If you’re like us, every time you hear about a kitchen hack—whether it’s advice from grandma or trending on TikTok—you wonder: But does it actually work? In The Kitchen Scientist, we’re asking author Nik Sharma (whose new book, The Flavor Equation, comes out in October!) to put it to the test.
I’d read a few reports about folks washing strawberries in salt water to get rid of worms and other types of bugs, but hadn’t considered doing it myself. To be honest, washing with tap water has never let me down.
But when the editors at Food52 reached out and asked me if I would be willing to test the method that’s been circulating on TikTok (see here, and here, and here), I was intrigued: Is this something that I should be adopting into my kitchen repertoire?
To test this popular method, I decided to run a simple experiment. I purchased strawberries from three different sources, cleaned them with either salted water or tap water, and then examined if the runoff contained any bugs of any kind.
Let’s find out.
Does salted water drive hidden bugs out of strawberries?
The theory behind this method
When salt comes into contact with bugs, it draws out water through osmosis (the same mechanism by which vegetables, like eggplant and tomato slices, and salt-preserved eggs are prepared). As the bugs lose their internal water and several other biological mechanisms begin to take a hit (for example, the proteins that perform important structural and functional roles, like enzymes, stop working), they become uncomfortable and come out of the fruit, in search of a less-salty home. Some of them might perish (depending on how much salt is used and for how long they’re exposed).
My simple experimental design
The experiment for each treatment was repeated thrice. The strawberries were rinsed, then left to sit in either plain water or water in which salt (respectively 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon of salt in 2 cups of water) was dissolved. After 30 minutes, the strawberries were removed, and the water closely inspected for bugs.
In my first experimental run, the strawberries that were rinsed and left in plain water had a few small spiders that came running out! I expected a bit of dirt and a bug or two, but not spiders. They weren’t that big (a little under ¼-inch in size) and could be easily washed by running with tap water, yet still enough to be unnerving.
However, my test sample, where the fruit were soaked in salted water, had no visible bugs left behind in the water. In my second and third runs, besides the dirt I anticipated and the hairy projections attached to the strawberry skin located right next to the strawberry seeds, I did not observe any worms or other kinds of bugs (or spiders).
And yes, in case you’re wondering, I examined the berries pretty close before eating them. They didn’t taste salty, as the salt shouldn’t penetrate the fruit if the skin is intact.
I expected a certain degree of bugs and dirt to be present in fresh produce—after all, the berries are grown in soil and travel a bit before reaching our farmers markets and grocery stores.
In the first case, the spiders ran away from the plain water, while in the last two experimental runs, there was just dirt in the runoff water.
An additional experiment that I did not perform, that would look at the efficiency of this method: Intentionally add bugs to strawberries, then clean them with water versus salted water, and observe if there are any differences in the number of bugs that come off. (If you try this yourself, do report back in the comments below.)
Based on my results, it appears that water by itself is just as good at getting rid of bugs from fruit. At the end of the day, I’m going to stick to washing my strawberries (and other fruit) with tap water.
Nik Sharma is the writer, photographer, and recipe developer behind A Brown Table, an award-winning blog that has garnered best-ofs from Saveur, Better Homes & Gardens, and the International Association of Culinary Professions. His weekly column, A Brown Kitchen, appears in the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for Saveur, Taste, Food52, Eater, among others. His first cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food was released on October 2018. He was also featured in America, the Great Cookbook. Nik lives in Oakland, California.