Why Do You Add Salt to Boiling Water?

Adding salt to pot of water

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Why do you add salt to boiling water? There are a couple of answers to this common cooking question.

Key Takeaways: Adding Salt to Boiling Water

  • Many cooks add salt to boiling water and many recipes recommend it.
  • The best reason to add salt to water is to improve the flavor of food cooked in it.
  • Salting water also helps it boil (slightly) faster.
  • While salting water does increase the temperature at which it boils, the effect is so small that it really has no impact on cooking time.

Salting Water for Flavor

Usually, you add salt to water in order to boil the water to cook rice or pasta. Adding salt to water adds flavor to the water, which is absorbed by the food. Salt enhances the ability of chemoreceptors in the tongue to detect molecules that are perceived through the sense of taste. This is really the only valid reason, as you'll see.

Salting Water to Raise Water Temperature

Another reason salt is added to water is because it increases the boiling point of the water, meaning your water will have a higher temperature when you add the pasta, so it will cook better.

That's how it works in theory. In reality, you would need to add 230 grams of table salt to a liter of water just to raise the boiling point by 2° C. That is 58 grams per half degree Celsius for each liter or kilogram of water. That is much more salt than anyone would care to have in their food. We're talking saltier than the ocean levels of salt.

Salting Water So It Boils Faster

Although adding salt to water raises its boiling point, it's worth noting the salted water actually boils more quickly. That seems counter-intuitive, but you can easily test it yourself. Put two containers on a stove or hot plate to boil -- one with pure water and the other with 20% salt in water. Why does the salted water boil more quickly, even though it has a higher boiling point? It's because adding the salt lowered the heat capacity of the water. The heat capacity is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of water by 1°C. Pure water has an incredibly high heat capacity. When heating up salt water, you've got a solution of a solute (salt, which has a very low heat capacity) in water. Essentially, in a 20% salt solution, you lose so much resistance to heating that the salted water boils much more quickly.

Adding Salt After Boiling

Some people prefer to add salt to water after it has boiled. Obviously, this doesn't speed the rate of boiling at all because the salt is added after the fact. However, it may help protect metal pots from corrosion, since the sodium and chloride ions in salt water have less time to react with the metal. Really, the effect is negligible compared with the damage you can do your pots and pans by letting them wait around for hours or days until you wash them, so whether you add your salt at the beginning or the end isn't a big deal.

Do You Have to Salt the Water?

If you're following a recipe that says to salt the water, but you're trying to cut down on sodium, you may wonder if it's okay to skip the salt. Will your recipe be ruined?

Salt serves a purpose in baking because it moderates leavening (how baked goods rise). Omitting salt while baking does affect the recipe. However, salting water for making rice or pasta is all about flavor. It doesn't affect the cooking speed or the final texture of the product. If you don't want to salt boiling water, it's fine.

Sources

  • Atkins, P. W. (1994). Physical Chemistry (4th ed.). Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-269042-6.
  • Chisholm, Hugh (ed.) (1911). "Cookery". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Elvers, B.; et al. (ed.) (1991). Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry (5th ed.). Vol. A24. Wiley. ISBN 978-3-527-20124-2.
  • McQuarrie, Donald; et al. (2011). "Colligative properties of Solutions". General Chemistry. Mill Valley: Library of Congress. ISBN 978-1-89138-960-3.
  • Serventi, Silvano; Sabban, Françoise (2002). Pasta: the Story of a Universal Food. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231124422.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Why Do You Add Salt to Boiling Water?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/adding-salt-to-boiling-water-607427. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, June 2). Why Do You Add Salt to Boiling Water? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/adding-salt-to-boiling-water-607427 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Why Do You Add Salt to Boiling Water?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/adding-salt-to-boiling-water-607427 (accessed September 26, 2021).

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