How many times have you heard, “Salting raw meat (or poultry or fish) will draw the juices out of the meat and make it tough?” I see this statement repeated in cookbook after cookbook as if it were a fact.
Yet in older cookbooks, especially the ones based on European cooking techniques, salting meat before cooking is done routinely, without loss of juices. In fact, meat that is salted before cooking is often much juicier and more succulent than meat that isn’t salted!
So who’s right? Is it the people who say don’t salt, or the old-fashioned cooks who say you SHOULD salt? They BOTH are. The issue isn’t the salt. The issue is WHEN you should apply salt to raw foods, especially meat, poultry, and fish.
The basic rule is, if you’re going to use salt, do it early – or don’t do it until the meat is cooked! Never apply salt to meat right before you put it in the pan or on the grill. Salting at the last minute will definitely pull juices out of the meat. It will toughen and dry out the surface of the meat, without adding any extra flavor to the inside.
But if you do salt your meat early – even a few days before cooking – you will be pleasantly surprised at the results! Many old-fashioned cooks, especially chefs who were trained in classical French or German methods, salt their meat well in advance of cooking. They salt the meat evenly and lightly as soon as it comes into their kitchen. Then they wrap the meat carefully, and refrigerate it until it is time to cook.
This early salting will actually improve the texture, juiciness, and flavor of the meat. It has an almost miraculous tenderizing power, without MSG and without turning the meat to flabby mush. This early salting is especially beneficial for cuts of meat that have a chewier quality, like the chewier types of steak (such as skirt and flank steak), firm roasts, brisket, and pot roast. But you can also lightly salt tender steaks, poultry, and fish ahead of time. An added benefit is the salt will help keep the meat fresh and lively tasting, even after several days of refrigeration.
Why does this early salting work so well? Salt reacts with the proteins inside the muscle fibers in meat. Given time, it dissolves them slightly, making the meat more tender. But what’s more important, it promotes the movement of moisture inside the meat cells.
When salt first hits the meat, it pulls moisture OUT of the cells – that’s why the meat will be dry if you salt right before cooking. But if the salt has time to penetrate the meat, the cells start to REABSORB the moisture. And because the proteins are now nice and soft, the cells absorb the salt flavor – and any herbs or spices you may have added to the salt – deep inside the meat. So now you have happy meat that’s evenly seasoned and tenderized all the way through!
If you’re skeptical about salting your meat ahead of time, don’t take my word for it. Respected food authorities like Judy Rodgers, the award-winning chef who runs San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, has a whole section about the early salting of meat and other foods in her “Zuni Cafe Cookbook.” She goes into all the chemistry in great detail.
But trust me, if you try this early salting method just once, you will be amazed at how much better your meat tastes. And you won’t see your guests covering their meat with salt at the table, since the meat will be gently flavored with salt all the way through. In fact, if you’re watching your salt intake, by salting lightly but early you can often get superior flavor, and reduce or even eliminate the need to add salt at the table.
How much salt to use? That’s a matter of taste. Start with a very modest amount: sprinkle on the minimum you would use if the meat were already cooked. I use about 1/4 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat, but thin cuts need less, and thick cuts like roasts might need quite a bit more. Go easy at first, and eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
Two more tips about salting early. First, the salt will tenderize and moisturize the meat faster at room temperature than in the fridge (don’t bother salting meat if you’re going to freeze it, it’s pointless). So the colder your fridge, the earlier you need to do the salting. Second, poultry doesn’t need to be salted as long as beef, and fish may only need a few hours.
You can also add seasonings to the salt. One of my favorite seasoned salts for steaks is very simple: one tablespoon of plain sea salt, 1/2 tablespoon of sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon of sweet Hungarian paprika. Mix these three ingredients well, then sprinkle lightly on steaks, wrap them individually in good quality plastic wrap, and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook. The sugar will help the meat sear nicely without excess heat, and the paprika adds a subtle, warm taste and a wonderful aroma.