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ianeccleston

Anti-Brining

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McGee's comment also caught me off guard despite its plain truth.  It also got me to thinking about how my brined chickens seem moist enough, but don't really achieve a nice crisp on the skin (though maybe I just need to towel them off more?).  Finally, I ate a Costco roast chicken last week that seemed to epitomize everything that was wrong with brining -- really salty yet insipid, moist but almost raw texture, and a weird starchiness or collageny-ness that made the teeth stick.  Those three things made me want to convert to the pre-salting school for chicken.  And so here I am, perusing the curricula.

But a few questions to clarify:

- do people apply the salt to the skin or under the skin?  to the inside cavity?

- how long is long enough?  overnight seems to be the standard, but can it be less?  so if i'm trying to roast a chicken asap (say i just got off work) i should stick with a quick brine?

first, with all due respect to Hal, I really disagree with his stance on brining. like any other cooking technique, it can be done well or it can be done badly. i would include in bad practices: 1) adding sugar; 2) not making sure the protein was sufficiently dry before cooking. When I brine a turkey, I give it at least 12 hours of air drying in the refrigerator before roasting. i have never had a problem with skin that was not crisp.

and sorry, blaming a poor costco roast chicken on brining seems to me to be overlooking several much more likely problems.

as for your questions about pre-salting, you salt over the skin, not much to the inside cavity. long enough is usually 18 to 24 hours (at least overnight).

and as with brining, drying is necessary to avoid rubbery skin. the benefit of salting is that you can dry and salt at the same time: salt the chicken, put it on a plate and stick it in the refrigerator; turn it once or twice, but you'll want to make sure the breast stays up most of the time (nobody's going to judge you on how crisp the back skin is).

this refrigerator drying can disturb the delicate. i was doing it at a friend's house and they insisted on hanging an aluminum foil "privacy curtain" in front of the chicken. so be it.

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I agree with Russ. The hammyness comes from adding sugar to the brine. I normally brine with salt only, and i'm happy with teh results. I'll try presalting, but i'm unlikely to adopt it, as that requires thinking ahead 24 hours. I barely think enough ahead to take out chicken breasts for defrosting that same day.

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Thanks, Russ and Ian, for the clear instruction.

And, yeah, you're probably right about my pointing fingers at the brine for Costco's problems. They've got plenty of other things -- among them, sodium phosphate and starches -- that I'm not really accounting for. It's more like their chicken's problems gave me a clearer sense of what I found dissatisfying with my own. Kind of like (and here's a digressive analogy) when you go over to your college roommate's home for Thanksgiving dinner and you find at the dinner table that his sister laughs with a nasal snort that's just like your roommate's but magnified 20 times over, a weird little tendency that had before unconciously endeared your roommate to you (though you never were explicitly aware of its presence) but now reaches grotesque proportions in the sister. I hope that makes sense, but if it doesn't, allow me to never speak on the subject again.

I was sort of thinking at the time of writing the first post that briniing might be a good strategy when pressed for time, but if brining also requires a period for air drying that maybe negates some of the advantage. . .

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Thanks, Russ and Ian, for the clear instruction.

And, yeah, you're probably right about my pointing fingers at the brine for Costco's problems.  They've got plenty of other things -- among them, sodium phosphate and starches -- that I'm not really accounting for.  It's more like their chicken's problems gave me a clearer sense of what I found dissatisfying with my own.  Kind of like (and here's a digressive analogy) when you go over to your college roommate's home for Thanksgiving dinner and you find at the dinner table that his sister laughs with a nasal snort that's just like your roommate's but magnified 20 times over, a weird little tendency that had before unconciously endeared your roommate to you (though you never were explicitly aware of its presence) but now reaches grotesque proportions in the sister.  I hope that makes sense, but if it doesn't, allow me to never speak on the subject again.

I was sort of thinking at the time of writing the first post that briniing might be a good strategy when pressed for time, but if brining also requires a period for air drying that maybe negates some of the advantage. . .

