The Truth About Salt In Your Food
The Salt Puzzle
Does a longer brine add much salt?
THE TEST: We soaked three 12-pound turkeys in a brining solution that contained ½ cup of kosher salt (that's about 46,000mg sodium!) for 12, 18, and 24 hours. For comparison, we also analyzed an unbrined bird.
THE RESULTS: (per 4 ounces roasted turkey) No brine: white meat, 55mg; dark meat, 90mg; 12-hour brine: white meat, 151mg; dark meat, 235mg; 18-hour brine: white meat, 186mg; dark meat, 254mg; 24-hour brine: white meat, 223mg; dark meat, 260mg
The largest sodium increase happens in the first 12 hours. It then tapers off, but the tenderizing continues. Only about 1% of the total sodium from the brine is absorbed. Bottom line: If you like a longer brine (we prefer 24 hours), the added sodium isn't that significant. Brine for texture reasons, and put away sodium fears.
Kosher turkeys may have 200mg per 4 ounces due to the processing method. Frozen turkeys may have been washed in salt water to speed the freezing, adding 200 to 350mg per 4 ounces. And some birds are enhanced with up to 15% broth, which adds 330 to 440mg per 4 ounces. Check your labels.
How much sodium does meat absorb from a salty marinade?
THE TEST: We marinated a pork tenderloin in a simple marinade of lower-sodium soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions, garlic, black pepper, and ginger for 1.5 hours, then grilled the tenderloin.
Unmarinated grilled pork: 54mg sodium per 3 ounces
Marinated grilled pork: 276mg sodium per 3 ounces
THE RESULTS: Only 6% of the salt was absorbed by the pork, but it quadrupled the sodium count in the meat. Bottom line: Let sodium do its work; then cut back salt in any sauces or other ingredients.
The saltier the water, the saltier the pasta.
THE TEST: We boiled a pound each of dry spaghetti (sodium-free) in 4 quarts of water containing varying amounts of salt.
THE RESULTS: (per 6 ounces cooked pasta); 1 teaspoon salt (2,360mg sodium): 75mg sodium; 1 tablespoon salt (7,080mg sodium): 253mg sodium; 2 tablespoons salt (14,160mg sodium): 446mg sodium; ¼ cup salt (28,319mg sodium): 896mg sodium
Bottom line: It's not that pasta soaks up salt like a sponge: Only 3% was absorbed into each serving of pasta. But 3% of the sodium in ¼ cup is 896mg—nearly 40% of your 2,300mg daily limit. So reduce (don't eliminate) the salt in the water; save it for the sauce.
How big is your "pinch" of salt?
Bottom line: Know your pinch—or measure.
Can you rinse the salt off canned beans?
THE TEST: We rinsed, drained, and then tested two varieties of beans and compared them with their unwashed counterparts.
THE RESULTS: Black Beans: Sodium in ½ cup: 424mg; Sodium in ½ cup, rinsed and drained: 232mg; Red Kidney Beans: Sodium in ½ cup: 260mg; Sodium in ½ cup, rinsed and drained: 148mg
Bottom line: The beans lose more than 40% of their sodium when rinsed and drained.
Why some shrimp are saltier than others.
THE TEST: We steamed and peeled five varieties of shrimp, then shipped them to the lab for sodium analysis.
THE RESULTS: (per 4 ounces steamed):
Wild-caught fresh Gulf shrimp (never frozen): 97mg;
Farm-raised fresh shrimp (previously frozen): 159mg;
Winn-Dixie individually quick-frozen easy-to-peel wild-caught shrimp: 245mg;
Whole Foods individually quick-frozen easy-to-peel shrimp: 483mg;
Publix fresh frozen easy-to-peel farm-raised shrimp: 730mg
Why some salt labels don't tell the whole story.
Soba noodle labels list as much as 900mg sodium per serving—which has limited our use of it. But when we boiled five brands of soba, they lost an average of 80% of their sodium, down to about 80mg per serving. The FDA only requires labels to list the nutritional properties of foods as packaged. Food makers may voluntarily present "as prepared" information, but that's an extra step, and calculation, for them. Most foods used in cooking are rarely consumed as packaged—like soba noodles.
Bottom line: Always consider the ingredients added and methods used in preparing foods.
Coarser salt doesn't yield automatic sodium savings.
Bottom line: If you're watching sodium, you can't throw "gourmet" salts around with impunity.
Our fave sauce: a cautionary tale
"Knowing what I know about how things change on the supply chain, I don't put a lot of merit in the information on food panels," she added.
Nutrition label numbers are allowed 20% of wiggle room, but the FDA does few random audits. As a general rule: Trust your taste buds; if something tastes salty, it probably is, whatever the label says.
Michael's of Brooklyn and Dell' Amore are tasty and pretty low in sodium—on their labels and in our lab tests.
How salty are popular takeout foods?
We got takeout from three in our town to see how entrées stacked up. They stacked up really, really high.
Trattoria pizza topped with cured meats, sausage, and olives: 3,474mg sodium
Barbecue pulled-pork sandwich with baked beans and slaw: 2,480mg sodium
Bowl of ramen with miso broth: 3,245mg sodium