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I'm putting together an asian sauce to throw over some steamed greens & have made it a bit too salty (it contains soy, fish & oyster sauce).

What can I add to cut back the saltiness?

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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The classic way to compensate for saltiness (especially in Asian cuisine) is to add something sweet (usually sugar), which tricks one's taste-buds into thinking that the food is both less salty and less sweet. (Ever wonder why a can of cola has 45+ mg of sodium? It's there partially to mask all the sweetness which gives you a sugar rush, and simultaneously make you thirstier!) I seem to recall reading a section on this phenomenon in On Food and Cooking, but my copy is back home. I'll try and post an excerpt later today. Update #2: I can't seem to find any mention of saltiness inhibitors in OFaC, however, there is a section on sweetness inhibitors (cf. page 663) so I must have been confusing it with that.

Update #1: I haven't gotten a chance to look at OFaC yet, however, I did find this study:

It is a survey of research on both perceived and chemical reactions between different tastes.

When compounds eliciting tastes are mixed many outcomes are possible, including perceptual enhancement and suppression, unmasking of a taste not initially observed, or possibly chemical synthesis of a new taste.

The survey notes (see Sections 3.2 and 3.3):

At medium and high intensities/concentrations sweetness was generally suppressive of other basic tastes.

and also

Sweetness suppressed salty taste at moderate intensities.

It goes on to note that at even higher concentrations sweetness and other tastes are symmetrically suppressive (i.e., their tastes cancel each other out).

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Sodium does not necessarily mean salt; as far as I know, there's no actual salt in coca-cola. Salt is sometimes added to tonic water (or other carbonated drinks) to mask bitterness but this is the first I've heard of it masking sweetness; my understanding was that it actually enhanced sweetness. Would definitely like to see this excerpt when you have a chance... –  Aaronut Jul 21 '11 at 15:00
    
@Aaronut: I found a study that supports the claim. I've edited my answer to include it. –  ESultanik Jul 21 '11 at 15:36
    
There are also a number of well-known sweetness suppressors that take the form of sodium (e.g., propanoic acid/Na-PMP). Coca-Cola's sodium comes primarily from sodium citrate, which is known to have a direct effect on the gustatory perception of sweetness. –  ESultanik Jul 21 '11 at 16:00
    
Ah, that makes sense. Personally, I'd remove the comment about coca cola as it's actually the opposite that's true (sweetness masks salt [and other flavours], not the other way around), but the general advice seems to be sound. –  Aaronut Jul 21 '11 at 16:15
    
Thanks for the detailed answer. I added some lemon juice and it worked a treat. –  C4H5As Jul 22 '11 at 13:38
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Many foods can absorb quite allot of salt and still be palatable. Many vegetables such as potatoes and rice are cooked in brine and people often add table salt to their potatoes on top of this. Other foods that we accept salty include sea food such as shrimp, fish, shellfish etc.

I live in China, and notice that people rarely add salt to foods. The condiments they use such as soy sauce and oyster sauce have sufficient salt in them already. So it is quite normal that your Asian style condiment mix will taste salty but it might not taste so salty once combined with the final dish.

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In some places, however, even that "asian style condiment mix" will taste very salty. –  Arafangion Jul 22 '11 at 13:33
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If you have (or add) spinach in with those greens I wouldn't worry. Spinach dishes can take a lot of salt before they taste over salted.

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One reason for this is that 1 cup of spinach is about as sweet as 1/4 tsp. of granulated sugar. –  ESultanik Jul 21 '11 at 14:22
    
@ESultanik there are a few reasons why I'm not convinced this is a good explanation. First off, spinach can hardly be counted as something that tastes sweet. It indeed has 0.25 mg carbohydrates, but not all carbs taste sweet, especially when bound into complex molecular structures rather than simple sugars which easily bind to receptors on the tongue (fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose, etc.). Spinach also has a bitter flavor from its phenol and vitamin rich tissues. All bitter things need a little salt to make them palatable, but to say it can take "a lot of salt" invites dispute. –  ashkan Jul 11 '13 at 20:42
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