Thanks. I think you can get by w/o air-drying the bird (or whatever else) after brining, especially if it's high-heat roasting. Just go at it with paper towels and a little pressure. Of course, I've never air-dried a bird for a period of more than an hour or two though, so what do I know.

Ian

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Thanks.  I think you can get by w/o air-drying the bird (or whatever else) after brining, especially if it's high-heat roasting.  Just go at it with paper towels and a little pressure.  Of course, I've never air-dried a bird for a period of more than an hour or two though, so what do I know.

Ian

When pressed for time I hang the bird with kitchen twine from a pot rack, stick a tray under it, and set a fan blowing on it for 20-30 minutes after patting the thing dry.

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I find brining works very well for chicken pieces and pork pieces. The brine of my childhood is soy sauce diluted with water (generally about a 50/50 mixture), with slices of ginger added. No sugar. When the pieces have brined enough, pat them dry and toss them on a grill, pan fry or do whatever you had in mind. Enough generally meant no *more* than 4 hours.

A plain salt and water brine would probably work for a more generic brine. Until I hit e-gullet, I'd never heard of the idea of putting sugar in a brine.

Large pieces of meat get presalted. Finding space in the fridge for a large container of brine is challenging. Finding space for a salted hunk of meat is not so challenging. Longer is better, but even an hour before cooking helps produce good results. I will note that salting the inner cavity of a whole bird still results in seasoned meat, even if you don't salt the outside.

Emily

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It's not the taste I object to so much as the texture. Regardless of whether or not it is sugared, spiced or whatever, brining changes the cell structure in poultry (which is why brining is different from marinating or pre-salting) in ways that give the bird what I can only describe as an unfortunate texture which strikes me as uncommonly similar to that of a child's red rubber ball.


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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hmmm, i have to admit that i'm puzzled by that description. i've been brining 10 years and never had a texture like that. what brining does is change the charge of the protein so that it retains water during cooking, not change the texture. the only time i've had a similar texture has been from store-bought brined meat, which almost always contains phosphate. now THAT is some nasty stuff (texturally speaking, of course).

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i agree with Russ. The phosphates in processed meats give them a rubbery texture. My brined chicken has always been juicy and chicken-like in texture.

This has been my experience as well.

=R=


"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

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(she was built for speed with the tools you need to make a new fool every day)

Well, Russ, the devil made me do it the first time; the second time I'll do it on my own.

Which is to say, I tried pre-salting, using the Zuni Cafe method (as described by some guy here), and it was pretty great.

I used a 4 lb. supermarket chicken, pre-salted and stuffed with a ton of rosemary and (in the cavity) sliced lemons, and let it sit in the fridge for about 30 hours. The resulting chicken was succulent as hell, with a nice crispy skin and rosemary-infused breast meat. I couldn't taste any lemon flavor; maybe the juice kept it moist, or maybe it didn't do anything.

Was it better than brining? Honestly, I don't know. I've always been happy with brined chicken, but it's been a while since I've roasted any chicken. I'll try brining a chicken in the near future and compare it. But this is unquestionably a good technique.

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hmmm, i have to admit that i'm puzzled by that description. i've been brining 10 years and never had a texture like that. what brining does is change the charge of the protein so that it retains water during cooking, not change the texture. the only time i've had a similar texture has been from store-bought brined meat, which almost always contains phosphate. now THAT is some nasty stuff (texturally speaking, of course).

I am quite comfortable asserting that phosphates have nothing to do with it, as I've noticed it when I was brining at home, sans phosphates, and at several locally cherished restaurants which I would never accuse of adding insidious substances to their birds.

I am willing to entertain a theory, however, and offer one of my own in return.

The explanations of brining's effects that I have read are different from yours -- it's not that the proteins retain more water when they are cooked, so much that as it's that the cells actually absorb more liquid in the first place, thus transforming them (to my taste) into millions of little over-inflated balloons which, cumulatively, give the bird a rubbery feel.

