Saturday, 5 December 2009

Pre-salting Meat

After so many years of thinking that salting meat any earlier than the very last moment was an act of destruction causing unspeakable degrees of dehydration and toughness, I discovered pre-salting in Judy Rodger’s wonderful tomb, The Zuni CafĂ© Cookbook. It bordered on a religious awakening. I and my fellow Rose Bakery chef, the wonderful Avon Lyons, made the discovery together (during those many evenings sitting at the window of our Paris flat, flipping through cookbooks for the next day’s inspiration). Now, we’re both born again and (speaking for myself) converting others whenever opportunity arises.

Yes, salting meat earlier than the very last moment draws moisture out of the flesh. That’s the ‘osmosis’ I think we all learned about in school. But the science lesson always ends too soon. I’m not sure of the technical specifics, but if you leave the salted meat to sit for long enough, all those drawn out juices started heading back in, taking the salt with them. Better still, if you plant some flavours on the skin of the meat before this whole process begins, these too will be drawn into the flesh. (In the pic above I've slipped some parsley and thyme under the breast skin of a whole chicken.) The end result is a more succulent, deeply seasoned piece of meat.

Judy Rodgers recommends 3/4 tsp sea salt per pound (about 1/2 kg) of meat. As you’re sprinkling, you need to be quite aware of how much ‘flesh depth’ you’re dealing with, particular if you are salting a whole chicken with all its thick and thin parts, or a fillet of meat that might be thinner at the ends than in the middle. Wherever the flesh is thin, sprinkle salt only sparingly, and where it is deep, be liberal.

Aim for about 2-3 days of presalting time. Just place the meat on a plate, sprinkle it with the salt and any other seasoning you might be using, cover it with cling wrap and refrigerate. Before cooking the meat in whatever way you plan, make sure you very thoroughly dry the surface first with paper towels. Any extra moisture on the surface of the meat will cause it to steam rather than caramelize.

Another thing, the technique is quite flexible to a point. That is, you can salt any meat you buy fresh, and use it in 2, 3, or even 4 days. But if you think you might want to use it after just 1 day, then you should probably use a little less salt, as its absorption will be more superficial and therefore more intensely focussed in the extremities of the meat.

Finally, just a note on meat types: this technique isn’t really meant for fish. Compared with poultry and land animals, fish flesh is much more delicate, and absolute freshness is part of its appeal. The slight ‘curing’ process of pre-salting isn’t always the result you want with such creatures.

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