For a few years now, I’ve been closely adhering to a rule that I learned from observing professional kitchens as a server: As soon as you get a piece of meat home from the grocery store, un-package it, shower it with salt, and leave it uncovered in your refrigerator.
Stop screaming! So many people I know are truly horrified when they learn that this is the way the pros handle their meats, but I’m here to let you know that it is safe. To get the breakdown on the food science, I spoke with food scientist and author Bryan Quoc Le, who explained the science behind the things that I had intuited about salting my proteins.
Not only does the salt make your meat taste better (I’ll get to that in a moment) Dr. Le explained that it actually prevents it from going bad.
“The high salt concentration also prevents microorganisms from colonizing and growing on the surface of the protein,” he explained. “Most microbes shrivel and die when exposed to salt.”
He offered estimations for how long to brine whatever you might be cooking: Chicken and pork for 24 hours, steak for two days, turkey for two to three days, and fish for up to an hour. These estimations are more based on flavor than they are on food safety, though. Since salt is such an excellent preservative, leaving these proteins salted for longer than these recommended time periods won’t leave you with rotten food – you might just find that they’re a little saltier than you’d like.
But we’re here for the delicious food, right? Salting your meat is the way forward. When I noticed the meats hanging out in the back of the walk-in at the restaurant where I worked, it was explained to me that treating them that way insured excellent seasoning, and even made the meats a little juicier and more forgiving as they were cooked. I never questioned this because I’m not a scientist, but Dr. Le broke it down in a way that I found easy to understand.
“When salt is added to a protein, the salt slowly draws out water from the surface of the meat,” Dr. Le says. “That moisture then dissolves the salt, creating a highly concentrated salt solution that migrates into the interior of the protein. When a dry brined meat is heated, that salt-infused interior retains more moisture because the salt locks in the water molecules. It takes more heat to break that salt-water ‘bond’ versus just water alone, so meat holds on to water longer and stays juicier than if it were not brined.”
All that basically means is that a roasted chicken or seared steak that has been salted ahead of time is going to be more forgiving if you accidentally overcook it, which is incredible news. I think we’re all looking for a little safety net of cooking, and salting ahead of time is it.
Salting ahead of time is also the reason that restaurant steaks, chickens, and fish fillets always seem to have the crispiest, most perfectly browned exteriors and skin. Salting (and leaving uncovered) allows the exterior to dry, which reduces the amount of steam created when cooking, promoting browning and that tasty caramelization. If you’re still nervous about your food mingling with raw meat and fish in the fridge, try placing the raw item in a high-sided dish like a casserole dish and loosely covering it with plastic wrap; that way, your broccoli won’t rub against your chicken, but there’s still plenty of air circulation happening.