One of the reasons I started my blog was so that I would have a place to discuss in detail some of the basic techniques and processes of cooking. Often I am asked questions in class that I can't answer in as much detail as I would like...simply because there isn't time. Being able to refer people to my blog gives me a chance to be a better teacher.
For most of November and December I have devoted my blog to seasonal recipes rather than techniques—because that tends to be what people are in need of at this time of year. As we move into the winter months, I will again make an effort to occasionally post tutorial-type posts explaining basic techniques. Observant readers may have noticed that a few weeks ago I added a page to my blog that will index posts on basic techniques to make them more readily accessible.
Today I want to talk a little bit about a technique that will make any piece of meat that you prepare better—whether you are roasting, pan-frying or grilling...whether you are working with beef, pork, chicken (and other fowl) or lamb...and whether you are cooking a large roast, a whole bird or a smaller steak, cutlet or chop. Meat is expensive, it is important to be able to make sure the meat you buy tastes as good as it can.
The technique—pre-salting—is straightforward and easy to understand, execute and incorporate into daily food preparation. If you are a seasoned cook, you have probably already heard of and are using this technique. But maybe not. Too often I assume people know more than they do. I was reminded of this when I was helping a relative prepare some beautiful, prime quality rib-eye steaks that they had purchased for Christmas dinner. This was someone who cooks for their family—from scratch—regularly, but they were not familiar with pre-salting.
Pre-salting is exactly what it sounds like. It is applying salt to the meat ahead of time. For years the standard advice to cooks was not to salt until immediately before the meat went into the pan or oven. Some Chefs and cooking teachers went so far as to advise not salting until the cooking process had already begun, or was over. Salting before the last minute was thought to dry the meat out. If you have ever salted a piece of meat and allowed it to sit on the counter for a few moments you have noticed beads of liquid beginning to pool on the surface of the meat...the salt is indeed drawing the liquid out of the meat.
If cooked at this point the meat will in all likelihood be dry (much of its moisture is on the surface rather than the interior). Furthermore, the meat will not brown well—the moisture on the surface encourages steaming or poaching rather than browning. To obtain meats that are well-browned, the surfaces should always be dry before being put in the pan, in the oven, or on the grill.
If the meat is allowed to continue to sit for a longer period of time after it has been salted, it will begin to reabsorb the (now salty) liquid. The amount of time can be as short as a few hours....or as long as a day or two for very large roasts or birds. My relative was very surprised when he pulled his steaks out of the refrigerator, a day after salting them, to discover that the surfaces of the steaks were dry.
The obvious question of course is—why would you go to the trouble of doing this? Well, I find that meats that have been pre-salted are well-seasoned throughout and consequently much more flavorful. If you apply herbs or pepper and other spices to the meat when you salt it, you will also find that the salt helps these flavors to permeate the meat more fully. Ultimately, flavor alone makes pre-salting a worth-while practice as far as I'm concerned.
Judy Rogers in her Zuni Café Cookbook makes the case that pre-salting makes meats juicier and more tender. Because I don't have the science background to explain why this may or may not be so (I happen to think it probably is), I won't argue these points here. Rather, I would encourage those interested in a more extensive treatment of pre-salting to get her book. It is a wonderful cookbook—full of good recipes and written by a chef who wants her readers to understand what they are doing...not just blindly follow her recipes.
To pre-salt a piece of meat: Remove it from its packaging, rinse and dry it, if necessary, salt the meat evenly all over, place it in a non-reactive container (glass or stainless steel are both fine), cover it loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate it until about an hour or two before you plan to cook it. Pulling the meat out of the refrigerator an hour or so before it will be cooked allows the meat to come to room temperature and will help it to cook more evenly. It is not necessary to rinse the meat right before you cook it. If there is any moisture on the surface, simply blot it with a paper towel. Pre-salted meat does not need to be salted again before it is cooked. Other than that, the meat may be cooked as usual.
The amount of salt you use when you pre-salt is really up to your palate. I like to use about 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat—if part of the weight is bone, then perhaps slightly less salt. For smaller cuts of meat, salting can be done several hours ahead (maybe before you leave for work for a steak, chop or cutlet to be cooked that evening). For a large roast or a chicken (or turkey), a day or two is fine.
My habit and preference is to use kosher salt. You may substitute another salt—preferably a sea salt of some kind rather than iodized table salt. But since salts vary in saltiness, according to their source and how coarse or fine they are, if you choose to use something other than kosher salt, you will need to experiment with the amount per pound that you like to use.
You will notice that in all my discussion of pre-salting, I have never mentioned fish or shell fish. This is because I don't pre-salt fish. Judy Rogers says that she does—usually a few hours in advance. I have never had good luck with this. I find that pre-salted fish is a bit chewy—almost tough.
Finally, I don't always pre-salt. If I'm thinking ahead, or planning a dinner for a client, I always do because it always improves the flavor. Sometimes though, I'm just trying to get dinner on the table. In which case, I simply follow the time honored practice of salting the meat right before I cook it.
I can't close this post, which has been largely devoted to the use of salt, without adding one final thought about salt. Please don't be afraid of it! I firmly believe that the excessive level of sodium in the average American diet is not due to the salt that is added to meats and fresh vegetables that are cooked from scratch in a home kitchen. If you salt your home cooked, fresh foods with a sufficient amount of salt to please your palate, you will enjoy your home cooked foods more and will be far less likely to consume prepared and processed foods that already have more salt in them than you can possibly imagine.