Let’s learn how and when to season a steak, including what kind of salt to use, how much, and when to add it. Plus, we’ll look at pepper and other spices and seasonings.
There isn’t much that tastes better than a good steak grilled to perfection. But does that mean you shouldn’t add seasoning to it? Not at all!
Part of the joy of grilling is learning how to enhance and build on the inherently drool-inducing flavor of the meat. And, you can turn a so-so cut into a gourmet treat if you know how to prepare, cook, and plate it just right.
Today, we start with the OG spice — salt.
Some purists swear by salt on their steaks and nothing else. We won’t say they’re wrong, but we also think it’s fun to mix things up.
Tell you what: we’ll tell you our top tips for seasoning steak, including what kind of salt to use, how much you need, and when to apply it. We’ll get into it with pepper, too, and a few other herbs and spices you can use to style your steak masterpiece.
Then, it’s up to you to do what you will with the information. Enjoy experimenting with taste! Stick with our basic guidelines, though, and you really can’t go wrong.
Now, let’s begin with what you came here for.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Bottom Line up Front — What We Recommend
- 2 Is Seasoning Just Salting? Do Pepper, Herbs, and Spices Count Too?
- 3 Best Type of Salt to Use
- 4 How Much Salt to Use
- 5 When to Season Your Steak
- 6 The Great Pepper Debate — Does it Burn?
- 7 Adding Herbs and Spices
- 8 Final Thoughts
Bottom Line up Front — What We Recommend
For the best results, we suggest applying a liberal coating of salt far in advance of grilling; in fact, overnight in the fridge is optimal. You’re effectively dry brining your steak for enhanced flavor and moisture retention.
After that, it’s NADA until you’re done cooking!
Once the steak is grilled the way you like it, allow it to rest before slicing against the grain and on a bias before serving. Top with a bit of finishing salt and freshly ground pepper.
You can sauce it up if you like for an extra layer of flavor. We’re partial to a chimichurri when we’re feeling saucy, and you can grab our tried-and-true chimichurri recipe here.
Not into sauce? Try a can’t-miss compound butter, like this wild garlic and bone marrow butter — pure sorcery!
Another option is to toss on herbs and spices before heading out to the grill. Hey, it’s your steak, so go for gold! There are no rules to enjoying food — we can offer guidelines and suggestions, but, in the end, only you can decide what tastes delicious.
Now, keep reading as we dive into the why’s and how’s of seasoning your steak.
Is Seasoning Just Salting? Do Pepper, Herbs, and Spices Count Too?
Salt is a seasoning, so even if you only salt your steak, technically, you’re seasoning it. And, yes, usually when we talk about “seasoning” a steak, we’re talking about salt.
Then there’s good old ground black pepper. If you’re at a “fancy” restaurant, they’ll bring around the grinder and sprinkle some on anything you want.
Of course, plenty of folks like to get in there with their favorites from the spice rack too. And maybe even some brown sugar. Me, I leave the brown sugar for ribs, but I suppose it could bring something interesting to a lower-grade steak.
And then, there are commercially prepared or homemade steak rubs, which are blends of several spices.
As far as rubs go, unless the blend is salt-based, there’s not much point in adding some ahead of time because it won’t do the same job. Instead, apply and rub it in shortly before grilling to build flavor in your crust.
At the end of the day, though, it’s your steak; you do you! Add whatever seasonings you enjoy, and don’t let anyone tell you different.
Best Type of Salt to Use
There are more types of salt than you can count on your fingers. But which is best for seasoning steak?
As a general rule, you want to use coarse-ground salt, that is, salt with large crystals. You can easily buy salt in this format, or you can grind your own in a salt mill.
Coarse salt is easy to work with; you can control the flow of salt, and it’s simple to pick up with your fingers. Also, it has a lot of surface area, so it imparts more flavor to your steak because of the size and all the points of contact.
Table salt, or iodized salt, is not a good choice for steak, even though you undoubtedly have lots of it in your kitchen already. It’s far too easy to pour way more table salt than you need because it’s so free-flowing. Also, it has a slightly bitter taste that may interfere with the taste of your steak when used in large quantities.
Probably the best-known and most readily available coarse salt is Kosher or Koshering salt. It’s inexpensive and works very well on steaks. Thanks, to this combo of attributes, it’s our top choice for steak seasoning salt.
Sea salt is another good choice for large crystals, and so is Himalayan Pink salt. The only drawback for these salts is the price: both are typically far more expensive than Kosher salt. Also, there’s almost no detectable difference in taste, so it isn’t easy to justify their use on steak unless you’re seasoning in front of your guests and want to impress them.
To learn more about salt for grilling and cooking, click over to our comprehensive look at 14 Different Types of Salt, How to Use each, and Substitutions.
The simple answer here is “a lot!” You want to apply your salt liberally to ramp up the flavor impact on your steak.
Ok, well, how much is that? Generally accepted wisdom among pitmasters, weekend warriors, and actual chefs is one teaspoon (5ml, or about 6g). Some will say that’s per side, and some say total.
I say that depends on the size of the steak. If you have a massive porterhouse with a lot of surface area, you’ll need a heavier hand to cover the whole thing than on a small sirloin. Also, a good bit of that salt will either miss the steak entirely as you sprinkle it on, some will fall off when you flip the steak, and some will be left behind on the grill.
If 1 teaspoon doesn’t sound like much salt, consider this: most health professionals feel that your maximum daily sodium intake should be about 2,300 mg — and 1 teaspoon of table salt contains just over that.
