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When to salt a steak? My research.

Okay. I've been cooking my steaks sans salt, then salting just prior to eating for years, but a recent discussion on when to salt made me question whether it was habit or if I was doing the right thing.

Last night I had three very small filet mignons. USDA Prime from a whole tendrloin I had trimmed and cut myself. They were a tad over an inch thick. My cooking method was to sear in an very hot cast iron skillet with a film of olive oil, then pop them into a 350 degree oven for 4 1/2 minutes for medium rare. I salted one steak just prior to searing, the second immediately after removing from the oven but prior to resting, and the third one I did not salt until I was ready to eat.

Oh, and just for general information, as an accompaniment I nuked some really small fingerling potatoes for a minute, then sauteed then in their skins with an equal amount of washed but unpierced grape tomatoes in the pan drippings with a touch of cab, salt and pepper. Snuggled them up to the steaks with a little chopped parsley. I'm gonna do that again soon!

So here's what I found out:

Steak #!: Salted just prior to searing. After finishing the steak in the oven and allowing it to rest, it was NOT as tender as the other two. Being USDA Prime, I would have had to cook it to very well done to get tough meat, but it was definitely not as tender as the other two. Had a somewhat stringy and dry-ish texture to it.

Steak #2: Salted after removing from oven but before resting. It was wonderfully tender.

Steak #3: Salted prior to eating. Wonderfully tender, and for my taste buds, it had a much beefier flavor and the salt was more pleasing than on either of the other two steaks.

What kind of salt did I use? Kosher. It's what I always use for cooking. Normally I use sea salt for flavoring just prior to eating, but I wanted to use identical salt for an honest test.

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  1. gotta love the scientific method. Thanks!

    1. A dark and lonely job but somebody's gotta do it :) But thanks for the Herculean effort on our behalf. I actually did enjoy the data. Lately I've been salting lightly after I slice so it's on the exposed part. I like that even better. Poor you, I just can't get over the sacrifice :)

      1. Nice job. Thanks for the experiment. I wonder if this applies to lamb?

        1. very nice, caroline. thanks for taking one for the team. ;)

          1. One of my favorite food blogs featured this a while back:
            http://steamykitchen.com/blog/2007/08...

            I finally got around to trying it a couple of months ago and I'm hooked. I've served up steaks several times without telling folks what I've done and the response has been 100% positive.

            Give it a try and see what you think...

            15 Replies
            1. re: bkhuna

              fascinating. so method #4 is essentially a very quick dry brine?

              i never hear about anyone wet brining steak. know if that's done?

              1. re: bkhuna

                I will definitely try this. Thanks.

                1. re: bkhuna

                  I saw this blog post several months back and now it's the only way I cook my steak.

                  More proponents of early salting. This is from Michael Rulman's The Elements of cooking.

                  "Judy Rodgers was the first chef I knew to address this matter head-on in her Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Common wisdom had always been that if you salted food early, it dried the food out. Looks that way. Salt a steak and a few hours later it's sitting in a puddle of red juices. But in fact the perpetual osmotic effect of salt enhances juiciness by changing the cell structure so that it holds more moisture. Salt also enhances the flavor of the meat by thoroughly penetrating it. And it dissolves the sticky protein myosin, so that in ground preparations -- hamburger, sausage -- the meat holds together.

                  Rodgers urges cooks to salt food early. The bigger the food is, the more salt it needs, and the more time with the salt that it needs. This is uniformly important with meat, but less so with fish; some fish is delicious after it's been packed in salt (salmon or cod) but some flesh is so delicate the salt can damage it if used too early. And it can even be true of vegetables. Vegetables with large watery cells are enhanced by early salting, such as onions, eggplant, peppers."

                  http://books.simonandschuster.com/Ele...

                  1. re: KTinNYC

                    The science makes sense as well as the personal testimonies. We're having last minute houseguests arrive tonight and I'm thawing some cheap steaks for dinner tomorrow night. Will report back on the results.

                    1. re: KTinNYC

                      We were converted by Judy R several years ago and routinely salt all meat and poultry for several days. Makes a huge (good) difference in texture and seasons the meat all the way through.

                      For those who have negative experiences based on one or two incidents, I'd suggest you read the rationale in the Zuni Cookbook and give it another try.

                      1. re: LizATL

                        Caroline1, thanks for sharing your scientific steak experiment. Bkhuna, excellent blog. Though I don't frequently cook meat, I will absolutely give the pre-salting technique a try. Just wondering if anyone knows (if I were to pre-salt poultry) should I put salt under the skin too, or just all over the outside???

                      1. re: bkhuna

                        I always salt my meat long before cooking it. It pulls a little moisture to the surface and helps to build a crust. And no the steaks aren't dry after cooking.

                        1. re: scubadoo97

                          I think the point of that was the amount. Not for the faint of heart :)

                        2. re: bkhuna

                          First, thanks Caroline1 on reporting your findings. I like that you started with cuts from the same tenderloin and cooked them the same way - good control to the findings.

                          bkhuna, I came across the steak & salt article a couple of months ago. I gave it a try but was disappointed.
                          BUT I had an issue with the article to begin with: the blogger had said

                          "Notice that I didn’t say, “sprinkle liberally” or even “season generously.” I’m talking about literally coating your meat until you can’t see red. It should resemble a salt lick."
                          Then theres a picture of a t-bone with a SCANT sprinkle of salt. I almost use this much salt when eating. She said 'until you can't see red' but the picture shows 90 percent red and a bit of salt.
                          I chalked it up to maybe a stock photo rather than her actual steak resembling a salt lick

                          So I POUR kosher salt all over my ribsteaks, both sides, until I can't see red. I let it sit for a 1/2 hour (maybe too long for 3/4 inch?), rinse well and pat very dry.

                          Hot fire and cooked the steaks to med rare. Very nice char and cooked almost perfectly. Let stand while we finished up the scalloped potatoes, then dug in.
                          The wife couldn't eat it - said it was too salty. I love salt (too much so, at least thats what the doc says...) and it was too salty for my likes as well.

                          Tenderness? Well it was VERY tender, but I had no 'control' steak that wasn't salted, so I don't know if it was due to the procedure, or simply tender steaks to start with.

                          I do know that I won't be trying the exact procedure next time.
                          Maybe try with a different cut, maybe less salt, maybe a shorter sit time, etc.
                          Maybe just use my trusted Montreal steak spice as always...

                          1. re: porker

                            I had a friend make me dinner and use this technique. I agree! The steak was nearly inedible it was so salty.

                            1. re: janetms383

                              You have to rinse the salt off the steak with water, thoroughly.

                              Pat very dry, sear in cast iron pan, let sear cool, slow roast at 325 until digital thermometer rings me at 130F. Rest 5-7 mins and eat.

                              If done correctly, you'll be salting the meat when you eat it.

                          2. re: bkhuna

                            I had to resurrect this thread since we tried the pre-salt method for the second time to good results. Thank you to both Caroline & bkhuna. I think we'll continue to pre- and post-salt depending on the cut & thickness of the meat!