Salt, Part 8: To Serve Man
The ability of salt to cause water to move across cellular boundaries is at the core of salt cures and other forms of preservation using salt. Salted meats, whether fish, meat or fowl are cured by applying lots of salt to the entire surface area of the raw meat. The salt penetrates the cellular barriers of the meat, drawing moisture out of the meat and allowing the salt in. Eventually, the surface area of the meat is too dry to support the growth of bacteria, and this outer, dry layer inhibits the penetration of additional bacteria into the meat. Voila, a salt cured meat that can be packed in barrels, and put on a ship that is heading to the New World!
We can use this ‘curing’ characteristic of salt in our every day cooking of meats. Marinating meat with a salt enriched marinade, or even better, soaking the meat for some period of time in a brine of salt water (and sugar, to help browning and add some flavor) has an amazing impact on how juicy and flavorful meat prepares. The salt in the brine works two ways. First, by the process of osmosis, salt laden water penetrates into the surface of the meat, eventually increasing the overall moisture content of the meat. Secondly, salt causes the proteins in the meat to ‘denature’, which means the proteins change from being tightly curled up, to being loosely arranged, random shapes. This denaturing of the proteins opens up the path for even more moisture, as well as other flavoring elements included in the brine or marinade, to penetrate deeply into the meat. The importance of brining meat before preparing can’t be understated. Even shrimp benefits from a short brining period. Chicken and pork transform from often dry, tricky to make dishes, to juicy and flavorful main dishes. For beef, where brining isn’t usually necessary to get a juicy result, it is still important to sprinkle some salt on both sides of the meat before cooking in order to begin to draw out some of the surface juices, which contribute greatly to a deep brown, flavorful sear.