From J.N.W., 15 December 2009, When should you season meat before cooking?
Q: I wonder where you fall on the great divide of when to salt meat, specifically rib-eye steak, before grilling or searing it? I’ve always salted just before dropping the steaks on a grill that’s burning as hot as I can get it. I routinely do this for a group of guy friends who’ve already [been] drinking beer, by that point drinking red wine, and are looking forward to playing poker, so we’re talking about an easy audience. Still, they invariably rave about the taste of this simple pleasure. Last weekend, however, I mixed things up a bit by lightly coating the steaks with olive oil and chopped garlic (and salt and pepper) before grilling. This caused one guy to protest that not only was this a big mistake, but that any salting should be done more than 24 hours in advance. Others said that would dry the steaks out. Seems like the advice on this is all over the place, so I come to you, knowing that your sage advice will end this debate once and for all.
A: Thanks for your question. As you have discovered, the meat-salting question has provoked a great deal of controversy.
Hervé This, father of molecular gastronomy, took a scientific approach to the age-old scientific question and salted different types of meat, discarding any liquid shed, and weighing both types after set intervals. This determined that flank steak – a long-muscled red meat – lost virtually no water after 30 minutes of salting, but that chicken meat lost 1% of its weight in that same time period. Meat cut across the grain, like rib steak, lost a small amount of water weight – less than chicken, but more than flank. In addition, This determined, using electron microscope analysis of cooked meat, that salt did not penetrate to the center, but at most, a small amount enters the fibers in the outer layer of meat.
Now that you’ve received all this erudition and you feel like you’re back in school again, you probably just want an answer, and here it is. Because steak sheds little moisture, and salt does not penetrate far into the meat fibers, you can salt steak whenever you like. It makes virtually no difference. One caveat: if your steak does shed a little liquid, wipe it dry before grilling or searing, or your meat will not brown. The Maillard reaction, which is responsible for protein browning, does not take place in the presence of water.
A note about poultry and other finer-textured proteins: as noted above, finer-textured proteins like chicken do shed more liquid. Fish will dehydrate quite quickly in the presence of salt. Accordingly, you should not season fish until immediately before cooking. Poultry sheds liquid and may, if given the opportunity, reabsorb the liquid it gives off through osmosis, in a process Judy Rodgers pioneered at Zuni Café. This “dry brining” process involves coating the chicken with about 3/4 tsp salt per pound of meat, and then covering the chicken and allowing it to rest under refrigeration. After about 2 days, the chicken will re-absorb the liquid it has given off, now seasoned with salt, effectively brining the meat without delivering excess water and contributing to a spongy texture, as water-based brines usually do.