to eat, many people would still think it needed salt; it was then and there that I personally learned that rather than have my food absorb tons of salt in cooking, I always take some out, cook it down rapidly to taste it concentrated, and if it needs salt, add a little bit to see if that corrects it. If it does, I let the dish cook without it, opting to salt it at the end - this works just fine, and probably results in clearer flavors, too. For me the little bit of salt at the end does the trick and is perfectly satisfying, and certainly cuts down on our consumption.

But if restaurant food is sometimes too salty for me, I'm sure it woudn't be for my old friend Mr. Salt.

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i also think restaurant food is hit or miss with the salting. they either hit, really, really hard with the salt or miss the plate entirely!

my most recent job was at a restaurant that pushed the limits of saltiness. it is typical of this chef's cuisine to have very strong flavors in general. i have noticed that i have adopted this method and have been salting my food very strongly as well.

my husband thinks it is an asian thing to notice saltiness at a restaurant, as if this is what makes it a good or bad restaurant...he seems to notice that when someone asks how the food is, the asian person will reply with "oh, the food isn't salty enough" or more likely "the food is too salty there". if i think about it (and all of the asians i know, including my family) i tend to agree.

overall, i think chain restaurants tend to oversalt because most of their food is mass produced in a factory somewhere. the meat is probably already cooked and the source of the raw product is probably pumped full of saline to maintain moisture and flavor (like markk mentioned with deli meats that are packaged). scary to think what else is in the food, regardless of what a junk food junkie i am.

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IMO, there's no way to make up for food not being seasoned correctly prior to cooking (for example, salting a steak or a burger or a fish fillet) or during cooking, say in a braise.

I agree, and would add a few points:

First, proper salting of many dishes requires the addition of salt before, during and at the end of cooking. Salt added at each of these phases has a different effect on the final flavor of the food. If you take one teaspoon of salt and add it to a stew at the end of cooking, it will not taste the same as if you divided that teaspoon into thirds and added a third before, during and after cooking.

Second, it's very difficult to perceive accurately how much salt is in a dish, because salt has different ways of combining with food throughout the cooking process. I've had plenty of food that didn't taste all that salty, but the next-day bloating test revealed that it actually was; and vice-versa.

Third, one's palate becomes acclimated to a certain degree of saltiness. I've found almost uniformly, for example, that the food in restaurants in France is overtly saltier than in the United States. At my first few meals on a trip to France, all the food tastes really salty, then I adjust. When I return to the United States, everything tastes undersalted until I readjust. Likewise, people who eat low salt diets at home perceive restaurant food as too salty, whereas people who eat a lot of salt at home don't as much.

Fourth, it's common knowledge in the restaurant business that customers react well to as much fat, sugar and salt as can be packed into a dish. For most consumers, the reason restaurant food tastes better to them than the food they eat at home is because it has more salt, is made with more cooking fat and has more sweet components (including white sugar more often than people think) than people are likely to use at home. This is the same reason a lot of people like processed snack foods better than home cooking, Big Macs better than homemade hamburgers, etc. Restaurants know they need to pump it up to industrial levels of fat, sugar and salt in order to compete for the attention of the average consumer's palate.

Fifth, I dine out quite a bit and can remember only a handful of dishes over the past decade that I thought tasted truly oversalted -- as opposed to within the reasonable range of how much salt a restaurant should be using. I've definitely experienced undersalting a lot more often, doubly so in people's homes.

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I can't speak for all smokers in general - just me. I smoke - and - although I'm sure it affects my sense of taste (because everyone tells me it does!) - I still find lots of food to be too salty - or - for that matter too sweet (a lot of cooks don't seem to realize that a lemon-something-dessert should be at least a little tart).

I also live in the south - where oversalting is kind of a disease. Where almost everyone shakes the salt shaker for at least a good 10 seconds before even tasting the food.

To me - perfect salting of dishes that are supposed to have salt in them means that the taste is vibrant - enhanced - but you don't taste the salt itself (except in a small number of dishes in which salt is a primary accent taste - like flakes of salt on corn on the cob - or part of the description of a dish - like a salt crusted fish).

I think the perfect dish for doing salt tests is mashed potatoes. Which are absolutely dreadful without any salt. So you add salt until you say - boy - those are great mashed potatoes - not salty mashed potatoes. Soups are another good test. Again - usually dreadful without any salt - but at a certain point in terms of salting - yuck! Most canned soups have absolutely ludicrous amounts of salt in them - and so do many restaurant soups. I note that if you make a lot of "semi-homemade" dishes like I do - not making stock/broth from scratch - etc. - that there is such a large amount of salt in some of the ingredients that come from jars and bottles that the food is very well salted without adding any extra.

