Cooking doesn’t have to be hard. When you know the basics, like when to add salt, whipping up delicious home-cooked meals gets easy.
An old wives’ tale says that, if you sprinkle some salt in the oil in your frying pan, the salt will keep the oil from splattering all over the stove. The question is, how much truth—if any—is there to this?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all the years I’ve been researching and writing about food, and, boy, does time pass quickly, it’s that most of what we think is true about cooking is, in reality, just a myth.
Some myths, such as the belief that searing a steak locks in flavor (it doesn’t; searing creates flavor), are generally harmless. Others, like adding salt to the oil so that it won’t splatter, are not. Blindly following such advice can ruin an otherwise perfectly prepared dish, and we’re about to discuss why.
So, should you add salt to the oil in your frying pan?
While salting cooking water and seasoning meat and vegetables before frying helps improve flavor, adding salt to cooking oil is unnecessary and counterproductive. The salt lowers the smoke point of the oil, causing it to burn, break down, and impart a bitter taste to the food.
To put it simply, “no, you shouldn’t.”
To keep the oil in your frying pan from splattering, dry your foods before adding them in. You can do this with the help of a paper towel.
Simply pat dry the steaks, chops, or fillets, season them with salt and pepper, then them to the pan and trash the towels. (Raw meat has surface bacteria that you don’t want to transfer to your hands, knives, cutting board, and the rest of your dinner.)
When water comes in contact with hot oil, it turns into vapor. Subsequently, when the water is in the oil, the vapor builds up in bubbles that rise to the top quickly, causing the oil to splash and splatter. When all of the moisture has evaporated, the splashing and splattering stops.
If your food is wet, or overly moist on the surface, salted oil won’t prevent this from happening.
So Where Does This Belief Come From?
The tale says that adding salt or flour keeps oil from splattering.
Note that both salt and flour are things that you sprinkle on large pieces of food, whether a thick-cut steak, breaded cutlet, or zucchini fritter, before throwing them in the hot skillet.
My take is that, decades ago, many home cooks started confusing causation and correlation. Since salted meat or veg dipped in flour make the oil in the pan splatter less, they thought that adding salt or flour to the oil is the solution to splattering in general.
But here’s the thing: it isn’t.
When you slap a steak on the pan, the oil splatters less not because the meat is salted, but because the large, room-temperature food item that you just threw in lowered the average temperature of the pan (and thus the cooking oil in it). The same thing happens when you add a breaded item, be it a cutlet, a latke, a fritter.
I can see how it’s easy to attribute the lack of splatter to the fact that the food item was salted or breaded—when it was the temperature of the food item that minimized it in the first place.
This, of course, is just an assumption. We will never truly know how this myth originated. (Then again, does it matter?)
When and Where to Add Salt
When not overdone, salt will make your food more savory and tone its bitterness down. It also increases the sweetness and sourness of your food. The more salt you add, the more savory your food becomes until, at a certain concentration, the salt no longer brings out sweetness and sourness.
Salt the cooking water for starches, like rice, pasta, or potatoes, so that they come out more aromatic and flavorsome by the time they are done. Otherwise, your starchy foods will come out tasting bland.
There are two ways to salt steaks, chops, fillets, and proteins in general: You either salt them immediately before cooking, or 45 minutes in advance, letting them sit out at room temperature or, if it’s a hot summer’s day, storing them in your fridge.
The 45-minute technique is called “dry brining” and results in highly flavorsome meat. First, the salt removes moisture from the meat thanks to a process called osmosis. Then, the salt dissolves in the meat juices, and those salty juices get reabsorbed by the meat, seasoning it from the inside.
These two meat-salting technique apply to all methods, whether frying, deep frying, roasting, broiling, or sous vide.