More than 50 billion pounds of meat are consumed in the US every year. Yeah, that's right – billion. And that comes out to an average of about 270 pounds per carnivore, per year.
And for each one of the meals that make up that huge number, odds are that no matter whether you're braising, grilling, searing, roasting, or frying, you're gonna add a hit of salt to whatever you made or ordered. But what exactly is it about salt that makes meat taste just so much better?
Well, for starters, there’s the taste factor. You've probably heard that adding salt to any kind of food “brings out the flavor.” Which is true, but not in the way that you might think. In terms of chemistry, salt does nothing to enhance the flavor of meat (we know, mind = blown). But fear not – neither your taste buds nor your brain have failed you.
When you salt a piece of meat, it suppresses the sensation of bitterness, allowing for a heightened perception of the sweet and savory flavors in your meal. But it doesn't quite stop there – there's another theory that says adding salt draws away flavorless moisture, which lets the natural aromas become less diluted and therefore more intense. Oh, and in addition to those, salt also acts as a natural tenderizer, which reduces toughness and gives your dinner a richer mouthfeel.
The Best Way(s) to Salt and Sear
Want to put the science into practice? Make a simple, well-seared steak with nothing but a generous dose of salt for garnish, and you'll see what we mean.
First, obviously, is getting a quality cut, so head to your local butcher or keep your slippers on and mail order something, and then grab some salt. There are a few different schools of thought on the technique of using the stuff, and every chef, food writer, and home cook has his or her own opinion (often a very strong one).
Want a crispy, savory steak without blowing the entire month's grocery budget? Ask your butcher for any of these.
After you salt a steak, the crystals slowly permeate the meat and draw out the flavor-rich juices. The tricky part, though, is knowing how long to let the salt work its magic before you start searing. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats conducted a seriously thorough experiment to figure out the answer: the best move is to make sure the juices are inside the steak when it's seared, as opposed to resting on the meat’s surface (brought there by the salt). There are two ways to accomplish that: sear the meat immediately after salting, or wait 40+ minutes (or overnight, if you've got the time).
The Waiting Game
Kenji's experiment showed that being patient is the ideal choice, since the prolonged resting period lets the juices drawn up by the salt to then be fully reabsorbed back into the meat, along with the now-dissolved salt so that your steak is dry on the surface and fully seasoned underneath.
The result is a super juicy end result with an out-of-this-world crust, since the dried-out surface of the steak will immediately start to brown into a deep, delicious char once you start cooking.
Searing Right Away
If you want an especially salty crust, your best bet is to dry off the steak with a paper towel, add salt, and then sear right away.
Why? All of the moisture will still be inside the muscle fiber, so your finished steak will still be juicy, but the surface will be dry enough to allow for a crisp, dark char.
If you were to add salt, wait a few minutes, and then sear, the moisture that's just starting be drawn to the steak's surface would inhibit a good crust from forming.
A New Way to Salt
Pan-searing is all well and good, but there is one other method we’ve been really into lately: cooking on a heated-up salt block.
Historically (and by that we mean a few years ago, max), cooking on a salt block was something only pro chefs knew how to do, but lately it's gotten more popular with home cooks worldwide because, well, it’s awesome. All you have to do is slowly heat the block – which can be done directly on the burner or grill – until it's blazing hot, then add your food and watch it sizzle. Since the block can retain a huge amount of heat, your steak will cook quickly with a dark crust, with the added bonus of being seasoned and tenderized as you cook. That means you don't have to worry about pre-salting at all – just dry your steaks off, sear, and boom: a crispy, salty, medium-rare dinner.
It's damn fun to use for other foods, too – everything from fried eggs to flaky chocolate. Bonus: you can chill it down to cold cure whatever you're eating. Double bonus: you can serve on it for presentation points.
So, the moral of the story: salt and meat are the perfect combination, but combining them correctly takes a little bit of expertise – which you now have. So go pick up a steak, get out the salt, and start cooking.