Sometimes I wonder if a lot of professional chefs ignore a basic rule of using salt - which is that you do most of your salting of something that will be boiled down or concentrated after it is boiled down or concentrated. Or you make allowance for the reduction when you do your initial salting. Or if they don't taste what they serve. I once had a vegetable side dish at a fine restaurant that was so salty - we asked for the chef. He came out - tasted the dish - and said there had been an obvious mistake. He later told us one of the guys in the kitchen had put 3 cups of salt in the veggies instead of 3 tablespoons! Robyn

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I've only had oversalted dishes a handful of times in my life-I run into undersalting much more frequently. I eat lunch out most days, and we eat dinner out once or twice a week, at a wide range of places, but oversalting hasn't been a problem. I don't, however, eat at chains or fast food places, so I can't comment on those. I absolutely agree that home cooks are afraid to use salt-I too have had so many home cooked dishes that weren't salted properly while cooking.

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Here's another idea to throw into the mix. I'm a heavy biker in the summers, and can spend a day pedaling 60+ miles easily. I can taste the salt leaching off my skin when I shower. When I cook during this season, people tell me I tend to overseason my food. I also find that I crave salty foods as well.

As a result, in the summer, I consciously try to underseason what I'm preparing!

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Hmmm. I'm learning quite a bit here.

I tend to eschew salt completely when steaming vegetables--I tend to like them on the sweet side. I suspect that this leaves me open to comments that my veggies are close to hospital food in their blandness.

I was also under the impression that one should not salt burgers or steaks before grilling them, as the salt leaches out the juices. However, I often incorporate seasoned salt into the ground beef before shaping them into patties.

In fact, I often use seasoned salt in place of regular salt in a bunch of foods, especially since my partner was told he had high blood pressure and had to watch his sodium intake. And yet whenever I do this with mashed potatoes, I feel they're lacking something--and that something is salt.

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I think the perfect dish for doing salt tests is mashed potatoes.  Which are absolutely dreadful without any salt.  So you add salt until you say - boy - those are great mashed potatoes - not salty mashed potatoes. 

I think mashed potatoes is a really good example of the idea that things need to be salted at various stages in the cooking. I seem to recall that Calvin Trillin wrote about this in an essay which appeared in the New Yorker ages ago. If you don't use salt in the water when you boil starches, you can't make it up by throwing salt into the dish later. Definitely true with pasta. As well as starches, it's true with some meats.

In otherwise decent restaurants, I do occasionally encounter a sauce that seems way too salty. I suspect the culprit is some kind of commercially prepared stock or "demi-glace" that may have been thrown in out of desperation.

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I'm not an enemy of salt, but find that more and more restaurants over-salt. I've remarked on it several times recently, and my hubby, who NEVER salts, says he hasn't noticed it! HHmmmm.

Carolyn

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I very rarely find over-salted food in good restaurants, but it drives me crazy if I need salt to add at the table, and no "interesting" salt is to be had... please, kosher salt on the table at least! Some decent sea salt or gray's salt is even better.

My dishes at home are likely oversalted for some because I LOVE the texture of coarse salts... have you ever had coarse (I mean really coarse!) salt on fresh, summer ripe watermelon? And what is a caprese salad without the crunchy texture of a good salt! (And really chunky fresh ground quality peppercorns, of course!)

Julia <--ankles usually swollen at least a day a week!

"Anybody can make you enjoy the first bite of a dish, but only a real chef can make you enjoy the last.”

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I don't often feel like food is oversalted, but I've been to restaurants where the food had an across-the-board cloying sweetness that exhausted my palate to the point of discomfort within bites. The tongue-searing sweetness of the sauce imposed on a rib-eye at one particular restaurant (now closed) required me to scrape it off and, only a few bites later, to seriously consider rinsing out the meat in my glass of water.

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I can't imagine how anyone cooking for the public these days, could get salt right for every person, every time.

Like others who've replied, I'm eating a lower-salt diet. I'm not being very strict about it at all, but there's a huge difference from how I taste salt now, and how I did this time last year. There are many restaurants I used to enjoy, that I try to steer my husband away from as much as possible, because all of the food is way too salty for me. And we have an upcoming cross-country road trip that I'm dreading for this very reason.

Let's face it: few people eat the way we do. Most eat a diet combined of fast food, boxed food, and canned food, all of which are tremendously high in salt. And then there are people like eGulleters, who either do most of their own cooking, or eat in better restaurants. I know that in my own cooking at home, I try to do my best, but often dishes that tasted oversalted to me, are perfect for others.

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Hmmm. I'm learning quite a bit here.

I was also under the impression that one should not salt burgers or steaks before grilling them, as the salt leaches out the juices.  However, I often incorporate seasoned salt into the ground beef before shaping them into patties.

