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Author: Dave Scantland (Dave the Cook)
Brining is a process used to season and tenderize animal protein prior to cooking. The meat (including fish and shellfish) is immersed in a salt-water solution for a period of time that depends on the strength of the brine, the type of protein, the thickness of the meat, and the effect desired.
Use of the technique has become more common over the last decade as pork and poultry have become leaner and less flavorful. It is a way to introduce seasoning deep within the muscle, and when done properly, results in well-seasoned, tender and juicy meat. Unfortunately, the one thing brining cannot do is replace that which breeding has taken away: fat. The best it can do is substitute additional water and seasoning for the missing succulence, but in many cases this is sufficient, if not entirely satisfactory.
Does it work?
Of course it works; this is science. However, whether or not you like the result is a matter of taste, and to some extent, a matter of application. But for you doubters out there, let's try an experiment.
Brining Lab 1
1 whole turkey breast, boned if bone-in (remove pop-up thermometer if present)
1 tsp. food coloring, divided
1/2 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or 6 tablespoons Morton kosher salt, or 1/4 cup table salt)
2 quarts water
2 cups ice
A two-cup or larger measuring cup
An additional two-quart container
Two heavy-duty, one-gallon zip-lock bags
1. In a two-quart container, dissolve salt in two cups hot tap water. Put the ice into the liquid measuring cup and add water to make two more cups. Add it to the brine.
2. Stir 1/2 teaspoon food coloring into brine.
3. Stir the other 1/2 teaspoon food coloring into another quart of water.
4. Split the turkey breast, then cut each side in half crosswise, creating two pairs of meat chunks. Take the thinner pieces and reserve them for another use. Decide which of the remaining pieces will go into the brine, and which will go in the water. Weigh each piece and record the weights (they should be approximately one pound (0.5 kg) each).
5. Using the marker, label one bag "Brine," and the other "Water." Using the container to hold each bag, add the appropriate liquid and meat. Seal each bag, squeezing out as much air as possible.
They should look something like this:
6. Place the bags on a rimmed cookie sheet or in a large bowl (in case a bag springs a leak), and refrigerate for two hours, flipping bags halfway through.
7. Drain the liquid from each bag (never reuse brine) and rinse each breast piece. Dry each one thoroughly. When you're done, they should look like this:
8. Weigh each piece and record the weights.
Obviously, the expected effect of this exercise was to demonstrate that brine penetrated the meat by turning the meat green. Just as obvious now is that this didn't happen. What did happen (because I used green food coloring) was that the skin of the meat in the water turned green, and the skin of the meat in the brine turned, well, is that teal? I think that's teal. But the meat itself is still pristine pink. So we didn't prove a thing.
Or did we?
Let's turn to the weights. Here are my results:
before: 17 ounces
after: 18.75 ounces
before: 16.5 ounces
after: 16.75 ounces
That's a weight gain of 1.75 ounces, or a little over 10%. The unbrined breast gained on quarter of an ounce, or 1.5 %. So brining does result in a significant weight gain.
How does it work?
Brining actually comprises three processes: osmosis, diffusion and denaturing.
Osmosis is the movement of a low concentration solution through a semi-permeable membrane (like a cell wall) into a high concentration solution. Inside the cell is a high-concentration soup of protein and dissolved solids. Nature dislikes inequalities, and osmosis is nature's attempt to equalize concentrations on both sides of the membrane. When you drop the cell into a brine, the water that now surrounds the cell will move through the membrane to equalize the internal and external concentrations.
Meanwhile, diffusion, another weapon in nature's equilibrium arsenal, works on the relatively small numbers of chlorine and sodium ions inside the cell, forcing salt (a molecular combination of sodium and chlorine) through the cell walls, again seeking a balance -- this time a balance of ions on either side of the cell wall. An easy way to observe diffusion at work is to toss a teaspoon or so of salt into a quart of water and go away for a while. When you come back, you'll notice that some or all of the salt is gone - well, not gone, but dissolved in the water. This is diffusion at work: the tendency of molecules to distribute themselves over time. Since (remember?) nature dislikes inequalities, the tendency is for the distribution to equalize itself. In brining, salt performs one more function. This one is not fully understood: it enhances the cell wall with additional flexibility. This allows the cell to swell, which in turn allows it to hold more liquid. Swollen, water-filled cells make for more tender meat.
Denaturing is the unraveling of proteins. In their normal state, proteins are lightly coiled balls, held in shape by bonds along their lengths. Salt is a powerful corrosive, as anyone who drives a car over salted roads or near the ocean can tell you. Salt severs these bonds; consequently the protein ball loosens and the strands become entangled. The tangled strands form a matrix not unlike gelatin that traps additional moisture. When the meat is cooked, the proteins coagulate, the matrix stabilizes, and most of the water is caught inside.
