Season the Meat—or the Stew?
Is it truly necessary to season meat before searing it for a stew?
Many stew recipes call for seasoning chunks of meat with salt before searing them or adding them unseared to the pot. We wondered if this was truly necessary or if most of that salt simply dissolves into the cooking liquid. Could you save a plate or bowl and simultaneously add the meat and salt directly to the pot? We set up an experiment to find out.
To focus on the seasoning of the meat, we omitted the aromatics, broth, wine, and other flavorings typically found in a stew. In each test we used 1 pound of beef cubes, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, and 2 cups of water. We varied whether the meat was seared before the water was added to the pot and whether we salted the meat directly or added the salt and meat to the pot simultaneously. All batches were covered and simmered for 1½ hours to mimic a stew's cooking time. Tasters sampled the beef and broth from each batch and rated their saltiness. We repeated the test three times.
Tasters reported that the beef and broth in all batches were appropriately seasoned and that each batch was similarly salty.
When salt and meat are added to the pot at the beginning of cooking, the salt dissolves into the stewing liquid. Over time, some of that dissolved salt diffuses into the meat, seasoning it beyond just the surface. In the past, we've found that if you wait to salt beef stew until the end of cooking, the broth becomes unpleasantly salty, while the meat is under-seasoned because the salt did not have time to permeate the meat.
Since any salt sprinkled on meat just before stewing it dissolves into the cooking liquid, from a seasoning perspective it doesn't matter if you sprinkle the salt directly on the meat or add it to the stewing liquid. What's critical is adding the salt to the pot early in the process so it has time to permeate the meat over the course of stewing. We'll rely on this knowledge when tackling stew recipes in the future to save ourselves a little bit of time and a dirty dish or two.