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Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken
Don’t salt meat before cooking
April 4, 2011Posted by on
The idea behind this one is that the salt will draw out juices from the meat, removing flavor and preventing the surface from browning properly. In theory salt can draw out moisture, but in the real world it does not seem to make any difference. I have salted meat before cooking innumerable times, including steaks for pan frying or grilling, roasts, and briskets headed for the smoker. I have never once seen any juice being drawn out by the salt. In addition, there are innumerable cooks ranging from at-home amateurs to professional chefs and cookbook authors—including the super-fussy people at Cooks Illustrated—who direct that salt be put on meat before cooking. It’s impossible to believe that if the myth were true, all these people would be blind to the supposedly dire effects.
If you use enough salt and let it sit long enough you will draw out moisture. But the real question is: does this reduce the quality of the final product? Not in my experience. Of course you must pat off the accumulated moisture with a paper towel before cooking if you want the meat to brown properly. In fact, drawing off some moisture may well concentrate the flavors and lead to a better result.
Salt DOES draw out the moisture in meat, naturally. What later happens, is through the process of osmosis the moisture, now mixed with a bit of salt (depending on the coarseness of the salt, which is why you should usually use kosher or sea salt) draws the moisture back into the meat. Now the newly introduced salt that is now inside the meat, helps hold the moisture and then begins to breakdown the proteins, tenderizing the meat (it is like an accelerated dry aging process). Of course you want to wash off the excess salt and pat dry the meat. So if done properly (that is the key, amount of salt versus time versus type and size of meat) you get a more moist, tender, and better seared meat. UNLESS you place it on for so long that the excess salt begins to soak in as well and cures the meat, or if you don’t wait long enough for the moisture the salt sucked up, to become reabsorbed into the meat.
If you are only sprinkling a bit of salt on top for seasoning purposes then you probably aren’t using enough salt in the first place to draw enough moisture out to have a real impact on the moisture level of the meat, which is probably why in that case you will not notice a real difference.
Thanks for the useful information. Do you know of any source that gives guidelines for how much salt and how long for different cuts of meat?
Check out the Food Lab at SeriousEats.com. Kenji Lopez-Alt writes extensively on this topic.
Excuse me, but all salt is “sea salt” whether it comes from evaporated seawater or a salt mine. Salt mines are dried ocean bottoms from prehistoric times. There is no salt other than sea salt. This is why salt from a mine can be classified as “sea salt” on the label according to the FDA. I think what you mean to say is non-iodized salt.
neo, you totally stole my thunder! But even better, you explained it much more thoroughly and elegantly than I would have. Thank you for throwing some basic chemistry at the discussion! I use salt frequently to tie moisture up inside the food and keep it there longer.
Actually neo, what you are decribing is called purging, and is done to moisture rich vegetables to draw out water prior to other applications, both cooked and raw. The salt (usually kosher) is applied and then rinsed away to avoid the intended dish from being over-salted, and the water extracted is then thrown away (such as purging cabbage before making cole slaw so you don’t wind up with a pool of watery dressing in the bottom). With meat however, you do not want to rinse the salt away. It not only coaxes water out of the meat, it coaxes protein-rich water out of the meat and to the surface. This in fact aids in browning and in the creation of that beautiful brown crust we all love on seared meat. The salt will also denature some of the proteins at the surface helping the meat to retain more moisture during cooking (this is why brining keeps foods such as poultry and pork moist during cooking). As to a guideline, I can only say, use a little more than you think you are going to need. I can sincerely say I have never over-salted a piece of meat (and not for lack of trying) and I have found undersalting yields lackluster results.
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Just to add something to Neo’s post, I would suggest leaving the meat salted for at least 24 hours. He says, “what later happens….moisture back into the meat” — and that’s the key. You need to give the process time to do this. It won’t happen in minutes. I’m going to buy a rib-eye steak this afternoon (Saturday), and when I bring it home, I’ll open the butcher paper, apply coarse salt all over it, then re-wrap it and leave it on the kitchen counter. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll bar-b-que it. That gives it a whole day — at room temp — to undergo the process that Neo describes. We’ll see how it goes. Btw, I will likely add some black ground pepper to the meat just before cooking.