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Should you season steak with pepper? (Explained)

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Steak just isn’t steak unless it’s seasoned correctly, but when should I add my seasonings? We all know that marination is a great way to get bold flavor throughout your meat, but some people lack the time for it, and others have picky eaters who may not appreciate the marination process.

In either case, a few good dashes of S&P (salt and pepper) will still deliver big, natural flavor from the meat.

Some considerations before adding seasonings

Steak, like all proteins, has its own flavor profile that varies between cuts, quality, preparation, and, cooking method. Building on that natural profile is an art form that anyone can master if they practice.

A fatty steak like wagyu should be cooked with minimal seasoning and at a low temp. A strip steak, by comparison, can be grilled over an open flame, steeped in beer, and not suffer any real flavor loss because it has a denser composition. 

Adding Before cooking

Salt is an amazing thing. If we add it before we cook a steak, it will pull out excess moisture and help give the steak that nice, crisp, pan-sear and juicy brined center that restaurants perfected.

Adding During Cooking

If we add salt during the cooking process, especially a large-grain salt like coarse ground kosher, it will melt into the steak creating little pockets of flavor on the surface. Some chefs even use salted butter for their pan basting but that’s a delicate process, and another topic.

Using Pre-Mixed Seasonings

Pre-mixed salt and pepper is a great timesaver in the kitchen, but it loses a lot of its power and flavor quickly because it’s pre-mixed. Have you ever noticed how the little packs of black pepper in the to-go silverware don’t really taste like pepper?

That’s because the paper that it’s in has no way to preserve the oils from the peppercorn so it dries out quickly and loses most of its profile. Now imagine that same peppercorn sitting in a tub of salt, a natural drying agent. So unless you’re mixing your own S&P just before cooking, its best to just stay away from them. 

The Maillard Reaction

There has been a lot of whispers in the culinary world about the Maillard Reaction, or, browning reactions. Simply put, it’s a high-heat reaction happening to your food when salt, sugar, fat, and protein all react in sync. The reaction is what causes our steaks to sear and brown on the outside while keeping the insides juicy.

It is also a factor in the aroma and layering of flavor in our food. The browning reaction only occurs at temps over 350°, so it is mostly seen when a steak is seared in minutes.

While salt is a hearty element, pepper is a fickle mistress. Its natural enemy is heat, specifically any temperature over 250° so be careful when pre-peppering your steaks. Pepper comes from ground peppercorns or “berries” and is highly susceptible to falling victim to the Maillard Reaction.

Unlike its mineral-based cousin salt, when pepper melts it is inherently a bad thing. Pepper melting creates a bitter taste and aroma that can ruin the best planned meals.

It also doesn’t have the natural elements to bond to proteins under high heat, so it usually gets stuck to the grill or pan, creating more burn and acridity.

Steak au poivre, which is highly coated in fresh pepper, is cooked at such low temperatures that the Maillard Reaction doesn’t have time to begin. Most au poivre recipes tell you to not exceed a temperature of over 250° while some truly high-brow chefs will tell you that 200° is the limit.

Truth be told, as long as you stay below 300° you shouldn’t have to worry about burning the pepper crust.

Grilling temperatures are just as important as pan or oven temps when it comes to steak and pepper. Most people will pre-heat a grill or steep their coals, warming the grates and interior of the grill beyond the temp that they plan to cook at.

While a totally acceptable and standard practice, just remember that if you have pepper on your steak before it hits that 400° grate, you probably won’t have much pepper left when you flip it, even if you oil your grill before cooking.

Final Thoughts

So, what’s the best practice when it comes to peppering your steaks?

If you must put pepper on a steak prior to cooking, keep your temps low to avoid burning the pepper, but ideally you want to add pepper as you’re finishing your cooking, just before plating to make sure you get true depth of flavor with no bitterness.