Just for fun, here's a look at the science of brining that quasi-supports my theory.

ETA another look at brining that supports the overstuffed balloon theory of poultry texture. Note the distended cell wall in the second graphic, which is certainly based entirely on scientific observations and not on some graphic designer's fevered imagination.


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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The Cook's Illustrated article is (as usual for them) scientifically based and incomplete enough to be misleading. Cooking for Engineers is better, since the article only looks at one element of what's going on, but it does so thoroughly. So look there for an explanation of the solution mechanics.

Cook's Illustrated *does* bring up a key point with the texture change Busboy is noticing. The salt in the brine works to denature the meat proteins. A normal protein is a very long molecule folded up into a complicated knot. A denatured protein is unfolded at least partially from the normal configuration. Since proteins are one of the key structural components to an animal cell, this could change the texture of the meat.

With pre-salting, I see many of you are advising similar time lengths to those advocating brining. I'd hypothesize that since presalting is a surface treatment, the salt will have a portion dissolved by water contained in the cells on the surface of the meat, which will produce a thin layer of strong surface brine. From there, one would expect the solution mechanics to proceed normally. So presalted meat will still have denatured proteins, but since there is less available water, the salt will not penetrate the meat as easily and not every cell in the meat will have denatured proteins. I'm not sure if there's any publically available research on this topic, since it's fairly complex and would mostly be of interest to fast food chains rather than academia.

Further, a thin coat of salt (or sugar) on a food's outside will often taste saltier (or sweeter) than a food with an even concentration of salt throughout. So a piece of meat presalted appropriately will give the impression of being saltier with less actual salt being used. That would also result in slower protein denaturization, since the thin layer of brine from presalting would have less available salt than a comparable brine bath.

This would also explain why I've never noticed a textural difference. I don't brine large pieces of meat, I brine small ones. I don't brine for long periods, I brine for short ones. So I'm largely ending up with surface salted meat. Since I mostly use brining for grilled meats, the excess surface water is a minor issue. A grill is much better at producing dry heat than an oven or a frying pan, so a watery meat surface isn't a big deal. The surface water would turn to steam and get blown away. In an oven or frying pan, it would be easy for meat to steam slightly when the cook didn't intend it to, and steamed meat has a *very* different texture from pan-fried or roasted meat. (See? this is why I mentioned that the denaturization bit was a hypothesis)

Emily


Edited by Torrilin (log)

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I'm determined to get to the bottom of this.

I just picked up four quail from the farmers market (Texas Quail Farms, Lockhart). These little birds are ideal for experimentation as they're small. I bought them frozen on Sunday and the vendor said they had slaughtered the birds on Thursday.

I brined two and pre-salted the other two for a little over 48 hours. I thoroughly seared two in a cast-iron pan with duck fat and finished in the oven. The other pair I roasted in the oven without pre-searing.

The pre-salted birds were placed on a rack and left in the refrigerator. After two days they developed this fantastic mahogany color.

The quail, raw. Left is pre-salted, right is brined.

gallery_36558_2963_71281.jpg

The second pair, roasted, no pre-searing. I'm really ashamed that I failed to get more browning; I didn't get the roasting times quite right.

gallery_36558_2963_57624.jpg

The pre-salted was obviously superior. I thoroughly patted the brined birds dry but no matter what the pre-salted was dryer and therefore browned better. The brined was nearly twice as juicy, really a little too watery. The pre-salted was juicy enough and did not need to be any juicier. A major problem with the brined was that the meat ended up much bloodier, and that's not a good thing as poultry blood is unappetizing. In fact, the blood made it taste a bit raw though the thermometer clearly indicated the meat was well done.

The pre-salted quail also developed more of a rich, gamey flavor. Pre-salting and leaving to dry seems very similar to dry aging a steak so I imagine there may be an additional process here that improves the flavor.

