Learn why salting meat ahead of time makes for tastier food.
You’ve heard me say it before. But here it is again. Salt is magic. It’s tied for first for the most important ingredient in the kitchen (the other is fat if you were curious). Why so important? That was rhetorical, you all know why salt is important. You can’t properly cook without a lick of salt and a shot of tequila. 😉
When it comes to salting meat ahead of time, there are some salty dogs out there. Some say salting ahead of time dries it out. Others say that it makes it tastier. Who’s right? Let’s dive in.
If you’re interested, check out this past article on the types of salt out there and how they impact your cooking.
You can do this experiment yourself at home. Salt a piece of meat. And then wait. After a couple of minutes, you’ll notice water pools to the surface. Why? Osmosis—the process where water moves through cell walls to reach equilibrium. In this case, water moves from the less salty interior of the meat to the more salty exterior.
This moisture drawn to the surface is why lots of chefs say that you shouldn’t salt meat ahead of time. And it makes sense…on the surface. 🥁 (Get it? Because we are talking about water on the surface of the meat…Okay. Sorry. Moving on.)
Patting meat dry before searing is important. Those drawn-out juices make it a challenge to brown your meat. You’re initially steaming the surface until all the liquid evaporates. The surface has to reach above 212°F (100°C) for the flavor-creating reaction (aka browning) to take place.
But if you’re patient after salting your meat, you’ll see something magical happen. That moisture drawn to the surface disappears. I did say salt is magical! And it’s not evaporating—well at least not most of it. It’s reabsorbed by the meat.
So as moisture comes to the surface, salt dissolves into the water. But there’s more here. Salt travels into meat via diffusion. Diffusion is where salt moves from a saltier environment to a less salty one. It tries to reach equilibrium. So over time, that salty water on the surface travels back into the meat. The surface will dry out—which is great for browning—and the salt seasons the meat. But it does take time.
The meat reabsorbs most of that moisture on the surface after about 40 minutes. But don’t stop there. The longer you wait, the more time the salt will have to travel through. Unless you’re getting hangry. 😠 Then I totally get not waiting.
Via diffusion, salt continues to travel through the meat, seasoning it throughout. So the longer it has, the more thorough the seasoning.
Temperature affects the speed by which diffusion happens. Salt will travel faster at a warmer temperature. So pull your chicken breast or prime rib out up to 2 hours ahead of time to sit at room temperature to speed up the process. (2 hours is how long the FDA says perishables can be left out before we get bacteria growth.)
How long should you wait? Well, the thicker and fatter the cut of meat, the earlier you should salt it. A thin pork chop needs less time than a thick one because there is less meat to travel through.
Tell me how much time already, Luciano! Alrighty, one day in advance is ideal for most cuts of meat. But you want at least 40 minutes. A large chicken or turkey will need about 2 days for the salt to work through the bird. Thin pork chops or steaks do great with a few hours.
⚠️ But be careful with meat salted too far in advance. It can start to cure and get a leathery texture if left for too long with salt. Prolonged salt soaks are how you make bacon and prosciutto after all. A good trick I learned from Samin Nosrat is to freeze a salted piece of meat if you’re not going to use it within 2-3 days. Simply defrost it when you’re ready to use it.
How much salt you ask? A good starting place is between 1–2 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per pound of meat. Though it depends on the type of salt you use. Two teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt is equal to about 1 teaspoon of table salt.
But the best way to know how much salt is right is to taste the meat once it’s done cooking. If it tastes delicious but not salty you nailed it. Commit to memory the amount you used, or even how salty the surface looked after you salted it. Remember time and temperature are also factors at play that impact proper seasoning. So figure out what works for you.
🐟 Quick call out. Do not salt fish and shellfish in advance. If salted too far ahead of time, they get a tough, chewy texture. According to Samin, you can salt a thick cut of fish up to 30 minutes in advance and flaky fillets for about 15 minutes. You should salt other types of seafood right at the time of cooking.
Where I learned this: Far and above Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat inspired this article. But also The Science of Good Cooking and this article on cooking steaks by J. Kenji López-Alt.