Of course, some folks will prefer a little less salt. And, you need to take into account any salt that might be in your spice rub, if you’re using any. It may take some delicious trial and error, but you’ll figure out what you prefer in time.
When to Season Your Steak
Now you know which salt to use and how much. When’s the best time to apply it? I’m happy you asked. Here are the pros and cons of each possible answer.
Applying your salt at least 60 minutes before grilling is your first option. Even better is to let the salt sit on your steak overnight in the fridge. Doing so allows the salt to penetrate deep into the meat and work its magic.
Within a few minutes of application, salt starts to pull moisture out of the steak. After about 40–60 minutes (depending on how thick the steak is), the moisture is reabsorbed, leaving it juicy, extra-flavorful, and tenderized. Yes, you lose a small amount, but it’s honestly minuscule. Even sitting overnight, you won’t lose more than 5% or so.
What you’re doing is known as “dry brining,” and it’s a magnificent way to enhance almost any kind of meat. Want to know more? Then you’ll want to read this article: Dry Brining Guide — Turkey, Chicken, Steaks, Chops and More.
Another way to do it, which might be the most common approach, is to salt just before hitting the grill. The thing is, most people are doing this wrong.
When I say “just before,” I mean JUST before! If you put salt on a steak, it starts to pull moisture out; you know this because we’ve already covered it. But, if you don’t leave it long enough, there’s no time for the moisture to reabsorb.
So, if you’re not going to salt your steak at least 40 minutes to an hour in advance, instead, you should do it no later than 3 minutes before you get to the grill.
The benefit to doing it this way is the salt is right there on the surface as you cook. This lets you build up a reasonable crust. Not as good as on a dry-brined steak, but not bad.
But, where there are pros, there are also cons. Not only won’t the crust be as robust, but you also won’t get the full impact on the flavor and tenderness. It’ll be yummy (salt is a natural flavor enhancer) but not melt-in-your-mouth, oh-my-god-I-am-the-grill-master yummy.
If you prefer just a small hit of salt (or forget to do it before cooking), you can add a pinch after grilling your steak. Of course, it won’t help your crust, and it won’t tenderize the meat, either. But, it will add some appealing surface flavor, just like any other seasoning might.
An added benefit of salting your steak after grilling is it’s easy to control the portion and “season to taste.”
The Great Pepper Debate — Does it Burn?
If I had a dollar for every “debate” in barbecue, well… let’s just say I’d buy better steaks more often.
Today it’s pepper: does it burn if you add it to your steak before grilling?
The answer seems to be no, for the most part, but also sometimes yes. What’s up with that?
Finely ground pepper has a minimal surface area, so there’s not much to burn. Coarsely ground pepper has more surface area, so it’s more prone to burning, but only at extremely high temperatures.
For what it’s worth, burnt pepper does taste bitter and unpleasant. But, unless you’re using practically whole peppercorns and searing using the afterburner method, you’re unlikely to burn your pepper on the grill.
Applying pepper to your steak before grilling means less time handling your steak when it’s finished and less time waiting to eat. Plus, you’ll somewhat get the pepper down into the flesh and experience the flavor beyond the surface.
On the other hand, you’re likely to lose a fair portion of pepper to the grate and flames. Additionally, the compound that gives pepper much of its taste and bite, piperine, melts at 266 °F. Since we sear at upwards of 400 °F, you’ll melt away many of the benefits pepper brings to your steak. You’ll still taste pepper notes, but not the full effect you might be hoping for.
Pepper added after cooking will sit on the surface of the steak, mixing with any crust you’ve formed and juices resting on the top. You’ll get the whole pepper experience this way — all the taste and all the burn.
The only downsides I can imagine are the bit of time lost and the potential for too much pepper flavor, and that last one is only a problem if you don’t like pepper much in the first place.
For an excellent look at peppering your steak, check out this video from home cook extraordinaire Ethan Chlebowski.
Adding Herbs and Spices
If you’ve looked at your spice rack anytime recently, you know there’s a lot more to “seasoning” than just S&P. What else goes well with steak?
Beef has a robust flavor all on its own. If you expect anything you add to it to make much of an impact, it needs to be up to the job. That means herbs and spices with plenty of, shall we say, oomph?
You don’t have to get too exotic to add amazing flavor to your steak. Pantry staples like rosemary, thyme, and oregano are excellent choices for adding fragrance, a hint of woodiness, and even floral notes to steak. Fresh basil and parsley are also equal to the task.
Try cumin, red pepper flakes, or cayenne pepper for some heat with your meat.
You Might Also be Interested in
The best time to add herbs and spices is right before putting your steak on the grill.
There’s no real benefit to rubbing them in way ahead of time since they’re not there to cause a reaction like salt does.
Give a liberal sprinkling on the surface of your steak and rub them in, so they stick there.
Anything will burn, given enough heat and time. But, most spices do not burn easily, and they typically have minimal surface area. (See our earlier bit on pepper for more on that.)
Plus, steaks aren’t in the heat for long, so there’s not much chance you’re going to singe your spices overly.
I hope your takeaway from this article is that flavor is what you make it. Yes, there are best practices for salting and seasoning steak. But it’s up to you to take those tips and make them your own.
And with that, another tasty treatise gets salted away. Hopefully, this article answered more questions for you than it raised, and you now have a game plan for your next steak cookout.
Thanks for reading! And please, leave your questions and comments for us in the form below. You’re in good company here.