The Science of BBQ - Salt
There is a great debate about when one should salt meat before cooking. People get, forgive the terrible pun, rather salty about this. From professional chefs to the weekend warriors, everyone has an opinion about when to salt food. There are a number of scientific factors that come in to play when it comes to salting meat as well. Find out how salt affects meat, what salt is, and where it comes from in this article.
What is Salt?
Salt is a water-soluble mineral – Sodium Chloride - that is mined in the form of rock crystals on land or produced by evaporating seawater. Salt has been used as a flavor enhancer and food preserver dating back to 6000 BCE if not further. Salt is used in many ways, including in manufacturing. In fact, only about 6-percent of salt produced is for human consumption.
Where Does Salt Come From?
Salt - all salt - was at one time sea salt. Salt is harvested by evaporating seawater or mining crystals from salt mines. Salt was deposited inland by evaporating oceans eons ago. In a salt mine, water is used to cut and dissolve the salt. The water evaporates from the salt mixture and leaves only salt crystals. It is then processed into the forms we are familiar with.
What Does Salt Do?
Enhances Flavor - Small amounts of salt can enhance sweetness in foods – think salted caramel. Salt also counteracts bitterness. Try adding a pinch in the office coffee grounds before brewing. Salt, most importantly, enhances the natural flavors of food making them more aromatic. Just salting a steak will make it so much better than just the plain beef.
Tenderizes - Salt denatures protein, this loosens the muscle fibers of meat so that they don’t contract as quickly or as much, leaving more moisture within the meat when cooking. When used in both dry and wet brining, or just plain seasoning, salt tenderizes meat. It is molecularly small enough to pass through the cells that make up meat, penetrating up to an inch within 24 hours of application. When used in a wet brine, salt will equalize the salinity of the water with the salinity of the meat. It does this by penetrating into the meat and dragging water with it. This increases the moisture content of the meat by up to 10-percent.
Moisture Retention - Salt helps cells retain moisture, which is especially effective in processed and cured meats, allowing for less saturated fat to be added in the process.
Gelatinize Proteins - Salt breaks down protein which helps in the process of gelatinization – a particularly handy thing when making cheese.
Makes Bread Even Better - Salt helps in yeast fermentation and gluten formation when you make bread. This has a huge impact on bread’s final texture and flavor.
Preserve and Enhance Color - Salt is a preservative in the sense that it prevents bacteria growth by removing moisture in dried foods, but it also enhances the colors in these foods. It also lends itself for better caramelization in the bread crust when baking.
Different Kinds of Salt
Table Salt - Table salt is mined, purified, and ground into a uniform shape. It usually has additives like anti-caking agents to prevent it from clumping, as well as iodine (iodized salt).
Kosher Salt - Kosher salt is a large flake salt that is preferred by chef-types because of its ease to pick up and sprinkle in a controlled manner. It does not dissolve quickly or easily as other kinds of salt, so it is not ideal for baking. Kosher salt was originally used to remove blood quickly from meat in the process of koshering. A company that sold koshering salt misprinted a package, labeling it “kosher” salt and the name stuck.
Pickling Salt - Pickling salt is great for pickling because it dissolves readily and easily in cold water – which is ideal for brining. It contains no additives like anti-caking agents – which cause the liquid to become cloudy or iodine – which darkens the food.
Sea Salt - Sea salt is characterized by its large grains. It is produced by creating shallow pools of seawater and allowing that water to evaporate. It is generally an expensive commodity and makes a great garnish, but not ideal for cooking.
Himalayan Salt - Himalayan salt is a rock salt that is mined in the Punjab area of Pakistan. It contains mineral deposits that result in the iconic pink color. The extra minerals found within Himalayan salt are purported to have healing and healthy properties.
Curing Salt - Curing salt is purely for the curing of meats and not for use as cooking or seasoning agent as it can be lethal in large doses. Curing salts contain nitrates and nitrites, which have a negative association with your health, however, all things in moderation. It is used to draw the moisture out of meats which prevents and inhibits the growth of bacteria. Bacon and sausage anyone?
What Happens When You Salt Meat Before Grilling?
When you salt meat well in advance of grilling (or cooking in general) it provides time for the salt to pull the liquid from the meat and allows that liquid to be reabsorbed with the salt dissolved in that liquid. This makes your meat more flavorful. This salt is also loosening the muscle fibers when the liquid is reabsorbed so that they won’t contract as fast or as much during cooking. Not to mention that salt-liquid absorption means that the salt is now inside of the meat enhancing the flavor. And finally, the liquid that was pulled out of the meat and then reabsorbed has also evaporated a little which dries the outside of the meat you are cooking providing a better sear. That is because the heat energy used for the sear isn’t lost to evaporating the surface moisture on the meat and allows the Maillard reaction to occur almost instantly.
You should salt meat at least 30 to 40 minutes before grilling (or cooking) if you wish to eat right away. If you have patience, salting a roast or poultry with skin the day before and allowing it to rest on a rack in the fridge overnight will lead to a much more flavorful meal and crispier skin.
Salt is a crystalline structure at a microscopic level. Every brand of salt produces its grains of salt in a different manner, meaning that there will be more or less air between the grains of salt in each different kind – especially when measuring by volume (cups, TBSP. TSP.). For example, if you were to measure out 1 TBSP. of kosher salt vs. 1 TBSP. of table salt, the meal with the table salt would be about twice as salty as the one with kosher because the grains of kosher are larger and there is more air between each individual particle. However, you can negate this by measuring salt by weight instead, or ensuring that when following directions in a recipe, you use the same salt when specified.
Salt and the Human Body
Salt has gotten a bad reputation when it comes to health. Many people are on a self-imposed low-sodium diet because they are concerned with the amount of salt consumed on a daily basis. Did you know that the human body NEEDS salt? We cannot produce it on our own, which means that it needs to be ingested for a body to function properly. Yes, consumption of too much salt can lead to health issues, however, so can the ingestion of too much water. Salt isn’t just for making food magical, in one’s body, it helps with nerve conductivity, fluid balance between cells, and the proper function of your muscles.
The intention of this article was not to in-salt your cooking practices. If you prefer to salt your meat just before grilling or even after the fact, it is more than a widely accepted practice. Although, allowing the science of salt to work its magic on your meat and create a delicious meal has its merits too. Which camp do you fall under? Do you have the patience to wait for the magic of salt or are you a salt and go kind of person? Tell us when you a-salt your meals by sharing stories and pictures on our social pages like Facebook and Instagram. Use the hashtags #SaltyBBQ and #NapoleonGrills.