To further illustrate this principle, here's:
Brining Lab 2
1. Get a package of those dried pasta nests - they're available at just about any grocery store. (Don't get fresh pasta, and don't spend a lot of money. There's a good chance that all you'll be able to find are nests made from spinach pasta, and that's fine - if fact, it's in keeping with our green theme.)
2. Take the nests out of the package and drop them in a colander. Set the colander in a large bowl and pour two quarts of water over them. Remove the colander from the bowl and set it in the sink. Pour the water back into your pitcher and note how much water you got back-- almost all of it.
3. Now cook the pasta to al dente (you don't need to be precise; this is not an edible lab).
4. Dump the pasta in the colander. Set the colander over your bowl and pour another two quarts of water through. Measure the water in the bowl.
5. Let the pasta dry in the colander, or set the colander in a warm oven, if you're in a hurry.
6. When the pasta has dried, repeat the water pouring exercise. Measure the water that comes through.
The pasta right out of the package was analogous to protein in its natural state - coiled balls in a fairly rigid configuration. Almost all of the water came through, except for that little bit that clung to the pasta or was trapped in the convolutions of the nests. During cooking, the pasta nests became loose and tangled, just like denatured protein. When you poured the water through, much more was retained in the pasta - not only was the pasta stickier and gelatinous, it formed a matrix that held more moisture than the coiled configuration. Finally, when you let the pasta dry, you ended up with a tight, almost woven bowl of pasta, very similar to the denatured, coagulated proteins in cooked meat.
Differences between brining, marinating, injecting and salting
Brining is often confused and/or compared with marinating, injecting and curing. While they may appear to be similar in terms of procedure, they are in fact quite different techniques designed to do different things. However, they can be used in complementary ways.
A marinade acts principally on the exterior of the meat. The aim of a marinade is to tenderize and flavor, which it can do to some extent, but because it usually contains a high proportion of oil and complex molecules, and because it lacks sufficient salt, it will not work the same as a brine. If you combine marinating with brining, moderate the use of salt in your marinade to accommodate the increased salt in the meat.
Most forms of injecting attempt to add fat back into the meat. The typical injection is an oil base that has been infused with seasoning. It is injected with a (usually) plastic syringe a number of hours before cooking, to allow the injected fat and seasoning to disperse throughout the muscle. This technique can also complement brining, since it introduces fat-soluble flavorings directly to the interior of the meat. (Since brine is water-based, it is very inefficient as a delivery vehicle for fat-soluble molecules.) Again, seasonings should be adjusted so as not to over-salt the meat.
Although curing, the external salting of meat, sets up a situation similar to brining (salt on the outside of the meat, water on the inside), the circumstances are sufficiently different that the result varies as well. As in brining, a high concentration of salt sits on one side, and a low concentration on the other: the salt and surface moisture combine to create a highly concentrated solution. This means that there is a an imbalance: more water is on the inside of the meat than the outside. In an attempt to equalize the concentrations, water moves to the outside of the meat. (Along with it come water-soluble proteins, which will later be responsible for browning, but that's another lesson.) But as long as the surface of the meat is exposed to air, the water evaporates, and more water is drawn out of the meat to replace it. In brining, since the entire surface of the meat is submerged, evaporation never takes place. In effect, the entire liquid contents of your brining pot attempt to reach equilibrium.
Meats and meat cuts that benefit from brining
Brining is most effective with bland meats that will be cooked using dry heat: roasted, sauteed or fried turkey and chicken, pork roasts and tenderloins, Cornish hens , and the like. Red meats (lamb and beef) are not usually brined, because they contain sufficient marbling and interior moisture to withstand dry heat and still be juicy. Meats cooked in moisture won't benefit from brining because the long cooking times and interface with concentrated braising juices will cause the meat to release its moisture into the cooking liquid. Remember, osmosis is mainly about water; if the water concentration outside the meat is lower than that inside the meat, water will move out of the cell to try and rectify the situation.
This is not to say that you shouldn't try brining on other things, or as a substitute for marinating. Less expensive beef steaks, for instance, can benefit from a salty bath before grilling. And despite the usual caveat about wet cooking, shrimp plumped up and seasoned in a brief brine retain the additional moisture, since they are in water for such a short time. The same would go for steaming. Since the water concentration of steam will not be higher than the liquid water inside the meat, osmosis won't kick in.
So, an incomplete list of brinables:
- Chicken, especially breasts
- Cornish game hens
- Domesticated rabbit
- Duck (Yes, it has lots of fat, but almost all of it is subcutaneous rather than intramuscular. The meat itself is relatively dry.)
