Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brining Basics

This topic keeps coming up and it can be hard to find a definitive guide when you're in the heat of the kitchen moment. I'll try to sum up the most important facts about brining.

Brining is a great way to tenderize and add flavor to meat. It is more effective than marinating, which can backfire when the acid in the marinade starts denaturing the outer layer of protein on your meat, thus degrading its final texture. The 'magic' of brining was described to me this way (though I am omitting the more scienc-ey terms): Because the meat contains far less salt than the brine, the salt from the brine is inclined to more into the meat to even out the overall salinity of the brine + meat system. As the salt moves into the meat, it brings other flavors from the brine with it, such as aromatics, herbs, sugar. It also hydrates the meat so that even as liquid is lost during the cooking process, there's more liquid in the meat in the first place and the liquid is attracted to the salt, so it stays more moist.

Brining need not be complicated or even that time-consuming, depending on what you're making. The final saltiness of your meat is a function of: the density/composition of the meat, the strength of the brine, the amount of time spent in the brine, and how much you rinse it before cooking. That might seem like a lot of factors, but I'll discuss them individually and it shouldn't seem too complicated.

Density/Composition of the Meat
  • Any kind of fillet should not be brined for more than an hour.
  • Poultry generally requires longer brining than pork or beef.
  • A roast of meat with bones will require longer brining than a boneless cut.
  • Any kind of whole bird requires a fairly long brining, which will be greater the larger the bird.
Strength of the Brine and Length of Brining
  • These two factors are inversely related, so the longer the brining, the weaker the brine needed. This is important depending on if plan to brine overnight or the same day as cooking.
  • See below for actual recipes and time recommendations.
Rinsing the Meat
  • You should always rinse the meat before cooking to avoid excess saltiness.
  • If you accidentally brine something for too long or in too strong a brine, you can rinse or soak the meat more. You will probably still retain most of the benefits of the brining.
  • Remember to pat meat dry before cooking so that you can get proper browning.
Recipe Guidelines

At its simplest, a brine is merely salt and water. One step up from that is adding sugar equal to the amount of salt. Then come adding spices such as peppercorns and allspice, and herbs such as thyme and bay. To take it further you can add aromatics like garlic and celery, add wine, or even use a meat broth as the brine base. Sugar should be reduced to 2-3 Tbsp./gallon if you are cooking the meat over high heat, such as on the grill.

Here are two basic types of brine. Feel free to customize the amount of time you're going to brine and the strength of your solution according to your meat type and schedule. I think that if you stay between 1/2 to 1 cup salt per gallon water you can't go wrong. I've heard of brines as strong as 2 c. salt/gallon, but I would be careful not to brine too long or only use it for something like a large turkey.

NOTE: The recipes below are ratios only and the total amount of brine you need will depend on how much meat you are brining and how large your vessel is. For something large like a turkey you will probably need 2 gallons or more of brine, whereas for a few porkchops you will only need 2 quarts. Remember to calculate up or down accordingly.

Basic Strong Brine

This is suitable for short brinings for large items, like roasts or whole birds, (4 - 6 hrs).
  • 1 c. salt
  • 1 c. sugar (optional)
  • 1 gallon water
  • Seasonings
Basic Weak Brine

This is suitable for long brinings for large items (12-14 hrs, overnight) or for short brinings for small, boneless items (1/2 - 1 hrs) .
  • 1/2 c. salt
  • 1/2 c. sugar (optional)
  • 1 gallon water
  • Seasonings
Making the Brine and Brining Logistics

It is easiest to dissolve the salt and sugar in the liquid by heating at least part of the liquid. If you heat all of the liquid you should allow it to cool before adding the meat. I like to heat about a third of the liquid just warm enough to dissolve the salt and sugar and then add the rest of the liquid to cool it immediately.

Place your meat and brine in a food-safe container or plastic bag. Add the meat first and pour the brine in until it is covered. You may need to weigh the meat down to keep it submerged.

The biggest challenge with brining is figuring out where to store your brining vessel. Of course, most cooking shows and the draconian USDA recommend keeping the meat in the fridge the whole time. For those of us who live in the real world, there often isn't enough space. I only refrigerate if I am brining overnight. Otherwise, I leave the meat and brine on the counter or in a cool spot.

The benefit to leaving it out, in addition to freeing up fridge space, is that your meat will be room-temperature when you are ready to cook it. If you refrigerate the meat and brine, be sure to remove it from the fridge an hour or more before cooking so it can warm up. This will speed up your cooking process and ensure that things cook evenly.

Once your meat is brined, remove it from the solution and rinse it as little as you think is necessary. One quick trip under the tap should be enough for most things, but if you are concerned it will be too salty, you can dunk the meat in fresh water or rinse it twice. Pat it dry before cooking or allow it to air dry. If you make gravy or pan sauce from the drippings, taste before adding salt--you may already have enough.

Lillian's Favorite Poultry Brine

This is actually a re-post (I didn't get any comments on the original, but perhaps it is more apropos now). The original can be found at How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Roasting Chicken.

