Okay, so I’m a parrothead. I also live at the beach, and I have shaggy hair. Whatever, lets talk salt for meat. And I’m about to bring you back to high school chemistry class.
Salt is an amazing chemical; it can amp up your meat flavor, it can provide texture, it can help retain moisture in meat, it might just be better than sliced bread.
What is salt?
Salt, NaCl (Sodium Chloride), is a small crystal made of two atoms; 1 Sodium, 1 Chlorine. Like a match made in heaven, Sodium has a free valence electron, and Chlorine has an opening for a valence electron. Boom, salt, who’s your uncle! So why is this important?
Did you know that sodium by itself is very reactive to water? Like heat, fire, explosive reactive. This is because of that free valence electron, very unstable and the hydrogen mixes and stuff… whatever. But in a stable compound like table salt, when exposed to water, it makes… salt water?
Well there is a bit more happening here, and this is important to understand the rest of this article. It is called dissociation.
Dissociation is the process in which ionic compounds separate into smaller ions, usually in a reversible manner.
Well I’m not going to get into what ions are, that’s what Google is for. But the important thing to note is that it is an electrical process (salt is an electrolyte… it’s what plants crave). The ionic compounds are literally drawn into the water.
Dissociation is reversible: Drop salt crystals in a glass of water, no more crystals. If you put that glass of salt water in the sun and let the water evaporate, you will have salt crystals again.
So all of this means… because meat is 75%+ water, meat pulls the salt on the surface to the center. The salt ions are so small, that they will nestle in between the water molecules.
So how does it affect the meat?
Okay, so we established that chemistry is super cool, Tucker is a super dork, and salt put on the surface of the meat is absorbed into the meat. So what does this mean?
When you apply heat to a protein (meat), a protein will break down and will release most of the water molecules attached to the protein. Think of cooking the protein without salt like wringing a wet hand towel.
However, with salt in the mix, it acts as a binder of sorts, helping the water molecules to stay attached. The result? Juicier, more forgiving, beautiful heavenly meat.
If I haven’t lost you yet, thank you. I tend to geek out and it won’t be the last time. Let me know if you want more of the science.
How is Salt formed?
Salt is a naturally occurring mineral… I submit the ocean as evidence. There are also the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, or the salt mines in Ontario. Takeaway: There is a lot of it.
There are two primary ways salt minerals are made: Very quickly from volcanic eruptions, or over millions years from leeching. Here are the highlights:
The heat from a volcano will literally dissolve the sodium and chlorine ions in rock. These volcanic reactions are in or around bodies of water. The mixture is quickly cooled by water, and the compounds are returned to their NaCl form.
As we should all know, water will always win (Favorite Doctor Who episode). Water will change whole landscapes, dull the sharpest rock… over time of course. Lots of time. Millions of years kind of time. It’s this weathering process that slowly erodes the minerals (think sodium) from the land, and brings them to the sea.
Now the fun part: Volcanoes expel gasses (including chlorine) which then mix with the water in the air. Chlorine turns into chloride by gaining an electron. As it rains into the ocean, Chloride meets up with Sodium.. NaCl!
How Salt is made
Once you’ve identified a salt mine (leftover from an prehistoric ocean) or found some sea water, what do you do? There are two primary methods:
Salt water fills large ponds. As noted earlier, dissociation is reversible, and evaporating the water out of salt water leaves us with salt. Let the sun do the work!
As the water evaporates from the pond, salt water is continually added. As the salt concentration gets higher and higher the salt will form a thick layer on the bottom. The water is then fully evaporated and the remaining salt is harvested once the layer is thick enough. This generally occurs once a year.
Mining for salt is exactly how it sounds; A large hole or shaft is drilled into the earth where people braver than I pull the minerals out and then the minerals are sent to be processed and refined into consumable products.
A second way salt is mined is by water solution; Water is used to turn the salt underground into salt water, and this salt water is pumped out and taken to be evaporated. Pretty cool, huh?
There are also a plethora of “make your own salt” at home options. I will give someone ~$3 for a pound of it.
Types of Salt
Not all salt is created equal. This is important. And I’m going to have some nice high quality pictures here once I get a camera. I heard it’s illegal to steal images off the internet. That’s fine, I want my own content anyway… squirrel!
Here are your main types:
1. Table Salt
2. Kosher Salt
3. Sea Salt
4. Curing Salt
4. Iodized vs. Not (“this salt supplies iodide, a necessary nutrient”)
Table Salt and Kosher Salt
I’m only going to focus on Kosher salt, but I think it is worth noting I’m putting these two in the same discussion because they are the most common. Most people have one or both of these in their cabinets.
* In the early 1900’s, Morton’s Salt added an anti-caking agent to their salt and developed the phrase “When it rains it pours” because the additive allowed the salt to pour even when it rained. Their mascot is a girl with an umbrella in the rain pouring salt… cause sure that’s normal.
Table salt is generally mined from under the ground in large rock crystals. It is later processed to remove the other minerals and bring it to the tiny crystals we all grew up with.
Kosher salt can also be mined, OR made from drying sea water. The reason they call it Kosher salt is because it is THE BEST to kosher meat, ie. drain meat of it’s blood. It’s not actually kosher… well sometimes maybe.
Very rarely will we want to use table salt for Q’. Kosher salt, with it’s large grain size and minimal additives make it ideal for meat absorption. If you are serious about getting in the game, get yourself some kosher salt.
Table salt use will be strictly limited to a shaker on the prepared dinner table for immediate use and subsequent consumption. Kosher is the workhorse and long haul ingredient. (What does that even mean?)
