Culinary Conundrums: To Salt or Not To Salt

Culinary Conundrums: To Salt or Not To Salt

My fiancé and I have been arguing over whether or not you have to salt pasta water before cooking pasta noodles. I don’t think it’s necessary since you add salt to the pasta anyway in the sauce, etc., but he swears it makes a difference. Isn’t that too much sodium? I also read that salt can ruin your pots. Is that true. Who’s right? Help!

-Chris C.

It’s always nice to get back to the basics. Sorry Chris, but your fiancé is absolutely right on this one: Salting the water does make a difference in the flavor of the cooked pasta. As my co-contributor Vani Murthy, who has a Masters of Public Health in Nutrition, enthusiastically proclaimed when I presented your question to her, “I salt my pasta and I’m usually eating it with salty olives!” And I completely agree: In a side-by-side comparison of pasta boiled in salted water and pasta boiled in unsalted water, there is an obvious flavor difference between the two. The pasta cooked in salted water simply absorbs more flavor and tastes better, thus making a better foundation for pasta dishes. In short, we are believers: At home and at GreenTree, we always salt our pasta water. Will it ruin your pasta not to add salt to the water? Not necessarily. But as far as flavor goes we’re all for it—the key is balance. Read on to better understand why this isn’t a black and white answer.

spaghetti-569067_1920First, a few things about sodium. Only about 5% of the average American consumer’s sodium intake comes from food cooked at home; the other 95% comes from processed, restaurant, and take-out foods. So, if you’re regularly making your food at home, you’re already probably getting far less sodium. But let’s look at the pasta itself: For a solution of 1 tablespoon table salt for every gallon of water, which is what I recommend, about 97% of the sodium gets dumped out when you drain the pasta. We’re not talking a lot of sodium being absorbed into the pasta itself—just enough to flavor it (about 212mg). If you save some of the water to make the pasta sauce with, which I also recommend since the starch in the pasta water gives the pasta sauce body and adherence, you obviously will be adding back some sodium. But again—the total amount will be far less than the tablespoon you added to the gallon of water originally.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans aged 2 and up reduce sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, which is equivalent to 1 tsp.  People 51 and older and those of any age who are African Americans or who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease—about half the U.S. population and the majority of adults—should further reduce sodium intake to 1,500 mg/d.  Based on these guidelines, the vast majority of adults eat more sodium than they should—an average of more than 3,300 mg each day. Now these are hard guidelines to follow, especially the 1500mg limit, but working to eliminate processed foods (frozen meals, canned soups, prepared dressings and condiments etc) and reducing the number of times you eat out will greatly lower your sodium intake.

Additionally one may be tempted to over-salt the final product if it tastes bland, whereas if the dish is properly flavored from within the table salt won’t get as much play. A major plug I want to make here is for more home cooking! As mentioned above the majority of sodium in the American diet comes from processed foods. So if you’re using a jarred pasta sauce, that’s even more sodium being packed into the final dish, and you’ll probably end up with an unintentionally high sodium dish.

I have some good news for you, though (well, about being right)! Yes, salt can ruin your pots. But really, this is something you only need to worry about if you salt the water before it is boiling and if you’re using a stainless steel pot. If the salt is added before the water is boiling, the chloride in the salt has a chance to react with the oxygen in the water and the chromium in the stainless steel, which can lead to pitting, a form of rusting, over time. Pitting damage is irreversible, by the way. However, once the water is boiling, there is not enough oxygen in the water for the chloride and chromium to react with, so you can easily avoid that dreaded chemical reaction if you have to use a stainless steel pot.

The take away? Go ahead and salt your pasta water. Make more homemade food and you’ll already be getting less sodium (and sugar!) in your diet. However be prudent about your health and check with your doctor regarding risks for hypertension and high blood pressure which can contribute not only to heart disease but proteinuric kidney disease, hypercalcemia, urinary stones, arterial stiffness, and osteoporosis. Check out our pasta recipe below for a delicious meal that won’t break the sodium bank.

Happy Eating, Everyone!

(Have a culinary conundrum of your own or interested in the sources we used for this article? Just email Chris at

By Christopher Wiesman, Deli Manager, Co-op Owner

Assisted by Vani Murthy, MPH in Nutrition, Nutrition Contributor for “Culinary Conundrums”


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