Salt is an essential ingredient in the kitchen. But many people have been told to watch their sodium intake for health reasons.

How much salt does meat absorb from a brine? Can you rinse salt off canned vegetables or beans? Which has more salt: french fries or a milkshake? Sidney Fry, assistant editor of nutrition at Cooking Light, answered these questions and more by conducting kitchen and shopping experiments with salt for the article “The Truth About Salt in Your Food."

Sally Swift: I was raised with an Italian mother who insisted that the pasta water had to taste like the sea or there was not enough salt in it. How much of that salt really stays in the pasta?

Sidney Fry Sidney Fry

Sidney Fry: Only about 3 percent of the salt is absorbed from the water into the pasta, but if that water really is as salty as the seawater, that could end up being 800-900 milligrams of sodium, depending on how much salt you're starting with.

SS: Particularly if you're someone who holds back a little pasta water to moisten things up in the end, right?

SF: Exactly.

SS: What about when you brine something? Do you add more salt if you keep it longer in the brine or is there a point when it just has absorbed all of the salt it's going to absorb?

SF: I think the longer you brine it, it is going to continue to take up some amount of salt. But we found the majority of the salt is taken in during the first 12 hours.

SS: So you could actually limit some of the saltiness by brining it less than that?

SF: Yes, you could. But we also found that the increase was far less significant during the second 12 hours.

SS: What about canned beans or canned vegetables? If you rinse them, can you remove any of the salt that's added to those cans?

SF: We actually found a 40 percent reduction in sodium when we rinsed and drained canned beans. I think the same would translate for vegetables or anything that is in a salty brine solution. 

That is significant and I think it will make a big difference. Canned beans are often added to soups -- things that you're adding a lot more sodium to anyway.

SS: What about measuring salt? For instance, when a recipe calls for a tablespoon of iodized salt, if you use a coarser salt are you getting less sodium?

SF: You would think that with a coarser-grind salt there's less of it in a tablespoon than a finer grind because the crystals are bigger and there's actually less of them in the tablespoon. We actually found that it doesn't automatically yield sodium savings. Salt is salt. It's all sodium basically, or it's all 40 percent sodium. I think a lot of people think they're going to automatically make savings if they switch to kosher -- that's not always the case. If you're watching your salt, you're going to need to watch it whether it's sea salt, kosher salt or fine table salt.

SS: Do you have any overall advice for people who are watching salt?

SF: I think one big part of it is to look at the labels on the food that you're eating. We ran a study with some soba noodles that the label says contained 400-600 milligrams of sodium. When they were boiled in the water, 80 percent of that sodium came out in the water while it was cooking.

SS: The sodium content is about what's actually in the package?

SF: What's actually in it and what you're actually going to consume. You can control a lot of the sodium you add to your food in your home. It's always better to start with less. 

When you're eating out and you're eating processed foods and fast foods, that's where when you're not in control; you never know how much sodium you're really getting. We looked at some numbers across the board of different types of food that had the same amount of sodium: A milkshake has the same amount of sodium as a small container of french fries. Your taste buds often don't ever pick up on that.

Sally Swift
Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.