More than any other feature of a menu, the steak can make or break a restaurant’s, and thereby a chef’s, reputation. A lot can be forgiven from a kitchen that delivers an unforgettable rib eye. While stellar sides, service, and setting can be rendered virtually meaningless among the haute cuisineset if the steak is subpar.
As important and ubiquitous as steak is as a fine-dining staple, and as crucial as mastery of the season and sear on a good cut of dry-aged beef is for a chef, you’d think the fundamentals of cooking a steak would have been pretty much settled. To some degree they are. For instance, over-seasoning (more than just salt and pepper to a lot of chefs) is virtually universally regarded as a sin on a cut of dry-aged beef, while cooking a steak past (even to) medium can be considered blasphemy.
However, there is a surprisingly basic point of contention that still splits chefs into two passionately opposed camps. Should a steak be seasoned immediately before cooking, or should it be seasoned well in advance? Despite the controversy still raging, the answer isn’t just a subjective matter of taste, so to speak. Pre-seasoning and time-of-cooking seasoning produce demonstrably different results.
The Science of Salting
The foundation of all steak seasoning is, of course, the salt. Salt is also a desiccant, it dries things out, which is why it’s been popular for drying meat to preserve it since prehistory. And that’s the point of the anti-pre-seasoning contingent: that salting that tenderloin steak a day before you cook it isn’t going to make it any more flavorful than in-the-pan seasoning, but it will dry your cut out.
In response, pre-seasoning proponentsinsist that rubbing a steak down with a modest salt seasoning anywhere from an hour to a day makes for a more thoroughly-seasoned steak. To settle the issue, food-scientist types decided to find out with a series of envy-inspiring experiments.
They found that when the salt first comes into contact with the steak it does draw moisture out by osmosis. That would have ended the debate in favor of the time-of-cooking crowd, except for what happens next. The salt is then dissolved by the moisture it’s drawn out, resulting in a brine solution. The brine begins to break down the steak’s muscle structure, making it more tender and more absorbent. That increasingly absorbent beef then draws that brine right by down into the meat.
The longer you wait, the more thoroughly the salt is distributed throughout the steak, and the more balanced the seasoning profile. Traditionally, chefs and most diners would opt for the more evenly salted cut. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be said for the time-of-cooking seasoners, though. While not as uniformly distributed in the steak, seasoning used right before or during cooking has been searedinto the surface as a brine and therefore really pops. That’s why some chefs give their steak a pre-seasoning rub and then very conservatively add some seasoning when it’s in the pan.
Whether you prefer the more even distribution of salt or the tang of a surface-sear, definitely choose one of the two, with an hour at the very least if you’re a pre-seasoner. During the stretch between 55 minutes after seasoning, the salt has drawn the moisture out but the meat hasn’t had time to take it back. Cooking your steak then is cooking away the juices that will make for such a delicious steak.
About Snake River Farms
Producing flavor only 50 years of experience can bring, Snake River Farms has focused on producing the best-tasting beef this country has to offer. Thankfully for both this family-owned business and anyone lucky enough to have tasted the legacy of that commitment, they have succeeded. They’ve accomplished this with a dedication to ensuring the absolute highest standards of quality, sustainable beef-raising, and seeing to the well-being of their animals. Being involved every step of the way, from their standards for raising cattle to their process for crafting the best tenderloin steak, means that every cut is perfection.
Discover the best of what beef can be at Snakeriverfarms.com