I believe that this has been a misconception for many...I think Alton Brown did one of his experiments on this and surely proved that the amount of liquid leached out is inconsequential.

Judy Rogers, in her great Zuni Cafe Cookbook, extols the virtues of salting early and somewhat copiously.

Shirley Corriher, in Cookwise, says that "salt draws juice from the meat surface, adding proteins and sugars to the surface and reducing its moisture content for better browning."

And Russ Parsons says, in How To Read A French Fry to "always salt meat before sauteing...if possible, let the meat sit for 5 minutes after salting to absorb the flavor."

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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To me - perfect salting of dishes that are supposed to have salt in them means that the taste is vibrant - enhanced - but you don't taste the salt itself (except in a small number of dishes in which salt is a primary accent taste - like flakes of salt on corn on the cob - or part of the description of a dish - like a salt crusted fish).

I think the perfect dish for doing salt tests is mashed potatoes.  Which are absolutely dreadful without any salt.  So you add salt until you say - boy - those are great mashed potatoes - not salty mashed potatoes. 

You've defined saltiness with great precision here, but what a few of us are trying to say is that it's still a matter of individual perception: two different people are likely to have different perceptions of the point at which "the taste is vibrant - enhanced - but you don't taste the salt itself." Indeed, the same person can define that point differently depending on what he or she has been eating over the previous week or so. I've got to agree with jgm's statement that "I can't imagine how anyone cooking for the public these days, could get salt right for every person, every time." I'd modify it to "I can't imagine how anyone cooking for the public these days, could get salt right for every person, ever."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I can't imagine how anyone cooking for the public these days, could get salt right for every person, every time.

Like others who've replied, I'm eating a lower-salt diet.  I'm not being very strict about it at all, but there's a huge difference from how I taste salt now, and how I did this time last year.  There are many restaurants I used to enjoy, that I try to steer my husband away from as much as possible, because all of the food is way too salty for me.  And we have an upcoming cross-country road trip that I'm dreading for this very reason.

Let's face it: few people eat the way we do.  Most eat a diet combined of fast food, boxed food, and canned food, all of which are tremendously high in salt.  And then there are people like eGulleters, who either do most of their own cooking, or eat in better restaurants.  I know that in my own cooking at home, I try to do my best, but often dishes that tasted oversalted to me, are perfect for others.

When I started talking about oversalting - years ago it seems - I didn't want to base a discussion only on health issues. Because health issues can be boring. But it's clear from a lot of the messages here that health concerns are an issue for a fair number of people. My husband has had high blood pressure since we've been married - 35 years next month. He takes meds which keep it fine. And eliminating salt from his diet almost totally wouldn't keep it under control without meds. So we have kind of hit on a medium salt diet as a good way to approach things. It's not medium every meal - every day - but - overall - it's medium (hint for people watching salt intake - balance a meal that's salty with one or two based on fruit - fruit is great for low salt diets).

And I guess when you're used to "medium" - a lot tastes overwhelming. As some people here have remarked - the more salt they use - the more they get used to it - and the more they need for things to taste "normal".

Now I know there is some controversy about salt and high blood pressure - it seems that some people with high bp can tolerate more salt than others - but I think it's safe to say that - overall - a high salt diet is not a wonderful thing health-wise. And I don't think I should ever eat a meal where I gain 2 pounds or have swollen ankles in the morning because of its salt content (whether I'm paying $5 or $500). Just like I wouldn't want to drink so much at dinner that my "hair hurts" in the morning.

Note that I don't advocate really low salt cooking in general. I've been through that with parents who had congestive heart failure. That is a whole different issue - where health concerns overwhelm just about everything else - and diet is literally the difference between life and death. Also - someone mentioned the "salt urge" that kicks in when you're dealing with heat and/or strenuous exercise. Having lived in Florida for a long time - I can tell you that the only time I have ever craved - really craved - a potato chip is after playing tennis or golf in August. And boy do they taste good then. But I'm not talking about that either. I'm just talking about everyday life for basically normal people who don't have major health problems or heat/exercise induced salt deficits.

As for exotic salts - I'll pass on that discussion. I can't taste the difference between salting potato water with 10 cent salt and 10 dollar salt. I can however taste the difference between different salts sprinkled on corn on the cob. However - it is possible to overwhelm with choices. We had one tempura dinner in Japan which was served with 5 different kinds of dipping salts - and I didn't have a clue which salt went with what (so we just asked the chef and followed his advice - even though some of the salts tasted really odd).

So what should the restaurant norm be? Middle of the road - or a lot? We are the consuming public. If restaurants are convinced that we won't like them unless they serve dishes with huge amounts of salt - that's what we'll get. And vice versa.