It's hard to draw a conclusion from this single experiment. There are a lot of variables to consider. Two days may be the ideal amount of time for pre-salting but I believe is too long for brining. The brined samples may have suffered from that.

I wonder if it would be a good idea to combine brining with pre-salting: brine overnight, pre-salt and leave it out for another night. You might get the best of both worlds this way.

Another factor to consider is the quality of the meat. If it's very fresh and does not need to be any juicer, pre-salting will be ideal. But if the meat is of poor quality, brining may rectify that dryness.

Brining also has the ability to infuse the meat with seasonings and aromatics. Most everyone in the brining thread eschews this and use plain brines (salt and water only) but I find that putting a few dried shitake mushrooms in the brine is very effective at infusing the meat with its perfume-like flavor. This would not be possible with pre-salting.

With only this single experiment I can only tentatively favor pre-salting. In future experiments I plan to try brining then pre-salting. Having a control group (no brining or pre-salting) would be nice, too. I'd also like to try this experiment with pork chops.

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great experiment, and great documentation! personally, i like quail and pigeon medium-rare, closer to duck than to chicken. i wonder if that would make a difference? there is obviously plenty of room for exploration by serious cooks.

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Good work, Kent. That's interesting stuff.

I want to respond to a couple of points you made:

The pre-salted birds were placed on a rack and left in the refrigerator. After two days they developed this fantastic mahogany color.

This is something I noticed with pre-salting my chicken. It changed color-- thought not to a beautiful dark brown like yours. Instead, it developed these spotty brown patches that were awfully unappetizing. Once I'd roasted it, you couldn't see them; but it went into the oven as a sort of leprous bird.

Brining also has the ability to infuse the meat with seasonings and aromatics. Most everyone in the brining thread eschews this and use plain brines (salt and water only) but I find that putting a few dried shitake mushrooms in the brine is very effective at infusing the meat with its perfume-like flavor. This would not be possible with pre-salting.

I put rosemary under the skin of the bird before pre-salting, and the meat (especially the breast meat) was thoroughly infused. Shiitakes would work just as well, I'd imagine. Dried porcinis would be even better. Wow. I am totally going to try that next time.

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This time I experimented with duck breasts. I purchased a whole duck from Central Market and cut off the two breast pieces. One breast I pre-salted and left to dry on a rack for 48 hours. The other piece I brined for 24 hours, removed from the brine, thoroughly patted dry, pre-salted and left to dry for another 24 hours.

The two breasts after 48 hours. Left is pre-salted only, right is brined than pre-salted.

gallery_36558_2964_104667.jpg

gallery_36558_2964_149120.jpg

The difference in appearance was significant with the pre-salted being much darker in color.

I roasted and left to rest for 10 minutes before cutting open.

gallery_36558_2964_33712.jpg

The difference in appearance was much more stark in person. The brined piece was much whiter around the edges and distinctively red and bloody in the center.

The pre-salted piece tasted much better, a tiny bit on the dry side but much more preferable to the brined piece. The brined piece was very wet and bloody. After I finished eating, the entire plate was covered with bloody red juices. While the brined piece was more moist, the juices were watery, lacked flavor and instead tasted more of blood than meat -- and poultry blood is not appetizing in the way blood from a steak can be. The pre-salted breast also had a more complex, developed taste and the darker color of the meat looked more appropriate for duck -- the brined piece looked too white and too much like chicken.

This experiment returned some very surprising results. I did not expect the two pieces to turn out much differently as they were both subject to pre-salting and drying. The wetness of the brined piece, even after a day of drying shows just how powerful brining is. The brining process made the breast piece much less susceptible to subsequent drying. I suspect that if I had dried the brined piece a full 48 hours it still would've been much wetter than a piece dried for the same period of time without brining beforehand.

I believe that I can decisively conclude that pre-salting results in a better product than brining for poultry. I agree with the above posters that brining only results in a watery bird, not a juicy one. The added liquid, if anything, only leaves blood uncooked, resulting in an undesirable flavor. Pre-salting and drying, on the other hand, is effective at developing a richer flavor and color, though at the cost of some juicyness.