So if you do not have Course Kosher salt, the conversion to table salt is ~50%. Another way to put it: 1 tablespoon of Course Kosher Salt = 1/2 tablespoon of Table Salt. But go get yourself some kosher salt.
Salt for your meat!
How do we add it to the meat? Well, we certainly don’t do it the way that asshole sprinkles it off his elbow. What we will do is sprinkle it on the meat in any other way, and pat it on. Not rub, not smack… pat.
Why do we pat? Well, this might just be me being anal, but I know crystals are sharp. When you freeze meat ice crystals form, and the slower it freezes the larger the crystals, and vice versa.
Ever notice when you thaw something frozen there is a lot more liquid present? This is because the crystals literally cut the meat. I may be wrong, but I think salt would do the same.
Don’t hold me to this one… yet. I plan to do a test on this with some time lapse side by side photography. For now, I’m going to pat.
Water or Oil
Here is the debate. Lots of recipes out there tell you to mix salt and oil and let the meat marinate. I’ve got news for you… it’s a gimmick.
Salt is water soluble, but it is NOT fat-soluble. Salt and water are like the perfect marriage, and oil is the red headed mistress. The foundations of this principle can’t be stressed enough… Cooking is about chemical reactions, and salt and oil are inert.
Water and oil don’t mix. Meat is like a bath towel dipped in the tub and ready to be wringed out. Try pouring oil on a saturated wet towel… I have $10 that says the oil is going to stay separate and outside the meat. I also have another $10 that says the salt is going to sit in the oil and do nothing for you
Alright, well I got spun up again. Just go read my other rant. In short, salt + water good. Salt + oil CAN be good, just not as a marinade. Applying salt and oil just before the cook is a tasty idea.
Do you happen to have some sea salt lying around? Can we use it for meat? Will it give me an edge?
Yes you can use it for meat, no it will not give you an edge. As originally stated, NaCl is the same chemical compound for all the salts mentioned so far. The only difference is the grain size and manufacturing method to get the grain size.
Sea salt is made from evaporation ponds and produces a flaky type of salt. Will it work? Yes. Will it work as well as Kosher Salt? No, and it would be much more expensive to try.
I use sea salt as an active ingredient in my recipes or garnish. For example, I love making salsa. And I do it by hand, check out my recipe. Sea salt is an active ingredient. I use sea salt because it doesn’t contain iodine. I’m one of those weirdos that can taste the difference.
Also, if I serve a basic plate of tomatoes with a drizzle of balsamic, I tend to have a side plate of sea salt and cracked pepper. So if someone wants to dip their tomato in the S+P, it’s quite tasty, and the large grains have a bit better presentation.
WARNING: Do NOT attempt to use curing salts if you don’t know what you are doing. Do NOT simply follow some online recipe somewhere without understanding Curing Salts! Curing salt (nitrate) can be highly toxic and deadly if not used correctly.
Curing salt is pink to alert you that it is not normal salt. This however is not to be confused with Himalayan salt. Primarily used in the curing of meats and cold smoking, it allows for the drying and ultimate preservation of meat. This practice has been around since the Egyptians were building pyramids.
I’m not going to go into it here, because I believe curing salt requires it’s own full discussion. Just be careful if you want to use it and you aren’t familiar with it.
How we do it…
Okay so if you made it this far, thank you. You now know more than you probably ever wanted to know about salt. So that’s the basics; science. Now apply; art.
I do not like my rubs to have salt for the simple fact that I like to control my salt intake. I occasionally put salt in my rub, like if doing a steak or an Aaron Franklin brisket (his first cookbook is a great education). When it requires the use of sugar and other herbs & spices… I like to dry brine prior to rub every chance I can get.
Dry brining is essentially patting the salt on, and letting it sit for a few hours. The salt will be absorbed into the meat, giving you the salt flavor and helping retain the moisture.
If there is dry brining, so there is wet brining. Simply put, it’s putting your meat in salt water with other spices and things for a few hours. Personally, I think it’s a pain in the butt. It has all the benefits of dry brining but with more mess and hassle. My opinion of course…
Other ways we can apply salt:
In a rub – Rub directly on top and throw it in the heat; no dry brine or marinade. I do not recommend marinating with a rub. Putting salt directly in the rub and on the heat has a simplicity to it that will definitely taste very good. Scientifically, it will not be as juicy and forgiving as dry brining, but it tastes delicious.
Dry Brine – Typically 24 hours prior to the cook we pat in about 1/2 – 3/4 tsp of Kosher salt per pound of meat.
Injection – Usually as a broth. Take a look at the ingredients of your next beef or chicken broth can… SODIUM. Or if you make your own, you can control it as well.
Just before the cook – Kosher salt on top of an oil based marinade.
Post Cook – putting some kosher salt on the meat or vegetables post cook gives an amazing texture and burst of flavor to every bite. Just be careful not to overdo it and remember how much salt already went into the meal!
- Salt significantly helps meat retain moisture while cooking,
- There are four main types of salt: Table, Kosher, Sea, Curing,
- The conversion ratio of Kosher to Table Salt is 50%,
- I think patting salt into the meat is better than rubbing.
- Use table salt for food, kosher for meat/rubs, sea for presentation and taste/texture,
- Don’t use curing salt unless you know what you are doing.
Thanks for reading this. I hope you learned something. I am constantly modifying and updating so please check back any time. Feel free to tell me how much you enjoyed my content, or tell me I suck (but don’t forget to tell me how I can improve).