When should a cook add salt to a steak?
This debate has raged for years and years, with 'experts' on all sides claiming to know the answer.
WHAT ARE THE CLAIMS ABOUT SALTING?
There are four basic "sides" of the debate about salting a great steak:
- Salt the steak long before cooking
- Salt the steak just before cooking
- Salt the steak just after cooking
- Never salt the steak before serving
Let's look at each of these four alternatives.
(a) SALT LONG BEFORE COOKING
Food & Wine reports that David Tanis, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and San Francisco’s Judy Rodgers, of The Zuni Café, claim that a great steak should be salted long before cooking.
Cooks Country recommends that a great steak be seasoned with both salt and cornstarch 30 minutes before cooking, and then putting the steak, uncovered, into the freezer. The theory is that the dry humidity in the freezer will help the salt draw off the surface moisture, which will make the exterior 'crustier'.
(B) SALT JUST BEFORE COOKING
Food & Wine reports that New York City chef Tom Colicchio, of Craft and Top Chef fame, claims that a great steak should be salted and seasoned just before cooking.
(a) SALT JUST AFTER COOKING
Food & Wine reports that Daniel's Jean François Bruel claims that a great steak should be salted and seasoned only just after it has been seared or grilled.
(a) NEVER SALT BEFORE SERVING
A Chowhound blogger conducted a test that showed that a great steak should be salted only by the diner, because it made the steak "[w]onderfully tender, and for my taste buds, it had a much beefier flavor and the salt was more pleasing" than on pre-salted steaks.
ALL CLAIMS AND TESTS ARE INCONCLUSIVE
All these claims and tests are inconclusive.
These claims and tests cannot be validated unless they start with identical steaks. However, steaks from a butcher or supermarket (as well as steaks served in the vest best steakhouses) are _not_ identical, even if they have exactly the same USDA Prime Grade. Virtually all beef today, including steaks, are distributed in boxes of beef. Boxes of USDA Prime Grade beef are not from the same animal, or the same farm, or even the same breed of cattle.
When the major packing houses process cattle, the beef is graded and then sorted by grade, not by the cattle breed, age, sex, farm, diet, etc. For example, a single shipment of boxed beef may contain some steak from an 18-month old, Hereford steer (male), raised in Nebraska and fed a special diet, and other steak from a 21-month old, Holstein heifer (female), raised in California and fed a different diet. Even if the steaks have the same USDA grade, they will not taste the same, because different breeds taste different, and even the same breed tastes different if raised on a different diet.
It would be possible to conduct a series of valid blind taste tests to resolve the question, assuming that it can be resolved conclusively. Such tests would be very expensive and time-consuming, since valid tests would have to control for the cattle's age, breed, sex, terrain, diet, etc. A series of tests would be necessary to compare results of cattle with each of these different attributes (age, breed, etc.)
Until then, all claims and tests must be labelled as inconclusive.
How do I use salt? It depends.
If I am grilling a Santa Maria tri-tip over red oak lump charcoal, at a grill-level temperature of 750°F, I season it an hour before grilling with a very, very thick layer of coarse salt, coarse pepper and garlic powder.
On the other hand, if I am grilling a great steak (e.g. a 56-day dry-aged, fully trimmed, USDA Prime Grade, abundantly marbled, New York cut, from a 19-month old, Holstein steer, raised by rancher I know personally, on a ranch I visit regularly) over mesquite lump charcoal, at a grill-level temperature of 750°F, I do not add any salt, before or after grilling. Instead, I serve the steak with a side of high-quality, coarse sea salt (e.g. Sel de Guerande), which add a third layer of taste - to complement the beefy interior first layer and the crusty exterior second layer.
A FINAL WORD ON FREEZING BEFORE COOKING
Some authorities, such as Cooks Country, recommend that a great steak be salted and put into the freezer 30 minutes before cooking. The theory is that the dry humidity in the freezer will help the salt (and cornstarch) draw moisture from the outside layer of the steak, so the the drier exterior will produce a tastier crust.
As noted above, there have been no valid tests to prove or disprove this claim. However, there is an issue about temperature that should be considered.
If a steak is to be grilled at a high temperature (e.g. 750°F at grill level), then the cook must be very concerned about the steak's thickness, its internal temperature before cooking, and its desired doneness. These four variables, and time, are inter-related. For example, if a 1" thick steak has an internal temperature of 40°F, it is impossible to have both a rare interior and a crusty exterior.
The careful cook will take these variables into consideration and will order the steak thickness in proportion to the desired internal and external doneness. Thus, a 2" thick steak, chilled to an internal temperature of 40°F, will cook very rare on the inside and with a dark, crusty exterior (which is often called "black and blue"); that same steak, 2" thick and with an internal temperature of 70°F ("room temperature) will cook to very rare on the inside and with a deep-brown crust.
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