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Salt & pepper shakers on tables

credit: Jenny Turknett

credit: Jenny Turknett

How do you feel about salt and pepper shakers being on the table? When you go to a restaurant do you expect them to be there?

In response to John Kessler’s recent open letter to Atlanta chefs, many commenters wrote about seasoning levels:

Malika: I would add that chefs need to go easy on the salt.That is my biggest complaint about restaurants overall. So, many dishes are ruined because they taste like they had a box of salt poured on top of them.

Wendy: Salt seems to be the go-to ingredient lately to mask lesser quality and freshness.

itpdude: Though a lot of these guys could learn a thing or two about salt. If we want more salt, we can add it.

These comments refer to over seasoning. I’ve also had several recent experiences where dishes were under seasoned. It seems like more and more often I reach for the shakers only to discover their absence. My first thought is “Wow. This chef is confident. The food will be seasoned properly.”

But what if you like more salt than I do? What’s the “correct” seasoning level? Is there such a thing?

In his newest book, “Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes,” Harold McGee says, “Salt is an essential seasoning for nearly all foods… Different people often experience the same level of salt differently. This can be a matter of perception, not just preference. Someone who likes a lot of salt may not be able to taste it as well as other people.”

When I cook, I’m not offended if guests add more salt or pepper. But, I might prefer if they tasted a dish before seasoning it.

Rumor has it that Henry Ford used the “salt test” before hiring candidates. He would invite them for dinner and observe. If applicants salted their food prior to tasting it, they were thought to make rash, uninformed decisions and would be disqualified from consideration.

If you’re a chef, are you offended if people add their own seasoning? If you cook at home, do you put the shakers on the table? Do you expect to find them on restaurant tables?

Food for thought…

Jenny-Turknett-Tagline–by Jenny Turknett, Food & More blog

– Jenny Turknett writes about Southern and Neighborhood Fare for the AJC Dining Team. She also publishes her own blog, Going Low Carb.

39 comments Add your comment

Lisa

February 15th, 2011
7:51 am

I have a friends who will NOT eat until they has put either or both salt and pepper all over everything. Blech. I would prefer they taste it as I served it.

dean

February 15th, 2011
8:12 am

That’s a tough call, do you under-season to accommodate everyone, and have people add salt as needed, or do you salt to your taste and hope you don’t have a heavy hand. Ideally, it should be done to the chef’s tasting, and salt on the table shouldn’t be needed (except for raw oysters). That said, there’s no excuses for certain gastropubs, pubs and barbecue food joints to over salt their food. They know it gets people to order more booze, and it’s a dirty practice.

Melissa Irvin

February 15th, 2011
8:19 am

We have a couple of friends that immediately salt their food when it is put on the table. That irks me and I’m not a chef! You should definitely taste the food before adding anything to it. We have to cook low sodium for my mom-in-law so we now have different go-to no-sodium seasonings that we cook with and it has been great!

KoPP

February 15th, 2011
8:19 am

Unless the chef is paying for it, their commentary on the meal ends when the dish is served. The person who purchased the meal then has the right to go nuts with whatever they find on the table (sometimes with what they prought with them). If a chef is so confident that they don’t put out salt and pepper, then refund the money when the user doesn’t like the seasoning.

It’s just stupid posturing, and in this economy, that’ll get you nowhere fast. Might have worked back during the bubble, but not now, with basic food costs rising and customers aware that they can walk if the food can’t be seasoned to their taste. I can see if the server tells the customre to try it with the sauce, or in this order, but still give the customers the right to choose. Kinda like the upcoming Sunday Sales debate.

bs2904

February 15th, 2011
8:31 am

Why should anyone be bothered what someone else does to their food. If the aren’t putting it on yours, it’s none of your business.

Reds

February 15th, 2011
8:40 am

If i am cooking, I would prefer that it be tasted first. I come from a family with high blood pressure, and my mom never cooked with added salt. I am not offended if someone adds salt. In fact, I find often that I haven’t put enough salt in for it to even taste good to me. That being said, I think it should always be on the table.

