Photo: Davidchuk Alexey (Shutterstock)
Conjure up an image of the perfect steak and you will likely land on a red and juicy interior surrounded by a hearty, browned crust. Add a sizzling cast iron pan, a dash of garlic and herb butter, maybe some flaky sea salt sprinkled on top in the Salzbae fashion, and you are damn close to perfection. It looks so simple, so why don’t most homemade steaks taste as good as a steakhouse chop, even from a distance?
The secret is not just in the use of salt, but in the correct use of salt.
Salt is one of the most important ingredients in cooking. It intensifies aromas, dampens the bitterness, creates contrasts and provides texture. This is not to downplay the role that excessive salt intake can have on our health; Part of the magic of salt lies in the balance it creates. You don’t have to overuse it to feel its effects, you just have to make better use of it. Amounts are important. Timing is important. And not all salt is the same.
Summon the image of the perfect steak once again. The two most important characteristics of a good steak are a good crust (which requires aggressive heat) and a tender and juicy interior (which requires gentle roasting). As meat expert Max Grebb (aka MaxTheMeatGuy) puts it this way: “They are two very contradicting elements of cooking, and the way we salt our steak will enable us to do these things most effectively to give us that balance.”
What happens when you salt a steak?
We salt steaks primarily for the taste, but that’s not all. Salt is also a must for tenderness and moisture retention.
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Sprinkle a layer of kosher salt on a piece of meat (or any other food that contains moisture) and you will soon see osmosis at work. Within minutes, drops of liquid appear on the surface, where they then begin to dissolve each salt crystal. This creates a concentrated brine on the surface of the steak. If there is enough time, this brine diffuses back into the meat and provides flavor and tenderness. The longer it has to diffuse back (taking into account the thickness of the section), the deeper it can penetrate.
“If you are salt dry a steak, “says Grebb,” any salt that has been completely absorbed by the meat itself binds to these molecules, making it difficult for the water to escape and ultimately improving the moisture retention in these cells. “So you can not only do that Season the inside of your steak but the end result will also be noticeably juicier.
Why timing matters when salting a steak
Browse cookbooks, read online blogs, and watch celebrity chefs and you will find a variety of different opinions on the best time to season your steak with salt before cooking. Some swear by adding salt just before or even while cooking. Others believe that a properly seasoned steak should be salted 12 or even 48 hours beforehand, depending on the thickness of the cut. Then there are those who refuse to add salt until a steak is cooked. But most agree that cooking your steak within 3 to 45 minutes of salting (huge) is a huge mistake. This time allows the salt to draw moisture out of the steak, but not enough time to diffuse back in. Aside from starving your meal of taste and tenderness, cooking this way makes it much harder to get the perfect crust.
It is well known that moisture is the enemy of tanning. To get what you wanted Maillard reaction, the surface of the steak should be as dry as possible for exponentially better searing. Cooking within this approximate time frame of 3 to 45 minutes – when the moisture has been removed from the protein but not yet reabsorbed by the meat – does massive damage to it. Give him at least an hour. The longer you let the brine resorb in a steak, the more intense the taste and tenderness will be, while the surface of the steak has enough time to dry.
“What that means,” says Grebb, “is that you can actually cook it at a slightly lower temperature and still get a great crust while still getting a medium edge-to-edge rarity.”
Of course, life is tough, and so is timing. If you simply don’t have time for so much planning, the rule of thumb is to cook your steak right after the season is over – about a minute, so that the salt doesn’t have enough time to remove moisture from the steak.
How to salt a steak (and what salt to use)
“In general, people shorten steaks a lot,” says Grebb, and especially thicker cuts. “Using the analogy with snow, you can use a heavy snowfall for a thick steak. If it’s a thin steak, you should dust more. “
Speaking of snowflakes, each one is unique, and the same goes for grains of salt. While almost all table salts are made up of sodium chloride, the different textures and shapes of the individual salts have different effects on the interaction with food – for our purposes here this means how it both draws moisture out and diffuses it back into the meat.
The shape of coarse kosher salt, like Diamond Crystal, makes it ideal to include in steaks (or any other meat) and to adhere to these molecules. Since it’s both light and gross, it’s easier to avoid over-salting. Table salt is much more difficult to distribute evenly because of the fineness of the kernels, and it quickly dissolves in the meat before it can properly draw the moisture out to create this concentrated brine. (The taste of iodized salt is also noticeably different in this context.) Since sea salt comes in many different grinds, it’s usually not my first choice for dry brines, but there are people who swear by light gray Celtic sea salt who already have extra Contains moisture. Sea salt and Maldon flakes are great for a light pinch in the end for added flavor and texture (and hey, they look pretty cool, too).
I’ll never deviate from my coarse kosher salt, but whatever you choose, it’s important to know Salt is measured by weight and not by volume; a teaspoon of one variety can be much saltier than a teaspoon of another.
Use a wire rack when salting a steak
For those who have the time to dry their steak, another common mistake is thinking of only one side. “You want to leave it on an uncovered rack instead of wrapping it in aluminum foil or placing it on a plate,” says Grebb. “When the top is exposed to the air and it dries out, but the bottom is immersed in the liquid and you don’t get that dry salt effect.” At this point, these hungry protein molecules in the meat work hardest to hold on to that salty moisture. Not much drips off with a dry brine, but we still want the remaining liquid to be nice and air-dried so that both sides are equally crispy.
The last thing someone wants after hours of drying their steak is to find it in a puddle of moisture. With a grate you can let the air circulate around the entire piece of meat.
There’s a reason cravings for salt is a thing. Our bodies actually need it (in moderation), and so does your steak. Whether for grilling, roasting or sous vide, salt is a steak’s best friend. Treat it with the caring care and respect it deserves and the image of the perfect steak will be easily attainable.