Pre-Salting Poultry and Meat

By: Corky Pollan

I think it was my love of eating that turned me into a cook, one who is always searching for methods to make what I cook taste ever better. Like many home cooks I've found myself in the middle of trying a new recipe when suddenly I realize I'm in trouble–the language is vague and the process inadequately described– so I have to wing it. In my contributions to Devour, I'm eager to define in simple language the terms that recipes often leave vague and explore the techniques, tips, and tricks that chefs and long-time cooks have acquired over the years.

For years now I’ve been brining my chickens and meats to make them tender and tastier, but it’s always been something of a bother, an annoying and time consuming additional step in the cooking process. Recently I tried a pre-salting technique championed by San Francisco chef Judy Roberts (of the Zuni Café) and food science writer Harold McGee. I was attracted by its simplicity, but marveled at the results.

These three quick and simple steps led to great flavor, texture, and succulence:

1. Unwrap your poultry or meat as soon as you bring it home from the market, rinse lightly and pat dry (the experts are at odds whether poultry should be rinsed or simply patted dry, so follow your own instincts here).

2. Sprinkle sea or kosher salt evenly over the entire surface of the meat or poultry. For poultry allow it to air dry (for amazingly crisp skin) or, if crispness isn’t a concern, loosely wrap in plastic wrap.

3. Remove from the fridge 1 hour or so before cooking to allow it to reach room temperature.

There is one crucial thing to keep in mind: You must salt the meat or poultry at least 6 hours before cooking, and preferably 1 to 4 days before. Though many cookbooks rightly warn you never salt meat or poultry right before you put it in the oven– because the salt will draw out the juices and make it dry and tough–the opposite occurs when you salt well in advance of cooking. It all has to do with the behavior of proteins and cell osmosis. At first, the salt draws moisture out of the cells, but a few hours later, the cells reabsorb the salty water in a kind of reverse osmosis, drawing back both moisture and flavor. I allow one day for a thick-ish steak, two days for a whole chicken, and three or four days for a large cut of meat, like a brisket or a turkey.

The amount of salt is a matter of taste, so experiment. I like a medium grade sea salt and have found that 1/4 to 1/2 tsp a pound for chicken parts, 3/4 tsp a pound for a whole chicken, and 1 tablespoon for a 4 pound chuck roast worked well. If using kosher salt remember that Diamond Crystal kosher salt is less salty because of grain size than Morton’s Kosher salt, so with Diamond Crystal you should double the amount. Surprisingly, whichever salt you use the finished product won’t taste salty, only lively, rich, and deeply flavorful.

Try this technique with these recipes:

Corky Pollan, former Style Director of Gourmet and Best Bets Editor of New York Magazine, has returned to her first love, cooking. In her Devour posts, she's eager to debunk cooking myths and solve some cooking mysteries.

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