Rodney

February 15th, 2011
9:03 am

“But, I might prefer if they tasted a dish before seasoning it.”

My thoughts exactly. And this concept not only applies to seasoning – it should also, IMO, apply to the “ew, I don’t think I like that” folks. Taste it before you decide you don’t like it.

I’m cool if I cook something, or order something for the table when dining out, and after you’ve tasted it you decide it’s not for you. But to dismiss it outright without even tasting it is just as bad as salting/peppering prior to tasting your food.

RK

February 15th, 2011
9:07 am

If you think about it, there’s no way for a chef to be 100% confident that the food is entirely properly seasoned — it’s guesswork, and depending on the food, they can’t taste it. They can’t cut into that steak and make sure they seasoned it right. And “right” is subjective.

Dan

February 15th, 2011
9:08 am

A couple of points, first salting your food prior to tasting simply demonstrates a poor palate, no real subjectivity here. Anyone who does so and complains about the food is ignorant. Now if you taste and then add salt, fine your taste may be different than others, and a good chef shouldb’t be offended, he/she may opine (to themselves) about the customers lack of refined taste but hey they are paying for it. I have no problem with not having salt on the table, I pay the chef to season the food, however at the same time the restaurant should happily provide one if asked. You should not get oversalted food at a restuarant but keep in mind if you specifically avoid salt in your day to day diet, properly seasoned food may seem salty to you

JohnF

February 15th, 2011
9:10 am

I have tried to limit the amount of salt in my food when I cook so I have become pretty sensitive to it when I eat in a restaurant, and to me most food is over seasoned when I go out somewehre. I can see that some chefs would see having salt on the table the same as having extra extra paprika or extra nutmeg but I personally find it kind of arrogant that they think they know every persons preference (yes, imagine an arrogant chef). I’d say go slightly less salty in the kitchen and let the patron sort it out at the table.

zeke

February 15th, 2011
9:10 am

kmb

February 15th, 2011
9:32 am

With the tremendous health effort to lower the sodium content of food for individulals with heart failure and hypertension, it would be ridiculous for a professional chef not to offer salt at the table. Otherwise, the chef will make the sodium content of his/her food too high for the dietary restrictions that a substantional number of his/her customers require. Lowering the salt added to food in the kitchen to everyone and allowing the diner to adjust the level upward if he/she so desires is the easiest compromise. One can only imagine the chaos in the kitchen if no salt or low salt requests were routinely made on a busy night service. Soups and sauces are particular areas of concern for individuals requiring low sodium diets. Those are also the areas that kitchens have the least amount of latitude in adjusting individual sodium levels on a mass scale. One need only watch Top Chef over a few episodes to see how much individuals’ taste for salt differ.

With regard to pepper, hey, how “hot” an item needs to be is very personal. No chef can predict that. My family goes from no pepper please to there never is enough.

kmb

February 15th, 2011
9:34 am

Enter your comments here

Kristen

February 15th, 2011
10:00 am

I agree with Jenny – I’m always excited when I go to a restaurant and there are no salt and pepper shakers on the table. More times than not, I certainly never need salt. However, I am salt-sensitive, so at home, my husband ALWAYS has to add more salt to his plate. I don’t understand the people who season their food before they’ve tasted it. Makes no sense, and I agree with Henry Ford’s analysis of people who do that!

Art

February 15th, 2011
10:03 am

Salt and pepper should be on the table and everyone should taste their food before adding either.

Ubercyn

February 15th, 2011
10:12 am

“But, I might prefer if they tasted a dish before seasoning it.”

My thoughts exactly. And this concept not only applies to seasoning – it should also, IMO, apply to the “ew, I don’t think I like that” folks. Taste it before you decide you don’t like it.

I’m cool if I cook something, or order something for the table when dining out, and after you’ve tasted it you decide it’s not for you. But to dismiss it outright without even tasting it is just as bad as salting/peppering prior to tasting your food.

My thoughts exactly. Well said, Rodney.

wtf?

