Get the most flavor out of every bite! Here’s when and how to salt your steaks, chops, and birds to perfection.
Welcome to the delicious, delectable, and highly controversial world of meat seasonings, my friends. Today, you and I are going to be settling a debate as old as time itself: do you season that juicy cut of meat before or after cooking it? I say it’s about time to get to the bottom of this — and find out which method reigns supreme.
But before we get to when to salt your meat, why even bother with paying attention to it?
Why We Salt Meat
Salt adds flavor: Seasonings, like salt and pepper, can make a world of difference in the final flavor of your meat.
Nobody wants to eat a bland steak, and nobody can resist a savory, juicy steak. Properly seasoning your meat before cooking it can elevate it from just a hunk of protein to a delicious, mouth-watering meal. In cooking, it’s the little things that can make a big impact. And, in this case, a sprinkle of salt can turn a “hmm… not bad” steak into a “wow, that’s great” one.
But it’s not just about flavor. It’s also about juiciness and mouthfeel.
Salt breaks down the protein fibers, leaving your meat juicier: The thing is, where salt goes, water follows.1Dupree, N., Graubart, C., & Conroy, P. (2012). Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking. Gibbs Smith. And if you understand how this works and use it to your advantage, you will be able to cook up a mean steak.
When you sprinkle salt on a steak, roast, or whole bird, the salt begins to draw moisture from within the meat to the surface. This is why you might see juices on the surface of your meat a few minutes after you’ve salted it.
And so, the magic happens. By drawing the water from the meat, the salt tenderizes it because it breaks down the muscle fibers. And once it yanks out the juices to the surface, it dissolves in those juices to form a flavorful brine that seeps into the flesh, infusing it with a salty, savory, absolutely delicious flavor on the inside.
Because the muscle fibers are broken down, they don’t contract as much during cooking. Which means they don’t squeeze out as much moisture.2Vaclavik, V.A., & Christian, E.W. (2007). Essentials of Food Science. Springer New York. In other words, if you season that steak right, it’s going to be more flavorful, juicier, and more tender.
The question is, how are you supposed to do it?
When to Salt Your Meat
Season your meat before, and not after, you’ve cooked it. I’m talking about sprinkling it with kosher salt and black pepper, generously and on both sides, to really make it pop.
Salting the meat immediately before cooking: When you’re short on time and you just want to get that steak or pork chop on the grill, give it a sprinkle of salt and pepper right before you put it in the pan or slap it on the grill. It will still taste great, and you’ll be chowing down in no time.
Salting the meat halfway through cooking: Some cooks opt for seasoning their meat during the cooking process, halfway through. They say this leaves the meat to hiss and sizzle better in the beginning, producing a crispier crust since less moisture’s drawn to the surface.
But if you really want your meat to taste great, you have to dry-brine it.
Dry-brining the meat a few hours before cooking: Dry-brining is when you season your meat and let it sit in the fridge for 1 hour to several hours or overnight, depending on how thick the cut. Steaks dry brine for 1-2 hours, roasts for 3-4 hours, and whole birds overnight. This allows the salt to penetrate deep into the meat, breaking down the proteins and making it taste extra flavorful. Yes, it’s time consuming, but trust me, it’s totally worth it.
Why not wet brining?
Because dry-brining seasons your meat better and makes less of a mess. All you need to do is salt the meat, place it on a sheet pan, then refrigerate it for one to a few hours — it’s faster, it doesn’t involve liquid, and it leaves a higher concentration of salt (and flavor) in your meat.3Provost, J. J., & Colabroy, K. L. (2016). The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry Behind Food and Cooking. Wiley.
If you want your meat to taste like it’s straight out of the grillhouse, you’ve got to salt that bad boy before you start cooking it. Don’t wait until it’s all done — that’s a rookie move.
Salt it up right before you throw it on the grill, halfway through the cooking process, or, best of all, dry-brine it by giving it a good rubdown with salt and letting it sit in the fridge for one to a few hours before cooking it
- 1Dupree, N., Graubart, C., & Conroy, P. (2012). Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking. Gibbs Smith.
- 2Vaclavik, V.A., & Christian, E.W. (2007). Essentials of Food Science. Springer New York.
- 3Provost, J. J., & Colabroy, K. L. (2016). The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry Behind Food and Cooking. Wiley.