I have never been a person who goes to a nice restaurant and orders this without that ingredient - or that with the sauce on the side. I like to eat things the way the chef cooks them. I don't want to become one of those people who orders like that. But I guess I might be forced to if most restaurant diners want a lot more salt than I do.

I disagree with those people who suggest that high salt (and high fat and high sugar) experiences are primarily a low end fast food phenomenon. Because I don't eat at fast food restaurants - ever. And I think we would all be shocked if high end restaurants posted their nutritional information the way fast food restaurants do.

Finally - a lot of people here have said - quite correctly - this is somewhat a matter of taste. Since we can't do a forum tasting - let's look at some of the things we cook with - things where we know the salt content - to see what we personally define as salty or not salty. For example - I use regular Campbell's condensed chicken broth when I make a lot of soups. I'll add some tomatoes and a little cream to make tomato soup - peas and a little cream to make spring pea soup - that kind of thing. This stuff has 770 mg of sodium in a half cup (undiluted -you mix it 50/50 with water). That is 32% of an adult's daily suggested salt requirement. I don't think my soups taste salty. So I can only imagine how much salt there is in the stuff that tastes too salty to me. Robyn

P.S. to JGM - in terms of your trip - you'll probably eat at a lot of chains - if only as a matter of convenience. One type of chain you should consider is fish chains which make grilled fish from scratch - like Red Lobster (medium priced) - or Stonewood Grill (higher priced - open for dinner only) etc. They will make you a plain grilled fish without salt - and you can season it to taste. Another chain is Golden Corral. Most have a section with plain steamed veggies - rice - etc. Oriental buffets with lots of sushi. I'm not saying this is great eating (the quality in a lot of these places varies widely from location to location) - but they are places where you can have a decent "virtuous" meal - and save your "salt allowance" for really good places.

Edited by robyn (log)
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P.S.  to JGM - in terms of your trip - you'll probably eat at a lot of chains - if only as a matter of convenience.  One type of chain you should consider is fish chains which make grilled fish from scratch - like Red Lobster (medium priced) - or Stonewood Grill (higher priced - open for dinner only) etc.  They will make you a plain grilled fish without salt - and you can season it to taste.  Another chain is Golden Corral.  Most have a section with plain steamed veggies - rice - etc.  Oriental buffets with lots of sushi.  I'm not saying this is great eating (the quality in a lot of these places varies widely from location to location) - but they are places where you can have a decent "virtuous" meal - and save your "salt allowance" for really good places.

The timing of the trip will determine where we eat. We'll be taking the dog, and if it's hot, he can't be left alone in the car, and we'll be looking for a really quick meal. If we get into cooler weather, we may be able to leave him long enough to spend a little time indoors when we eat. The trip is for a specific purpose, and we have no control over when it happens; when we have to go, we have to go. If we can't find a decent (non-fast food) place to eat, I may just seek out a grocery store and buy fruit and cheese. My next cholesterol test isn't until December... :wink:

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...My next cholesterol test isn't until December... :wink:

Cholesterol - that is a totally different issue. My husband has that problem too - and once he started taking statin drugs - it was a miracle in terms of his numbers. Ask your doctor about them.

Note that I - like most 60ish people - am not problem-free either. I have been diagnosed with gout (too much foie gras :wink: ). You want to see the least heart healthy diet in the world - look at a gout diet. Luckily - there are drugs for that too. Without drugs - the only meal my husband and I could ever eat would be cold cereal with skimmed milk and fruit!

FWIW - I started this thread because I simply don't like the taste of food that's too salty. There's no drug to counteract that. Robyn

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While restauarants may be guilty of over salting the home cook is often guilty of under salting.  I have eaten at many peoples homes and they are afraid to use salt.

Can you generalize about the types of foods you think are undersalted? Robyn

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While restauarants may be guilty of over salting the home cook is often guilty of under salting.  I have eaten at many peoples homes and they are afraid to use salt.

With this I heartedly agree. I have had to teach many a friend and family member about the importance of salt.

-Sounds awfully rich!

-It is! That's why I serve it with ice cream to cut the sweetness!

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While restauarants may be guilty of over salting the home cook is often guilty of under salting.  I have eaten at many peoples homes and they are afraid to use salt.

Can you generalize about the types of foods you think are undersalted? Robyn

Grains, vegetables, meats, soups, stews...

On steamed vegetable I use little salt and I'll take fresh corn unadulterated but building flavors in many dishes, salt is essential. I have no doubt some restaurants use more salt than necessary or healthy. I don't eat out often so have not become immune to the salt level of restaurant food. I can't say I've had noticeably salty food except in some chain like for example Applebee's boneless Buffalo wings. My daughter loves these and I find them similar to licking a salt block.

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