February 15th, 2011
10:15 am

What about MSG? I do not suffer it’s bad effects as some do, but I hate to see restaurants posting signs proclaiming NO MSG is used in their cooking (it’s usuually the ones who could use a little boost in flavor)

I think MSG is a magical seasoning that has been used for 1000’s of years. I keep some on hand and find it does wonders for sauces, and I’ve never had a complaint. Too bad it’s gotten such a bad rap.

Foodgeek

February 15th, 2011
10:21 am

I often find that I need to add salt to my dishes at restaurants, and more often than not, it’s because there’s too much sugar added in the kitchen, and I’m quite sensitive to the presence of sugar. That raspberry vinaigrette that everyone else raves about? I find it too sweet, and now I have to add salt and pepper to my salad to balance it out because most restaurant diners are used to drinking gallons of sugary sodas with every meal.

On the other hand: If you ruin your own food, you should have to pay for it. If you ask for a side of ranch dressing, then dump it on your baked potato without tasting anything, don’t call the manager over and have him take it off the bill. Restaurants shouldn’t have to pay for that kind of stupidity and pass the cost on to the rest of the paying customers. I could have told you that would be yucky, but you didn’t ask me.

Kirk

February 15th, 2011
10:21 am

You can always add salt to a dish, but you can’t take it out. I tend to think that most restaurants over salt. Leave the salt on the table and let the customer decide. I use almost no salt in my cooking. I add lemon etc. instead. My wife likes salty everything. There is always salt on my table.

DD

February 15th, 2011
10:21 am

If they are there ,I always wonder do they ever clean thoes things, they can get sticky. Yuk factor very high!

Mitch

February 15th, 2011
10:54 am

Salt and pepper should be on table before the food is served. I shouldn’t have to taste my food, determine if it needs salt and then have to chase down a waiter while my food gets cold. Two more observances: 1.) it’s a lot to ask in Atlanta’s culinary environment, but I’m always so pleasantly surprised when I’m given a small dish with some sort of coarse salt (sea or Kosher) rather than the iodized table variety that I gave up at home years ago (kudos to Bacchanalia for their stellar salt/pepper service, which, unfortunately isn’t on the table unless requested); and 2.) the server shouldn’t control my ability to access pepper during the meal. Why should I have to agree to have pepper or go pepperless for the entire course before I’ve even had my first taste of the dish? Plus, the formal ritual of the giant peppermill is a ridiculous anachronism from the days of table side service —- love the eye-rolling server thinking when is this dude ever going to say “When”? They should put little mills on the table or, if concerned about thieving customers (you know who you are), a small dish of cracked pepper or even a shaker would be fine. When salt and pepper aren’t on the table before the food is served, I tend to feel that it is either a significant oversight or stems from some sort of arrogance on the part of the chef that her food is always seasoned properly and to hell with you if you can’t appreciate perfection.

oldtomer

February 15th, 2011
10:55 am

The hidden salt added while cooking is more of aproblem than the salt shaker….Chefs need to cut salt in cooking.

Dan

February 15th, 2011
11:39 am

The other indisputable fact is, salt or any other spice added during the cooking process, is far different from adding salt to a finished dish. It simply isn’t the same. There is a market for either salt on the tables or not. Fine dining would be a not

1164mgc

February 15th, 2011
12:05 pm

I’ve rarely had a baked potato that did not *need* salt after it is brought to the table. Which reminds me – I hate when you ask for butter, or even when you don’t ask for it, and they bring margarine or some other “buttery spread.” It is MY business how much butter I eat and I happen not to eat much at all, but when I do I want REAL butter.

I imagine some of those sticky salt and pepper shakers missing from table might be victims of sticky fingers….

justmy2cents

February 15th, 2011
12:47 pm

I don’t cook with salt at home; there are entirely too many other seasonings that can be used in its place. So when we do go out to eat, everything tastes way too salty. Even my kids are sensitive to it as well. I agree, under salt in the kitchen, and put the shakers on the table! Or, find a different seasoning combination!

