Explaining the Role of Salt in the Drying Out of Foods During Cooking

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Times Staff Writer

Question: Do you agree that adding salt to meats or eggs before cooking is a big no-no? As a young, inexperienced cook, I hadn’t heard of this until a neighbor friend told me so. She said salt toughens and dries out food. Can you please discuss this matter in your column?

Answer: Technically, salt draws out moisture through the process of osmosis. This is the basis for all the theories about drying and toughening properties of salt when in contact with foods. However, salt does not create this moisture loss to a considerable degree in many cases. Roasts, for instance, may be salted before cooking if desired, but don’t expect the flavor to come through since only one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch is seasoned. The meat is preferably salted at the table after carving or while each piece is carved. When broiling or searing, sprinkle salt after cooking, since the salt would slow the browning by drawing the juices to the surface.

Salting before cooking may be done in a fast cooking process, which does not allow for toughening or moisture loss. Sauteed minute steaks or scaloppine, as well as Chinese stir-frying, are some examples.


There are other factors that affect the juiciness of red meats other than salting techniques. Some of them are large drip loss during storage, less fat in the meat, long periods of aging or freezing, high temperatures and cooking longer than necessary and the age and breed of the animal.

Unlike red meats, poultry does not pose as much of a problem because of its natural moistness, but use a light hand with salt when cooking the leaner chicken breasts.

Some recipes call for salt when beating egg whites. The salt allows the egg whites to incorporate more air while being beaten. Poached or fried whole eggs toughen when salt is added before cooking, but when a small amount of salt is added to scrambled eggs or omelets the albumen in the egg white breaks down faster and makes blending with the yolks easier.

Aside from meats and eggs, here are other foods affected by salting before, during or after cooking:

--Stocks may be lightly salted in the beginning of cooking to bring out the flavor, but care must be taken against over-salting. It is a lot easier to increase the salt to taste at the last stage of cooking.

--Seafoods, particularly saltwater products, require very little salt.

--Pasta, rice and beans require addition of salt before cooking for flavors to permeate.

--Although most vegetables need salt in the cooking water, some vegetables that are naturally high in sodium (spinach, celery, chard, beets, artichokes and kale) don’t have to be cooked in salted boiling water, which tends to harden and reduce moisture in vegetables.


Q: I heard that restaurants use a commercial product for keeping whipped cream fresh and stiff for a long period. Can you please tell me if there is a similar product for the consumer, and if so, where I can buy it? I am not talking about using unflavored gelatin, which works well, too.

A: There is a whipped cream stabilizer called “Whip It” produced by Oetker in Ontario, Canada. It comes in a package of two (1/3-ounce) pouches and is available at some Dutch import stores. The major distributor of the product in the Los Angeles area is Holland American, which has a retail outlet in the same vicinity as its warehouse at 10343 E. Artesia Blvd. in Bellflower. The package retails for 45 cents.

“Whip It” is made of dextrose, precooked starch and tricalcium phosphate. The whipped cream stabilizer keeps cream firm for hours after whipping. A pouch may be added to one-half pint of whipping cream before whipping. For larger quantities, another product called “Whipping Cream Aid” is available through Parrish Cake Supply House in Los Angeles. The smallest package comes in four ounces and sells for $2.35.

Q: A Spanish beef entree recipe suggests serving pisto as an accompaniment to the dish. Can you please tell me what pisto means? Could it pertain to pesto? But I know that pesto refers to the Italian basil sauce, so maybe it’s a different dish. I checked all my cookbooks but I couldn’t find the recipe.

A: Pisto is a Spanish vegetable stew that is served as an appetizer, a vegetable side dish or sometimes a meat main dish if it contains a good proportion of meat. The dish, which can be eaten hot or cold, is made with diced ham or ground beef and vegetables such as red peppers, pimientos, eggplant, mushrooms and sometimes with artichokes. Similar to a ratatouille, the ingredients are sauteed with a lot of garlic and onions and simmered in tomato sauce.

Q: I love the flavor of pork, particularly with Oriental seasonings. Now that I’m trying to lose weight, should I eliminate it from my diet as most people advise?


A: The omission of pork from weight-loss diets is based on outdated information. The former belief was that pork is difficult to digest and that it is higher in fat and cholesterol than other meats. The lean pork available today is comparable in fat and cholesterol to other lean meats and, like all meats, is 95% digestible. There are, however, pork cuts that are obviously higher in fat--like pork bellies, bacon, pork hocks, pork roasts with skin--which should be avoided in low-fat diets.

Address questions on food preparation to You Asked About, Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. Personal replies cannot be given.