- Salmon (especially for smoking)
- Pork chops, roasts, shoulders, bellies and ribs
- Dry or tough beef or lamb for grilling
How to do it
Well, you dissolve some salt in water, and . . .
OK, it's not quite that simple. But almost.
Types of salt
For brining purposes, salt is salt. A basic brine is not a subtle affair, and regardless of your affinity for designer salts, you would be wasting your money to use them here. That leaves table salt and kosher salt. Either will work in terms of providing the desired effects, but kosher salt (and particularly Diamond Crystal kosher salt) dissolve more easily. The important thing to remember is that these three salts measure quite differently from a volume standpoint: a given weight of Diamond Crystal takes up nearly twice the volume as the same weight of table salt. Of course, the answer is to always weigh your salt. I'll provide weights and volumes in the basic formulae, but the weights are what you want to commit to memory. If you don't have a scale, here's a good excuse for getting one.
You probably already have all the equipment you need, unless you're going to be brining multiple pork shoulders or 20-pound turkeys. All that's required is a non-reactive vessel large enough to immerse the item to be brined. "Non-reactive" means: no untreated aluminum and no cast iron (I wouldn't even use hard-anodized aluminum; I've noticed that brine tends to leave a hazy white residue that's very difficult to remove). For small items like individual steaks, chicken parts and pork tenderloins, 1- or 2-gallon zip-lock plastic bags work well, and they're disposable (though you should put them in a bowl or a pot, or on a rimmed sheet pan, in case they leak).
For whole (3- to 4-pound) chickens, you need a two-gallon container. Use a big zip-lock if you dare. Large pots or Dutch ovens also work well; Cambro polycarbonate containers are ideal.
For pork shoulders, small (10- to 14-pound) turkeys, and multiple chickens, a five-gallon stockpot is great (if you've got one), though many are too narrow. In this case an insulated cooler or even a five-gallon plastic paint bucket (well-scrubbed, of course; these are available at do-it-yourself stores) can be employed. And of course, whole pigs can be brined in your bathtub.
If your brining container is too big to go into your refrigerator, you'll need a cooling method. If your ice maker is up to it (remember that large items might need many hours in the brine), pack ice into small zip-lock bags and drop in your container. Alternatively, cold-packs (the blue kind you keep in the freezer) also work. Just make sure you have enough on hand to rotate them from freezer to brine to freezer without running out.
Brine works best when it's close to freezing. Actually, the brine doesn't give a damn; it's the proteins that care. The peak temperature for extracting meat proteins is 34 F. The closer you can keep your brine to this temperature, the more moisture the meat will absorb.
Saline environments are not amenable to most bacteria and/or spores. However, some bugs are perfectly happy in brine, so keep it chilled to minimize the possibility of contamination.
In addition to the tips in Equipment, above, you can pre-chill your brine by substituting up to half your liquid with an equivalent volume of ice: fill your measuring cup with ice and add water to the appropriate level.
How much brine
Well, a whole chicken takes about two quarts. You can do two thick chops in a quart, with liquid to spare. But rather than guess at quantities, let me tell you how to figure it out for yourself.
Put the item(s) to be brined in the container that you will be using. Cover them with water. Remove the items and measure the water. Make an equivalent amount of brine. Since a "quart" of brine is actually a little more than 32 ounces (because you're adding a volume of salt to a quart of liquid), you'll have a little extra.
The Brine Formula
For a basic brine:
2.5 ounces (70 grams) salt (1/4 cup table; 6 tablespoons Morton's kosher; 1/2 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt) per quart of water.
This proportion of salt to water constitutes the "recipe." It is infinitely expandable.
Consider this a starting point. As you use the technique, feel free to alter the proportions to suit your taste. You can also adjust the strength of the brine to match the amount of time you have, though there's no denying physics: you can speed it up a little by increasing the concentration, but it's much easier to slow it down by using a weaker brine. The effect is not linear, so you'll need to experiment.
As for time, 30 minutes per pound of food is a good starting point, but this can vary according to shape and density. Five pounds of spare ribs will take less time than five pounds of pork shoulder, for instance, and three pounds of shrimp will go a lot faster than three pounds of boneless chicken breasts. Like any other craft, you have to use your judgement, and you can expect to get better at it the more you use the technique.
Timing is actually quite flexible; it's not unusual to run across recipes that brine things for days. Don't brine anything for less than 30 minutes. Shrimp will be done at that point, and don't let 'em go much longer; but a big pork butt can go all night, and then some.