I still want to try this experiment with a control group so I can see just how much moisture is removed by pre-salting. I also plan to try this with pork chops once the vendor at the farmers market is back in stock.

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Brining also has the ability to infuse the meat with seasonings and aromatics. Most everyone in the brining thread eschews this and use plain brines (salt and water only) but I find that putting a few dried shitake mushrooms in the brine is very effective at infusing the meat with its perfume-like flavor. This would not be possible with pre-salting.

I put rosemary under the skin of the bird before pre-salting, and the meat (especially the breast meat) was thoroughly infused. Shiitakes would work just as well, I'd imagine. Dried porcinis would be even better. Wow. I am totally going to try that next time.

Do you remove the herbs before roasting? Otherwise, don't you get a Frankenstein-looking bird? Infusing with brines seems easier though of course you'll have to endure the disadvantages of the brining process.

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Do you remove the herbs before roasting? Otherwise, don't you get a Frankenstein-looking bird? Infusing with brines seems easier though of course you'll have to endure the disadvantages of the brining process.

Thanks for reminding me to report back, Kent: I took photos, but since I've been too lazy to upload them to my computer so far, I might as write up the results without them.

I didn't remove the herbs or the porcini, which definitely didn't help the appearance of the chicken. Above, I mentioned the leprous appearance of the chicken: I figured out this time that those splotches were caused by oxidation, when the skin was lifted away from the meat by the herbs. When the chicken had been roasted, they weren't noticeable, though the chicken wasn't as evenly-colored as I might like. (This may also have been due to other factors, including but not limited to my cheap-ass oven.)

The porcini chicken didn't have as deep a flavor as the rosemary chicken (which was really wonderful); but they were pretty old mushrooms, so I don't know how much flavor they had in the first place.

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Kent, again that's an interesting test.

It occurs to me that another procedure to try would be to test pre-salted meat against meat that was dried, but not salted. I've dry-aged beef in my refrigerator with some success. It makes me wonder how much of the advantages of pre-salting come from a couple of days of just sitting in the air and losing moisture that way.

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Brining also has the ability to infuse the meat with seasonings and aromatics. Most everyone in the brining thread eschews this and use plain brines (salt and water only) but I find that putting a few dried shitake mushrooms in the brine is very effective at infusing the meat with its perfume-like flavor. This would not be possible with pre-salting.

I put rosemary under the skin of the bird before pre-salting, and the meat (especially the breast meat) was thoroughly infused. Shiitakes would work just as well, I'd imagine. Dried porcinis would be even better. Wow. I am totally going to try that next time.

Do you remove the herbs before roasting? Otherwise, don't you get a Frankenstein-looking bird? Infusing with brines seems easier though of course you'll have to endure the disadvantages of the brining process.

When I've roasted birds with herbs under the skin, they look quite beautiful, especially if the herbs are whole sprigs. The skin becomes golden and translucent -- the shape of the herbs clearly shows that they are herbs, not something undesireable.

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It occurs to me that another procedure to try would be to test pre-salted meat against meat that was dried, but not salted.  I've dry-aged beef in my refrigerator with some success.  It makes me wonder how much of the advantages of pre-salting come from a couple of days of just sitting in the air and losing moisture that way.

I'd like to try that too. Is there a thread on dry aging beef? I only found one with two posts in it.

My major concern with drying without salt is the higher chance of spoilage.

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I don't know if there's a thread on dry-aging-- I suspect there is, but I got the idea from... I don't remember where. Cook's Illustrated, maybe? Anyway, it works pretty well; the flavor of the beef seems more concentrated and complex, and the texture is still juicy.

I wouldn't be too worried about spoilage. It's only a day or two, and it's in the fridge.

edit: of course there's a thread on dry-aging! Here it is.


Edited by Andrew Fenton (log)

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