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When to salt your steak

Salt is far more than just a seasoning — it’s an essential flavour in our food. It can intensify aromas, balance other flavours, make meat taste juicier, increase tenderness, and preserve food for months or even years. Seasoning your beef or lamb with salt or a salty spice rub helps to draw out the protein-rich juice that dries on the surface during cooking, creating a crisp, deeply seasoned crust. However, salting too soon or with too heavy a hand can easily ruin a dish.

When should I salt my steak?

So when should you season your steak? To be fair, this one is a little bit like asking someone to pick the best All Blacks XV — everyone has a different answer. But while opinions may vary, one thing is for sure: your steak should have a juicy and crispy crust on the outside and a tender center. To achieve this, there are three ideal times to salt your steak.

3 moments for salting steak
  1. An hour before grilling (per inch of thickness)
  2. Just before grilling
  3. After grilling
Why not any other time?

If you salt your steak and let the meat absorb the salt for less than 10 minutes, the salt starts to pull out juices from the meat through the process of osmosis but doesn’t have time to reabsorb them. This will cause your steak to lose moisture and you’ll have trouble achieving that perfectly crispy, desired crust.

It takes at least 40 minutes until all the meat juices have been expelled and then reabsorbed by the meat. However, because every cut of steak is different, a safe approach to take is to salt approximately one hour before cooking it per inch of thickness (so if you have a two-inch steak, you would salt 2 hours before cooking it). This will allow the excess moisture on the steak to seep out while it is sitting.

Once the water in your steak has been drawn out, the saltiness will engrain in it and the effect will be that you’ll actually be grilling it rather than creating a “steamed” steak full of excess water. On the flip side, if you leave your salting too late, there is a chance that the salt will draw all the moisture out and leave the steak dry.

So how about just before or after grilling?

You can get away with seasoning your steak just before grilling if you season generously JUST before putting it on the grill. The salt will stay on the surface of the meat without dissolving and the meat juices stay within the muscle fibers for a juicy steak. For this to work properly you will need to immediately grill the steak at a very high temperature. Doing so will allow the steak to form an evenly distributed and crispy brown crust. Seasoning after, but not before, grilling won’t get you any points with purists, but if you have a really good cut you can theoretically get away with searing the steak without salting it at all beforehand.

If you’re adding salt solely for seasoning, and not to influence the grilling, then the best time to do it is at the end of the grilling. That way, the salt crystals hit your palate directly, and you get the greatest flavour impact with the least amount of salt. An added benefit is that it’s easier to salt to taste and avoid oversalting.

The salt you use matters

Regardless of whether you are salting for flavour or tenderness, the type of salt that you use matters. Table salt isn’t as ideal as the grains are too tiny to have an impact on your steak. Instead, you want to look at something with bigger flakes such as sea salt in order to really have enough materials on your meat to break down the proteins and bring out the flavour of your meat.

Salt liberally

While using large amounts of salt may cause some people to worry about drying their steak out too much, if you stick to the timing technique we’ve outlined above (one hour per inch of steak thickness) then isn’t anything to worry about. As such, you shouldn’t be afraid to rub enough salt on your steak to make a difference. Even when you’re using a lot of salt not all of it will be absorbed into the meat, and once you’ve washed the excess salt off post-sitting, you should have a flavour that is noticeable, elegant, and not overpowering.

Posted by Shawn Moodie

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