Tougher cuts of meat can be cooked sous-vide for a long time (1 to 3 days) to render them tender and keep them juicy at the same time. I’ve been cooking sous-vide for over three years, and I’ve usually salted meat right before vacuum sealing it to be cooked sous-vide. I have however also seen recipes that salt the meat after cooking sous-vide, or recipes that brine the meat first. I’ve even seen recipes that dry cure meat first (i.e. add salt and vacuum seal, then wait for 24 hours, then cook sous-vide), and wondered whether that would make any difference as the time needed to cook the meat sous-vide would certainly be sufficient to allow the salt to penetrate all the way to the core of the meat. Would it make a difference to allow the salt to penetrate the meat before cooking, or not? As none of the recipes explain these differences, there was only one way to find out: a side-by-side experiment!
For this experiment I picked up a nice piece of iberico pork, the pluma (feather) of the loin. The pluma is the cut that is joined to the the loin at the bottom end, the equivalent to the flank. Like all iberico pork, it is very nicely marbled.
- Piece #1 I just vacuum sealed and labeled it “Salted before SV”. Its starting weight was 90 grams.
- Piece #2 I salted with 2% salt by weight, vacuum sealed it, and labeled it “Dry cure”. Its starting weight was 85 grams.
- Piece #3 I combined with water and 2% salt by total weight, vacuum sealed it, and labeled it “Wet cure”. Its starting weight was 128 grams (before adding the water).
- Piece #4 I a just vacuum sealed and labeled it “plain”. Its starting weight was 106 grams.
I then refrigerated all four pieces for 24 hours.
- I salted piece #1 (“Salted before SV”), and vacuum sealed it.
- I vacuum sealed piece #2 (“Dry cure”).
- I discarded the brine of piece #3, weighed it, and vacuum sealed it (“Wet cure”). Its weight had increased from 128 to 147 grams (+15%) from absorbing the brine.
- I vacuum sealed piece #4 (“Plain”).
…and cooked them sous-vide for 24 hours at 55ºC/131ºF. This time and temperature was a bit of an educated guess (shorter and lower than iberico secreto) and turned out great. The meat was tender and juicy and still had a nice ‘bite’ to it.
Piece #2, salted 24 hours before cooking it sous-vide and thus “dry cured”, had lost 7% of its weight. I think it had lost slightly less weight than piece #1 because I used more salt on this one. In hindsight, I should have used 2% salt by weight on piece #1 as well rather than just eyeballing the amount of salt. Although the slightly lower weight loss than piece #1 indicated that it was more juicy, we couldn’t notice a difference except that piece #2 was more salty. Perhaps I should repeat the experiment more carefully, but my tentative conclusion is that salting 24 hours before cooking sous-vide or salting right before cooking sous-vide doesn’t make a significant difference (if you use the same amount of salt).
Piece #3 was wet cured and lost only 4% of its original weight. (It went up from 128 grams to 143, and then down to 123.) So all of the added liquid from the brine was gone, but it still ended up losing less liquid than the others. We thought that this piece had a slightly better texture and was slightly more juicy than the other pieces, but this difference was very small. (You can actually see in the photo that the texture is a bit different.) I also thought that perhaps it tasted slightly less porky, but that may have been my imagination. (This could be caused by some of the pork juices being replaced by the brine.)
Finally, piece #4 was salted only after pan-searing it. It lost 12% of its original weight. This indicates that salting before cooking sous-vide is a good idea because it reduces loss of juices. We did not however notice a significant difference in texture or juiciness compared with pieces #1 and #2. What was quite difference of course was that the salt was only on the outside and not inside the meat. You may or you may not prefer this.
The differences between these four pieces were very small. All of them were delicious. My main conclusion is that salting before cooking sous-vide is a good idea, as it seems to help reduce the loss of meat juices during cooking and allows the salt to penetrate deeply into the meat.
Brining seems to be an interesting option before cooking sous-vide, although I am not sure that the extra step and waiting time is worth it. I’ll have to do another experiment with a proper brine, i.e. with not just salt in the brine but also sugar. I left out the sugar in this experiment to make it a fair comparison between the four pieces.
Two years ago I blogged about penne with bell peppers and salami, as quick and pasta dish that I prepare quite often. I have started adding a tablespoon or so of heavy cream to this to take the acidic edge off, as the combination of tomatoes, salami, and wine can turn the dish a bit acidic.