Getting the most flavor out of your food can be helped by seasoning it well. But salt also affects food by drawing out moisture which needs to be taken into account. Some cooks season before cooking and some season after cooking – which way is best?
It’s almost always better to season food with salt and pepper before cooking. Other seasonings that infuse food are best added before, such as spices and dried herbs. Seasonings used for their raw flavor are best added after cooking such as delicate fresh herbs.
Perhaps a caveat is when making something that reduces down, like a sauce or a casserole – you don’t want to add too much salt early on and for it to become too salty once the liquid has evaporated.
The next question is how long before cooking do you season? Read on in my article for my best tips on seasoning all types of foods.
So What Works Best When Seasoning Food?
You only have to watch some of the popular cooking programs to see how different chefs have their own take on things.
The trick is to know what works best for the seasoning you intend to use and how they will affect the dish you are creating. For instance, if you’re adding a strong spice to a dish, you need to be aware that if you add too much too soon it could end up overpowering the dish. The same goes for salt.
In general though, salting food before cooking helps to boost flavors better than if seasoned after. If your food is still tasting a little bland after cooking you can always add some more salt. Finishing salt can be used which is usually big flakes of sea salt that you can crush over your food. Yum!
If you’re following a recipe then make sure you add seasoning when instructed, as it’s likely the creator has worked hard to find out what works best through trial and error.
There are certain types of seasoning that work better if you add them beforehand and others that work better if added to the meal right at the end. Let’s take a look at those.
Seasonings That Work Best Before Cooking
For the purposes of this section, I’m talking here about adding seasoning just before starting to cook or very early on in the process. Typically this works best with more robust seasonings including:
Salt – I always like to season meat well with salt just before I start cooking as it really helps bring out the flavor. You will often find a recipe calls for you to add a pinch of salt at the beginning. Some food like steak can take a lot of salt and it really enhances umami flavors.
Some cooks like to season meat with salt several hours before cooking aka “dry brining” which I’ll cover later.
Pepper – the king of spices perhaps. This all-round seasoning elevates many dishes and can help add a delicate, spicy crust to meat and vegetables. It toasts and mellows when it’s seared so it suits that type of cooking well.
Dried herbs – when using dried herbs they need time to rehydrate and release their flavor. They’re typically used in long-cooking recipes such as stews and pot roasts. If you need to use dried herbs in a quicker recipe try rubbing them between your fingers before adding to help release their aroma and flavors quicker.
Hearty/woody fresh herbs – some fresh herbs with a hearty flavor and tough woody exterior may need to be added early on in the cooking process. This way they release the maximum flavor and their sometimes tough texture has a chance to break down. This includes herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and marjoram.
Whole spices and bay leaves – whole spices and those in dried leaf form release their flavor more slowly than when they’ve been ground and are ideal for adding to dishes with a long-cooking time.
Seasonings That Work Best After Cooking
Usually, seasonings that are best added towards the end of cooking tend to be those with more delicate flavors or those that are released easily including:
Delicate fresh herbs – delicate herbs that are fresh rather than dried release their flavor readily with just a little heat so are often added towards the end of cooking. They may even just be chopped up and sprinkled over just before serving. Herbs that fall into this category include cilantro, tarragon, parsley, chives, and basil.
Ground herbs – ground (rather than dried) herbs will release their flavor much more quickly and are usually added towards the end of the cooking time. This helps minimize any “cooking off” of the aromas and flavors before the dish is ready.
Ground spices – similar to ground herbs, spices that have been ground release their flavor readily so typically are added towards the end of longer cooking dishes. However, for quicker recipes they are often added sooner, sometimes right at the start.
Salt and pepper – yes, salt and pepper are commonly added once the dish has cooked as well as before. Salt in particular is considered by many to be one of the most important seasonings in cookery and can be used at various times in a recipe. Often nice large flakes are added at the end as “finished salt”.
One food that is commonly salted after is french fries – see my post on seasoning fries.
The Salting Before Or After Debate (And Dry Brining)
Some people argue that salting before will dry out your meat. I’ll explain how salting before can actually make your meat juicier from a process called dry brining.
If you sprinkle salt on a steak, within 5-10 minutes, you will see moisture appear on the surface. This is osmosis drawing out water from the cells of the meat. If you were to cook it now, you’ve lost moisture and left with a dryer steak.
But leave it longer and the water dissolves the salt and this salty liquid is drawn back into the meat. After 45 minutes the surface of the steak will be pretty much dry. The salt loosens the protein and seasons the inside of the meat. When it cooks it now retains more moisture as it doesn’t clench up so much.
You also get a nice browning on the meat from the dry surface. Definitely don’t wash the steak off!
Larger pieces of meat can be salted for 24 hours or more to get the full effect.
One thing most people agree on, salting meat and poultry before cooking is a great way to improve the flavor and texture, so it’s well worth doing. You can also add salt to your marinades which I covered also.
Personally, I often like to season with both salt and pepper just before cooking for the best results. On occasion and when I have the time, I will season with salt 24 hours before to get some really amazing tasting, succulent dishes. Check out a full guide of “dry brining” from Serious Eats.
As for adding salt after cooking, recipes will often have an instruction near the end to “season with salt and pepper to taste”. This is exactly what I like to do as I usually only add seasoning at the end if I think the dish needs it after tasting.
How Long Before Cooking Should I Season Meat?
Unless you have time to salt your meat for at least 45 minutes before cooking, then it’s best to do it immediately before cooking instead. Salt draws out moisture initially but then starts getting reabsorbed with the salt after time.
The reason for this is that the salt will initially start to draw out moisture from the meat through a process called osmosis. However, if you leave it for 45 minutes or so then the water dissolves the salt and the brine solution will be re-absorbed. This is what cooks call dry-brining and is a great alternative to wet-brining.
The longer you can leave it the more time the salt solution will have to get to work inside the meat, enhancing the flavors, and making it more tender and juicy when cooked.
Be careful not to leave it too long though as after 48 hours or so the meat could start to cure resulting in a different texture.
So there you have it, my thoughts on whether you should season food before or after cooking.
I hope this has given you some ideas on when is the best time to salt your food and add the many different herbs and spices available when you’re making a meal.
Remember that salting is best before cooking, and then you should determine how your other herbs and spices will affect your recipe and how long they need cooking to infuse the dish.
Do try out dry-brining your meat and poultry for at least a couple of hours in the refrigerator as well. You will be amazed how much this can improve steaks, chops, joints and so on and is a great way to improve some of those cheaper cuts.
Have any questions? Ask me in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.
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