Here's a table to get you started, but don't feel restricted by it. Experiment and adjust to suit your taste:
Shrimp: 30 minutes (I really wouldn't go longer than this, unless you've got mondo U-10 or U-8 shrimp)
Chicken, whole or spatchcocked (3- to 4-pounds), or duck, whole (5-pound): 2 to 3 hours
Chicken parts (bone-in):1-1/2 hour
Chicken breasts (boneless): 1 hour
Cornish game hens: 1 hour
Turkey, whole (12- 14-pounds): 12 to 18 hours
Pork spare ribs or back ribs: 2 hours
Pork chops (1-inch thick): 4 to 6 hours
Pork, whole loins: 12 to 18 hours
Pork shoulder: 24 to 36 hours
Many brine recipes include sugar - so many that you might be forgiven for thinking that it was a requirement. It's not. Only salt is indispensable, and only salt can do the protein voodoo that makes brining a valuable technique. The fact is that in some dishes, sugar is an attractive enhancement, and in some it's not; this is strictly a matter of taste. But, sweetness aside, there is one reason to use sugar. If you want the tenderizing benefit of brining, but you find the overall effect too salty, adding sugar can mitigate the saltiness to some extent.
Beyond sugar, you can add almost any other water soluble flavoring, or substitute other liquids for the water. Some work (juices, vinegars, wine and other alcohol-soluble flavorings like vanilla), and some don't. Again, experimentation can be illuminating (and remember that alcohol will not likely cook off, since it's trapped in the protein matrix).
As for herbs, spices and aromatics, their contribution is controversial, at least from an anecdotal perspective. Many people swear by them; just as many say they're a waste of time. The fact of the matter is that the key flavor components in many of these ingredients are fat-, not water-, soluble. And while fat-soluble flavorings can go along for the osmotic ride, they definitely lag behind the rest of the tour party. However, some fat-soluble flavorings can be extracted using other means (as an example, look at Tabasco sauce. Many capsicum flavoring agents are fat-soluble, yet pepper sauce is fat-free). If you want to include spices and herbs, your best bet is to make a tea from them by steeping them in water, then using the tea as part of the liquid component of your brine (after it cools, of course). Then carefully check the final product to make sure the contribution your tea made was worth the effort.
Finally, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, both quite salty on their own, can make great contributions to brines, adding some depth to the basic formula.
One of the great benefits of brining is that it mitigates overcooking. Take the overdone breast/undercooked thigh phenomenon. Turkey breast is typically done at 165 F. But a brined breast can easily accommodate the 175 F that the thigh needs to get done and still be juicy. Pork also benefits from an expanded definition of "done," so you can accommodate your relatives who can't stand pink pig meat, and still keep it juicy. Even shrimp, so easily overcooked, can tolerate a few more minutes on the heat without sacrificing succulence.
One caveat: brined items, especially poultry, often cook faster than their unbrined peers. Always cook to temperature, and be prepared for a shorter ride than you're used to.
Isn't this brining thing kind of, well, weird?
Yes, it does seem odd to drop a hunk of meat into a vessel of salt water, unless you're making corned beef or pastrami. But in the grander scheme of things, is it any stranger than eating live oysters, treasuring the concentrated product of coagulated milk or savoring meat that's been hanging unprotected in a cooler for a month? Get used to it.
What if it comes out too salty?
There are three possibilities here: either your brine is too concentrated for your taste, you simply don't like the effect, or you've brined something that's already been treated with salt: either a kosher bird or something that's been treated with a seasoned brine before you purchased it (often called, erroneously, marinating or "deep basting"). There's nothing sacred about the brining formula in this unit -- adjust it to your taste. Even a small amount of salt will precipitate the water retention and tenderizing effects of brining. As for pre-treated poultry and pork: use them if you like; the effects will be similar to brining you would do yourself. Just don't brine them again. And remember, based on our results in Brining Lab 1, you're paying meat prices for water and salt - the actual meat in that $1 a pound chicken is really costing you $1.10.
Why does the brine turn pink?
Those are dissolved solids from the meat. Diffusion works both ways. What this ought to be telling you is how important salt is. If you soaked your meat in plain water, all this stuff would have come out, and been replaced with plain water. You might have made your meat a little plumper (again, recall our results from Brining Lab 1), but you would have replaced this pink stuff, which is mostly proteins and few other things (including some salts, actually), with plain water.
Why didn't the turkey meat in Lab 1 turn green?
I don't know. If I had to guess, I'd say that the molecules in the food coloring were too large to pass through the cell membranes. I did some checking, and found out that there are some pretty healthy-sized molecules involved: propylparaben, ethylene glycol (otherwise known as anti-freeze) and aluminum salts.
What's a U-8 shrimp?
A really honkin' crustacean -- 2 ounces, at least.
Sources and resources
I'm Just Here for the Food, Alton Brown
Cookwise, Shirley Corriher
What Einstein Told His Cook, Robert Wolke
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