Jenny Turknett

February 15th, 2011
1:16 pm

Love the discussion, everyone! Just to play devil’s advocate… Iron Chef Michael Symon once made the point that if you salt a dish during cooking, it develops flavor. If you salt a dish at the end (with the same amount of salt), it merely tastes salty…

Matt Freedman

February 15th, 2011
2:13 pm

FACTOID: Thomas Keller carries a little box of salt with him wherever he goes.

kmb

February 15th, 2011
2:19 pm

@Jenny Turknett:
The issue is whether or not the salt gets dissolved. If you add salt at the end, particularly, large granules, then it probably won’t be dissolved and will leave that oh too much salt taste. If dissolved, I doubt if you can tell.

Lorenzo

February 15th, 2011
2:58 pm

Salt is essential. Just about every restaurant should have salt shakers on the table, plus whatever other seasonings or sauces may be appropriate to the restaurant type. In a diner, they better have a pepper shaker. In a white tablecloth place, they might have a pepper shaker or ensure servers have access to a peppermill, but no pepper at all is okay with me if it’s the kind of restaurant where one is supposed to place oneself in the chef’s knowledgeable hands. But every restaurant needs salt on the table and needs to mind the amount of salt added in the kitchen for those who prefer less.

jhooper

February 15th, 2011
3:26 pm

Salt is a passion of mine the way cheese or wine is to other people. One of the most insulting things I can think of is to not give me the option of salt on the table. Am I a child incapable of having the responsibility to recognize if i need more salt or not. Is the chef so arrogant as to assume my taste buds directly reflect his? Please don’t make me carry my own salt shaker the way some people do salad dressing. How insulting to the chef will it be when i plop a huge box of Morton on top of the table?

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PJ

February 15th, 2011
4:18 pm

In most cases, I agree that food should be tasted before adding additional seasoning at the table. Unless I am at a casual restaurant, say like McAlester’s where I know the baked potato has no seasoning when it arrives at the table, adding seasoning before you taste can ruin your dish. I also heard Michael Symon make a passionate case on why he doesn’t have salt/pepper shakers on the tables at his restaurants. He is confident in the seasoning of his dishes and annoyed when diners reach for the salt before they try a dish. Yet, people’s palates are different. My husband’s 99-year-old grandmother’s palate had dulled to the point where things without lots of salt tasted completely bland. Therefore, I say leave the salt & pepper or, maybe in the case of fine dining, not balking at the request for additional seasoning.

Noelle

February 16th, 2011
12:17 pm

While diner should always taste their food before seasoning, there unfortunately, are those who have grown up surrounded by folks who don’t and they have absorbed the habit. A chef cannot know whether a diner is asking for salt and pepper as a matter of preference, or because they have problems with the sharpness of their taste buds or problems with smell (which effect taste). Put the darned salt and pepper on the table.

RK

February 16th, 2011
12:43 pm

I hate places that rush to your table as soon as you get your food and ask you if want freshly-grounded pepper or parmesan on your food.

Stephanie

February 16th, 2011
1:03 pm

Are the diners not guests? And are guests not free to choose? I just went to brunch with no salt and pepper in sight. Then it took 20 mins to find some. A waste of the server’s time and the loss of a customer. I don’t give a damn about insulting the chef.

hop 'n fresh

February 16th, 2011
1:39 pm

The Health Dept. is really cracking down on condiments left on the tables. They are huge germ carriers since they are not wiped down with anti-bacterial solutions between each party seated at the table. I love being able to have the choice to season my meal if I decide it needs more than how the chef prepares it but having learned about the ‘germ invasion’ of condiments, I am less reluctant to touch them!

Brazen Unicorn

February 16th, 2011
6:43 pm

I don’t normally season after cooking, but as a diner, I’d like the option. I especially love fresh ground pepper on certain things.

Kar

February 17th, 2011
10:32 am

The USDA just lowered the reccomended daily sodium to 1500 mg. They deliberately did that to push food industry to lower their sodium. That kind of says it all.

Coreena

February 17th, 2011
10:40 am

I have a salt sensitiviy and suffer when food in over salted. I would welcome salt shakers on tables and a lot less on the prepared food.
Salt should never be the predominate seasoning…a good chef would know this.