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One of the tips I always get about cooking is seasoning meat before I put it in the pan for a sear, but one of the other tips I get is to keep the meat dry so it can actually brown and develop a crust. I know that salting meat draws out moisture to the surface, and that tends to prevent the sear I want. Dabbing the steak with a paper towel before I put it in the pan seems to take away the salt I added, and that seems counterproductive too.

Is there a way I can still keep meat I want to season dry so I can get a good crust?

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Serious Eats published a great article on how to cook, sear, and season their perfect steak!

TL;DR Salt your steak and rest it on a wire-rack for 40+ minutes (ideally in a fridge overnight) before searing. If you can't do that, your next best bet is to salt immediately before searing.

If you're curious to know the science behind it, here's what happens after you salt your steak (assuming it's 1.5+ inches thick):

  • Within 3-4 minutes, the salt draws out liquid from the meat. At this point, you don't want to sear your steak because evaporating liquid inhibits the Maillard reaction, which forms that coveted crust around your steak.
  • After 10-15 minutes, the salty brine formed around the steak breaks down the muscle fibers of the beef and starts to work its way back into the meat (!!)
  • After 40 minutes, most of the liquid has worked its way back into the meat, yielding more deeply seasoned meat, and a drier exterior that's ready to sear.

You may notice that your steak appears to be slightly darker after resting it overnight -- this is normal! As it works its way into the meat, the salt actually dissolves the proteins in the meat; dissolved proteins reflect light differently than whole proteins.

The steak might also appear to be dry from the outside. Again, totally normal. Resting a steak in the fridge overnight will cause it to lose ~5% of its moisture, but this is negligible when you consider that you drive off 20%+ of a steak's moisture when you sear it.

Good luck!

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  • This is exactly right and the process that I follow. I salt and pepper the steak about 1/2 hour before cooking, a bit longer if possible. Initially the salt draws moisture out of the steak which both dries it out and makes it hard to sear, but then after some more time it re-absorbs this brine, which both makes the steak more moist and seasons it below the surface. – Uncle Long Hair Jun 29 '20 at 21:08
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    Does the steak must be cooled, like in a fridge, while it rest on a wire-rack over night? – undefined Jun 30 '20 at 9:16
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    @undefined Definitely! Leaving it out for more than a few hours is a recipe for food poisoning. – LSchoon Jun 30 '20 at 10:28
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    Peppering the steak beforehand isn't the right way to go @UncleLongHair, pepper loses flavor after grinding and gets bitter in the high heat of the pan. Try peppering just after removing the steak instead. – GdD Jun 30 '20 at 13:07
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You have two options:

  • salt the meat either long enough in advance (this will depend strongly on the cut of meat, but I have seen recommendations for salting up to two days ahead). This way, the salt has time to penetrate the meat. You can then dab off surface moisture with a paper towel
  • Alternatively, salt the meat right before searing, so there is no time for moisture to be drawn out.

Of course, you could use a combination of both, but be careful not to over-season.

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