Should You Season Meat Before or After Cooking?

Published Categorized as Cooking Tips
Steak and fries

There are two camps when it comes to seasoning meat: one says that you should always do it before cooking, the other that it’s best done after. Camp one says that you get steaks and chops that smell and taste better as a result. Camp two claims that adding salt to your meat makes it dry as draws out the moisture. Which one is right?

As many things in home cooking, the best cooking methods and recipes are the ones that you and your family like the most. And when it comes to meat, me and my wife always prefer meat that’s seasoned before cooking. Here’s why.

Season raw meat with salt and pepper and let it rest in the fridge for 6 hours (or overnight) before cooking. The meat will keep its natural juices and enhance its aroma and flavor. This happens because the salt will draw out juices from the meat and dissolve with them in a salted peppery brine, which the meat will reabsorb.

This is the secret to making perfectly seasoned meat every single time you cook. In this blog post, I’m going to show you exactly why and how.

The Best Seasoning for Meat

The best seasoning for meat is kosher salt and, if you like your beefsteak or pork chop peppery and pungent, cracked peppercorn. Some folks only use black pepper, but I prefer a peppercorn blend as it has a richer taste and smell compared to it.

Unless you’re following a recipe that calls for another herb or spice, like thyme or cumin, kosher salt and cracked peppercorn will season meat perfectly in 90% of your home cooking.

Kosher salt works well with meat because of its coarse and flaky crystals. Its name comes from the traditional way of preparing meat in Jewish cuisine called koshering. The Hebrew Bible forbids Jews from eating meat with the blood from the animal still inside. Koshering is the process of draining the blood from the raw meat using salt and an inclined surface.

Jewish butchers rub raw meat with kosher salt, letting it rest for 1-6 hours on an inclined surface. The salt draws out the juices from the meat and the inclined surface lets it drip away from it. The meat is then rinsed to wash away the excess salt and considered safe for consumption according to Jewish tradition.

You can, of course, use any other type of salt for seasoning meat. I’ve had great results with other coarse salts like sea salt and Himalayan pink salt. Not so with table salt and pickling salt, which are ground too finely and evenly to give you the outcome you want.

Why We Season Meat

Beefsteak

Salting meat for enough time before cooking can help it keep its natural juices and enhance its taste and aroma.

This probably sounds counterintuitive to you at first, especially after reading about the Jewish tradition of koshering meat. After all, doesn’t salt draw out juices from meat? The answer is in what happens after you salt the meat and how you can use that process to make the perfect steak, pork chop, or even whole chicken or turkey.

When you add salt to raw meat, it first sits on the surface. After a while, a chemical reaction called osmosis starts to kick in. The salt draws out the juices to the surface of the meat and mixes with them to form a salty brine. Let it rest for enough time and the meat will absorb the salt brine back, turning naturally juicy and well seasoned.

If you’ve seasoned the meat with salt and pepper, the brine will absorb the taste and smell of the pepper. As a result, the steak will have a rich and spicy flavor and aroma (this is how the French make Steak au Poivre, or “peppered steak”).

The key to making naturally juicy and well seasoned meat is to season it and let it rest for enough time before cooking. But how much time is enough?

You’ve probably gone to a barbecue or two (or hosted one yourself) where the host seasoned the steaks before grilling, let them rest for about 15 minutes, and put them on the grill. Somehow, all the juices dripped out of the meat and everyone ate good, but dry, steak.

Here’s how to never make that mistake on any kind of meat again (bold promise, I know, but I have a neat table for you).

How to Season Meat Before Cooking

If you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to prep, just season the steak or chops with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper — and sear them until golden brown in a preheated skillet. I do this 90% of the time and my steaks turn out great.

If you do have the time and energy and want to make something special for dinner, check out the table below and start prepping early (as it can take you anywhere between 1, 6, 24, or 48 hours depending on the type of meat and the cut).

CutsTimeInstructions
Steaks, lamb chops, pork chops1 hour before cookingAdd 1 teaspoon of salt per 8-9 ounces of steak. Sprinkle on both sides of the steak or chop and. Optionally, crack black peppercorns or peppercorn blend. Let it rest at room temperature on a wire rack in a baking sheet.
Beef, lamb, and pork roastsUp to 6 hours before cookingAdd 1 teaspoon per pound of meat. Rub on all sides of the roast. Optionally, crack black peppercorns or peppercorn blend. Seal it tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest in the fridge, on a wire rack in a baking sheet.
Chicken and turkey bone-in pieces and breastsUp to 6 hours before cookingAdd 1 teaspoon per pound of poultry. Salt all sides of the bone-in pieces or breasts well. Seal it tightly in plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge, on a wire rack in a baking sheet.
Whole chickenUp to 24 hours before cookingAdd 1 teaspoon per pound of poultry. Rub the outside and inside with salt thoroughly. Seal the whole chicken tightly in plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge, on a rimmed baking sheet.
Whole turkeyUp to 24-48 hours before cookingAdd 1 teaspoon per pound of poultry. Rub the outside and inside with salt thoroughly. Seal the whole turkey tightly in plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge, on a rimmed baking sheet.
How to salt red meat and poultry before cooking

With this method of salting meat and letting it rest for enough time before cooking, your steaks, chops, and roasts are going to turn out as good as what you’d be served in a Michelin-star restaurant. Try it out and let me know in the comments below.

One other thing I really like about it is that I don’t have to cram large containers for brine in the fridge. Instead, I just need a baking sheet, wire rack, plastic wrap, and patience. All the hard work is done for me by the culinary miracle of osmosis.

In Conclusion

When it comes to meat, the simplest seasoning works the best. Use kosher salt, also known as rock salt or flake salt outside of the U.S., and freshly-ground pepper. You can add any other herb or spice you like (this is part of the fun about home cooking), but I’ve found that these two spices will do the job perfectly for 90% of your steaks, chops, and roasts.

The bigger the cut, the more time you should leave it to rest once seasoned. Mistake #1 that most cooks make to cook steak 15-20 minutes after seasoning it. The juices will drip out and the steak will turn out dry. Mistake #2 is that they don’t season their meat with salt at all to avoid this. But then, they end up with bland meat.

Follow the instructions in this post for each type and cut of meat, and you’ll make restaurant-grade grilled, seared, and roast meat every single time you cook at home. All you need is a wire rack, baking sheet, plastic wrap, and patience.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.