Throughout years of cooking in the test kitchen, we've noticed that we tend to season lean meat much less generously than fatty meat. But anecdotal evidence alone wasn't enough to convince us that we need to treat pork loin differently than, say, a strip steak or even ground beef. To bolster our anecdotal evidence with real data, we set up the following experiment.
We rounded up five meats ranging in fat content: turkey breast, pork loin, strip steak (beef), and both 80 percent and 90 percent lean ground beef. We cooked the meat and chopped it into pieces. We then tossed 10-gram portions of each meat with increasing amounts of salt (0.1 percent, 0.25 percent, 0.5 percent, 0.75 percent, 1 percent, and 1.5 percent by weight of each sample). We had tasters try the samples blind in order, starting with an unsalted control, and had them record at what percentage the meat tasted properly seasoned. We also sent cooked samples of each type of meat to a lab to determine fat content.
Fattier Meat Needs More Salt
We tasted 6 samples each of ground turkey breast, pork loin, strip steak, 90 percent lean ground beef, and 80 percent lean ground beef, with increasing amounts of salt, and determined which sample tasted best. The results? The fattier the meat, the more salt it needed to taste properly seasoned. Why? Fat, it has been shown, has a dulling effect on our sense of taste.
Sure enough, the fattier the meat, the more salt it needed to taste properly seasoned. Tasters preferred the lean turkey breast (0.7 percent fat) and pork loin (2.6 percent fat) seasoned with 0.5 percent salt by weight. The strip steak (6 percent fat) and 90 percent lean ground beef (10 percent fat) required about 0.75 percent salt by weight to taste seasoned. And finally, the 80 percent lean ground beef (20 percent fat) tasted seasoned to a majority of tasters only when it reached 1 percent salt by weight.
In 2012, a study published in the science journal Chemosensory Perception showed that fats in food may activate certain regions of the brain, thereby influencing how tastes are perceived. More specifically, fat has a dulling effect on taste. Our test lends credence to this.
When you season meat, keep the following in mind:
- Use a heavier hand on fatty burgers than you would on only moderately fatty meats like strip steak and 90 percent lean ground beef.
- Use a lighter hand on lean meats like turkey breast and pork loin.