How to Fix a Salty Sauce, According to a Culinary Expert

It looks perfect, smells amazing, and better yet, it's on track to finish cooking by dinner time. The sauce you worked so hard on seems to check off all the boxes, but when you grab a spoon to do a final taste test, you're quickly hit with the realization that it's way too salty to serve. Your first thought in this scenario might be to call it a day and open up the food delivery app on your phone, but the truth is it's not impossible to salvage a salty sauce. To find out exactly how to do so, we picked the brains of culinary expert and recipe developer Brian Theis, who recently authored the cookbook "The Infinite Feast."

While a quick google search on how to fix salty sauces might lead you to believe that all you have to do is stick a potato in the sauce and it'll magically absorb all the saltiness, Theis says that this popular cooking hack isn't the most effective. Because there are many different types of sauces, all with different sources of saltiness, there isn't a one-size-fits-all fix.

How to Make a Sauce Less Salty

The best course of action, albeit the most time-consuming one, is to make a second salt-free version of the same sauce, then "gradually add your salt-free batch in with the too-salty portion until you have a result that pleases you," Theis advises. "You will be closest to the original recipe and you shouldn't be in danger of your final result going rogue."

However, if you don't have enough ingredients or time to double your sauce recipe, there are four other approaches Theis recommends for fixing salty sauces:

  • Balance it with sweetness: If your recipe already includes a sweet component, add more; otherwise, Theis suggests sugar, honey, or a vegetable with a higher sugar content like sweet potato or carrots.
  • Amp up the acidity: Acidic ingredients such as vinegar or lemon juice tend to be a reliable way of counteracting the saltiness of a sauce. A tomato can also work, especially if your sauce still needs more sweetness.
  • Add some fat: Fat doesn't counteract salt in the same way acid and sugar do, but it does distract your taste buds, so you don't detect it as much. Go for butter and olive oil, Theis says, but keep in mind this method is only ideal for sauces that are not emulsion based. (Since emulsion-based sauces, such as gravy and Béarnaise, are made up primarily of ingredients that don't naturally mix together — like oil and vinegar — the addition of extra fat can easily throw off the balance of these ingredients and cause the sauce to separate.)
  • Dilute it with broth or milk: When all else fails, dilute your sauce with a salt-free broth, or milk and flour if it's a cream-based sauce. "Be sure to add a proportional amount of other key players such as herbs, when you are increasing the creamy factor," Theis notes.

When It's Best to Start Over

To determine whether or not your sauce can be saved, consider what's actually causing it to be salty. If it's a salty ingredient like anchovies or cheese, it may be a lot harder to fix than if you had simply added an extra dash of salt. Certain types of sauces, however, won't benefit much from the above methods.

"If the recipe has eggs, like a hollandaise or a classic Caesar dressing, I would probably start over," Theis explains. "The eggs make this type of formula almost impossible to mess with, without breaking the emulsion." Cream sauces like Alfredo and bechamel, he mentions, can also be difficult, though not impossible, to rework.

How to Prevent a Sauce From Becoming Too Salty in the First Place

If you carefully measure out your salt and still find that your sauces always seem to turn out salty, it could be the type of salt that's to blame. Theis points out that a tablespoon of regular table salt is more concentrated and therefore more salty than a tablespoon of coarse kosher or sea salt, so it's also important to take this into account when making sauce.

Theis's rule of thumb is to start off with a salt-free broth because it's much easier to add your own salt than try to take it away. "You must taste, taste, taste as you go, perhaps even giving your sauce a trial run or two in advance to help fine-tune the overall flavor profile, not just the salt factor!" he stresses.

The more you get the hang of salting, the less often you'll need to make adjustments at the end, but even if your sauce did come out too salty, tossing it should never be your first resort.