One of the most basic tenets in the kitchen is that of “salting (often referred to as seasoning) your proteins”. We’ve already broached that subject in a previous blog post – “What’s at steak?” From beef to pork to chicken to lamb, every chef worth his or her…well…salt…acknowledges the importance of this crucial step. But, that’s where the amiable agreement ends because, there are widely varying schools of thought when discussing when this should be done.
Even more frustrating is the fact that several notable cookbook authors give differing advice about when to salt your proteins. What’s best practice? Is there a best practice? Is there a definitively correct method? Is one method preferred over another? We’ve done a lot of research (more than 6 months worth) and we are happy to provide (what we believe to be) the best answers below.
There is the common misconception that salt dries out your meat. (Renowned science-of-cooking guru and New York Times columnist Harold McGee offers specific -independent- commentary on this subject.) While that is true in some specific cases, for the most part, the opposite is true. Large quantities of salt (like those used when curing meat) will have a desiccating effect, smaller quantities (like those used to season and brine foods) have a hydrating effect.
What we found is that there is no single approach that works for everything. The greater consideration actually came down to what’s most practical for home cooks. Let’s face it, most of us don’t have lots of extra cooler space for prepping dinners days in advance. If you want a nice smokey flavor, consider one of our smoked sea salts. Our personal preference for most occasions is Sel Gris de Guerande. Dial it up with some Black Truffle salt if you really want to impress the judges!
The salt you choose is just one factor. Consider this your definitive, go-to guide for when to salt and season your proteins. Print it out and stick it on the fridge or in your spice cabinet for reference. The cooking method is up to you, so sous-vide, braise, grill, rotisserie, pan-sear, butter poach and oven-roast to your heart’s content (and if your cooking technique is not flawed) the result will be consistently succulent, well seasoned proteins!
Turkey, chicken, Cornish Game Hen and quail all benefit from seasoning 24-72 hours in advance. When seasoning this far in advance, you allow the moisture to osmose out of the muscle tissue while the salt goes in, then after a few hours, the moisture will be pulled back in and the result is a more balanced flavor profile than that produced by salting just before cooking.
If you can’t afford that time luxury, do yourself a favor and use skin-on, bone-in chicken. When salting or seasoning just before cooking, the majority of the salt will not fall directly on the muscle tissue. This prevents the chicken from drying out when cooking.
Here’s where conventional wisdom fails us! Pork salted over-night or even for several nights winds up being VERY dry when cooked. Do yourself a favor. Season those pork chops, loins and butt roasts just before cooking. If you are going to brine them, a couple of hours is OK, but keep it short.
If there is any meat that you take the time to season in advance, let it be lamb. The results will be infinitely better – and by better we mean DELICIOUS! The composition of the flavor profile is definitely more balanced, richer and more full-bodied than if you were to salt just before cooking! Do yourself a flavor favor – if you can’t plan on seasoning lamb in advance don’t plan on cooking it.
While you will be able to tell the difference between a steak or roast that has been seasoned well in advance versus one that was tended to just before cooking, it is usually difficult to get any group to come to a consensus about which is better. The reason is primarily related to the fact that either method will produce steaks that are equally tasty and juicy.
For the most flavorful hamburgers possible, grind meat that has already been seasoned in advance. Take chunks of meat (we prefer a blend of two thirds chuck and one third sirloin – dry aged even) and season them for a day or two in the fridge, then grind them – you’ll never go back to plain ground beef again!
Whether you choose to season in advance or just before cooking, the amount of effort required for either is almost identical. It’s the forethought that gets us in trouble. Meal planning is not the forté of most, so when presented with a last minute meal that must be made, select a protein that will excel without the extra time needed to season it. . . and savor the results!