The Juicy Secret to Seasoning Meat

When should you season meat before cooking it? A writer tests the two prevailing — and diametrically opposed — approaches to find the best method.

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When I started working in restaurants more than 20 years ago, I was taught to season meat with salt and pepper well before cooking. Ideally, a whole chicken would be seasoned a full 24 hours before it was roasted because salting so far ahead of time, I was told, gives the meat more flavor.

I took the practice as gospel, because that's what you do in a professional kitchen, especially if it's one staffed by talented cooks (which it was) who are making good food (which, in all modesty, we were). When you work in a restaurant, you learn by watching carefully, asking the right questions, and following instructions. That's also how you avoid being confronted with the most dreaded question the chef or sous chef could level at you, in front of the rest of the staff: "What do you think you're doing?"

So I felt spun around when I worked in another restaurant where the meat was always seasoned with salt and pepper right before cooking. Salting meat ahead of time, I was now told, dries it out.

Chefs disagree all the time, but rarely about basic technique — and there are few things more basic than sprinkling salt and pepper on steak or short ribs. But after surveying some notable chefs around the country, I discovered a dispute so divisive it's almost ideological. Not only are there two camps, but each side thinks it is categorically right, and the other, painfully wrong. On one side you have New York City chefs Tom Colicchio, of Craft and Top Chef fame, and Jean François Bruel of Daniel, both of whom assert that meat should never be seasoned until just before cooking. (Bruel goes even further with steaks, which he finishes seasoning only after they have been seared or grilled.) And on the other side you have David Tanis, formerly of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the late San Francisco chef Judy Rodgers, whose The Zuni Café Cookbook contains an entire section on the art of salting meat ahead of time. There's no geographic pattern.

I have had knockout meals in the restaurants of all these chefs, and I have never thought that the Berkshire pork at Craft needed more flavor or that the grilled quail at Chez Panisse was dry. Chefs at these culinary heights don't make such obvious mistakes.

But surely there's a correct method or at least one that's more right than the other. And one that makes more sense for home cooks. In their search for succulence, chefs often turn to practices like brining (almost all the meat dishes are brined — soaked for hours in a saltwater solution — at Paul Kahan's pork-centric The Publican in Chicago), or sous-vide, which calls for using some fairly expensive equipment to slow-cook food in a low-temperature water bath. But I wanted to know what was practical and reasonable when making everyday meals at home. Buying and seasoning a chicken the day before you plan to roast it couldn't be easier. But the question remained: Is it tastier?

Before I conducted my own experiments, I decided to consult with scientist Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking and a former columnist for The New York Times, where he unraveled — and often debunked — assumptions about cooking. Even though McGee hasn't done controlled tests on the timing of seasoning, he is decidedly in favor of salting meat ahead of time. (He's particularly fond of grinding his own hamburger with seasoned chunks of beef, a recipe from The Zuni Café Cookbook.) He explained that while a high concentration of salt has a desiccating effect, which is helpful for curing meat, the small amount of salt used to season food has a hydrating effect: Salt helps the cells hold onto water.

That was the theory I wanted to test. I bought a sampling of meats, two pieces of different cuts — one of which I would season 24 hours ahead of time, the other just one hour before cooking. (Some recipes call for seasoning 48 or even 72 hours in advance; McGee explained that the further ahead of time the meat is seasoned, the more even the distribution of salt. But having to prepare a chicken on Sunday in order to roast it on Wednesday is asking a lot.) I would use the same amount of salt on each piece of meat — 3/4 teaspoon per pound. I'd also weigh the meat both before salting and just before cooking, to see if seasoning ahead of time drew out juices. (McGee was right: None of the cuts lost water weight from salting.) And I decided to try a variety of cooking techniques. I would roast whole chickens and racks of pork, sear dry-aged rib eyes, and braise lamb shanks.

I invited over some opinionated friends for this meal of multiple meat courses, all of which we tasted blind. We were a table of good eaters, people who knew their way around a well-marbled steak and a well-timed critique. But before I started cooking, I realized that I had to prepare myself to be wrong. If I learned that my training was off the mark, and that all these years I'd been making one horrible mistake after another by salting meat the day before cooking it, then I had to be willing to change my methods. The truth? I can handle the truth.

And I can easily handle two chickens. I roasted both for about 45 minutes at 475°F, which is in line with what professional kitchens do. I didn't add any ingredients to enhance the flavor (butter, olive oil, spices, or herbs), just salt and pepper.

The skins of both birds became crispy and golden in the oven, the breasts juicy and delicious. But the skin of the chicken that was seasoned just before roasting tasted saltier than the meat, and while I'm not sure I'd have noticed it on its own, when I sampled it next to the other chicken it seemed clumsy, an amateur effort. The chicken that had been seasoned the day before was more flavorful, but more than that, it tasted more balanced. And just as McGee had theorized, it was more succulent.

Next were the dry-aged rib eyes. I was careful to use good technique, letting the meat come to room temperature before searing it in a cast-iron pan and letting it rest afterward. Both Tom Colicchio and Suzanne Goin had stressed the importance of these fundamentals. "There are so many factors you need to pay attention to, and salt is just one of them," Colicchio had said.

When I served the two steaks at a bloody medium-rare, everybody could immediately tell which rib eye was seasoned when. But there was no consensus on which one was better. Rob, a chef, said he liked how the salt flavored the fat of the steak that was seasoned the day before, and Christine, my wife, thought it tasted more aged. But Kerry, who eats out more than anybody I know, leaned toward the brighter flavor of the steak salted right before cooking. That was also the preference of Mark (though he might be biased: His wife is from Argentina, where steaks are seasoned with coarse salt just before grilling).

I didn't feel strongly either way — which was its own judgment. To me, both steaks were equally juicy and tasty. As a matter of practicality, picking up a good steak after work and cooking it that night is just fine.

But then I served the two pork racks. This time, there was a strong consensus: The one salted just before roasting was clearly moister and more delicious. The pork seasoned the day before was so dry, it was the most disappointing thing we ate.

And we were just as unanimous when it came to the braised lamb shanks: The lamb seasoned the day before was exquisite, dramatically better than the other. If the pork was the evening's least inspired dish, this was the most delicious. It had less to do with a discernible saltiness than the overall composition of flavors. It tasted richer, fuller, meatier. Simply put, it tasted more like lamb. The shanks were as close to a revelation as you'll find in an enameled cocotte. "I never thought salting ahead would have this profound an effect," Rob said. "Braising is so forgiving, it's low and slow, and there's all the flavor from the other ingredients, but this lamb is amazing. There's no comparison."

It was a conclusive end to an eye-opening evening. I had expected to arrive at a hard-and-fast, one-size-fits-all principle, and instead, I arrived at a series of answers weighted by the most practical concern of all: What's worth the effort? Some of cooking is art and some of it is skill, but much of it is logistics, a question of timing and space and making sure you have enough parsnips, say, to feed your guests, but not so many that they crowd the pan and steam instead of roast. What's true at home is also true in a professional kitchen, though we go out to restaurants precisely because they do things we wouldn't or couldn't do ourselves. I couldn't help but think that some chefs don't season in advance because it's a bother.

But really, it takes no extra effort, just some forethought. And so I will always season lamb shanks the day before they go into the braise. I will try to season chickens the day before, but if I don't have the chance, I won't sweat it; and I will season steaks and pork roasts right before searing. Not only can I handle the truth, I can handle several truths.

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