By Emily Kaiser
The New York Times
February 25, 2004

Restaurant chefs and home cooks alike can now choose from a world of salt, including Hawaiian black lava salt, gray fleur de sel de Gurande from Brittany, Peruvian pink salt and a host of other varieties that have become available in the last few years.

"Salt is the new olive oil," said Thomas Keller, the chef of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and the new Per Se in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan.
Given the considerable expansion of the salt rack, some chefs are also advocating new ways of cooking with salt, especially when making meat dishes. Common belief indeed, cooking-school doctrine has long been that meat should be salted just before cooking and not a moment before.

But lately, chefs like Mr. Keller, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, have been encouraging cooks to try salting earlier.
"Back in the 80's, like any other cook, I was really weighted down with this admonition that you do not salt anything ahead of time, or it dries out," Ms. Rodgers said. "As a novice, I wasn't in a position to question that. But it wasn't hard to realize it didn't make any sense. Cooks have salted things early for thousands of years, meats that retain their succulence because of the cure."

Ms. Rodgers learned a great deal about salt when she worked in the Landes region in southwestern France, which is known for its preserved hams and confits. The cooks there salted everything in advance meats they were preserving as well as those they planned to eat in a few days.
"They broke all sorts of rules," she said, "but it worked. Their food wasn't dry, it tasted really good. I started to wonder."

Traditionally, when browning meat, chefs skip the addition of salt because the salt draws water out of the meat's surface through osmosis.

If, for example, you were to season a steak just 10 minutes before grilling, beads of moisture would appear on the surface, eventually forming a shallow puddle of juices. On the grill, the steak would turn gray, not brown.

True curing not only dries out meat but also profoundly alters its taste. An example of this is the difference between prosciutto and fresh pork. Light curing can make meat more moist. Ms. Waters often includes recipes in her cookbooks in which white meat like pork or chicken is lightly brined in a wet cure, a solution of salt, sugar and other herbs and spices. Mr. Keller and Ms. Rodgers both encourage a light dry-cure, salting the meat and leaving it to dry uncovered in the refrigerator for a day or two before cooking.

As Ms. Rodgers and Mr. Wolke explained, when salt encounters protein, the protein changes shape on a molecular level. In its new form, it can absorb more water than normal and softens. So a salted piece of meat can taste juicier and more tender than an unsalted one. If the meat is not too heavily salted, nor left to dry very long, what little drying results may also improve the flavor. The trick to keeping a presalted steak from turning gray is simply to pat the surface with paper towels just before you put it on the grill, to dry off any moisture.

Additionally, any herbs or spices included with the salt "ride piggyback," as Ms. Rodgers put it, into the meat's cells, further improving the taste.

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