2 c. boiling water
5 c. cold water
1 c. dry white wine
1/2 c. salt
3 Tbsp. (heaping) brown sugar
3 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 Tbsp. cracked black peppercorns
1 tsp. cracked whole allspice
2 tsp. dried thyme or (ideally) sprigs of fresh thyme

For bone-in poultry, I brine for 2-3 hrs, or 5 maximum. See the original recipe for the rest of the process for pan-roasting a cut-up chicken.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Brine the turkey, darn it!

After being badgered for years by my youngest son to brine my turkey, I finally did it. Naturally, I overthought the process and compared website recipes for days, including the information about where and how to actually do it. My eventual container was an XXL ziploc bag (big enough to hold a small adult) since it is food-grade plastic and doesn't leak all over the place. I put the turkey into the bag, put the bag into a cooler (brilliant idea from several websites since there is never enough room in the refrigerator for such a thing) and poured the prepared brine into the bag. I covered it with bags of blue ice, although it probably wasn't necessary. Weather permitting, you could also leave it outside; usually the temp around here on Thanksgiving is slightly cooler than the fridge. Every so often I turned the bird around and upside down, which was made easy by using the bag. 
I made my brine by boiling an assortment of root vegetables in 2 gallons of water: carrots, garlic, celeriac, potatoes, a couple tomatoes. I added 2 cups of salt and 1 cup of sugar, and cooked it until they were dissolved. I cooled it and boiled it down until it was half the volume, then refrigerated it. When I poured it onto the turkey, I added one gallon of water/apple cider mixture.
After about 20 hours, I hoisted the bird into the sink and filled the sink with cold water. I washed all the brine off, inside and out, and patted it down with paper towels. Finally, I rubbed oil all over it. 
To roast: preheat oven to 500. Place turkey breast-side up on a rack in a roasting pan - sides shouldn't be too high so that the heat can circulate. Roast on lowest rack centered in the oven for 30 minutes. Take out and turn oven down to 350 - cover the turkey breast with a double layer of aluminum foil. Return to oven and bake for about 2 1/2 hours - the thermometer should read about 160 when placed in the thick part of the breast. Remove from oven and cover with more foil and let it rest. Use the good yummy juice on the bottom of the pan to make gravy. 

From the Thanksgiving Leftover department

Stir Fried Leftover Salad in Black Bean Garlic Sauce

(If I had known how delicious this was I would have taken a picture)

Saute in un-flavored oil: Onion, carrot sticks, green vegetables, pre-soaked shiitake mushrooms
Stir in a heaping spoon of Black Bean Garlic Sauce, combine well
Add the leftover salad that didn't get dressing on it: ours was spinach, green leaf lettuce, shredded carrots, craisins, walnuts, sunflower seeds, raisins, fresh parmesan cheese.
Continue to stir fry at high heat until all ingredients are cooked approximately the same amount. 
Serve with rice noodles or rice.

Whenever I see weird combinations like this on menus at yuppie restaurants I make rude remarks and keep looking. But, by golly, it was really, really good! 

Sweet Potatoes with Brown Sugar Sauce

Here's the recipe for sweet potatoes that I think is essentially how I remember them from all of my childhood Thanksgivings. And I should know, since I ate the vast majority of them...

Sweet Potatoes
I can't tell you exactly how many to get - I had around 5 pounds (the store was having a 5#/$1 special on sweet potatoes, which was great.), but I increased the amount of sugar sauce later on.

Chop the potatoes into 1-2 inch chunks - you want them to be big enough that it's not too time consuming to skin them later, but at the same time they need to cook pretty quickly. Put them in a big pot, cover with water, then boil the potatoes until a fork goes into them easily. Drain the potatoes, then let them cool.

Once cool, use a dull knife to help slip off the skins of the potatoes - it should be easy, and you really shouldn't have to use much force. I recommend putting the skinned potato chunks back into the same pot.

Sugar Sauce
Melt 1 stick butter in a small sauce pan, then add 1/2 cup brown sugar. You're basically just making sure they're pretty well combined. Once it has become pretty well mixed, pour it over the potato chunks, and stir thoroughly.

Pour the potatoes into a pan for baking (I used a cast iron skillet, which was almost better than a baking pan), and bake at 350 for about 30 minutes. Since everything's full cooked, you could take them out at any point really, but I feel like the longer they're in, the tastier they get. Just make sure they don't burn.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Soupe de poisson

This, like most French foods, is a quintessential peasant food that, through whatever process it is that idolizes french shit, is thought of as something vaguely patrician. Fish soup is exactly what it sounds like; what poor fishermen and sailors eat when they arrive in port. This particular version is considered Provencale, originating in Marseille and the surrounding area. I guess northern sailors eat different stuff. Maybe whale.

The basic idea is to take as many different kinds of the cheapest fish you can find, and cook them down whole with some veggies until its a mushy slurry, and then strain it finely so you're left with a super savory, fishy broth. I will demonstrate the traditional method of service as well.

I found some french language recipes, and they all basically go like this:

Lots of different fish - only big ones gutted, small ones whole.

Brown the fish bits, add veggies and sweat until clear, simmer the whole mess without lid adding water as it boils out for 1-2 hours, and strain through a very fine strainer. Before straining, you will need to mash it up or blend it. I think I used my stick blender. Apparently, it is important that you re-boil the soup after the straining. Finally, season to taste and add a measure of saffron. Also, salt, pepper, and paprika. Ideally, it should be fishy, a bit salty, and only a bit spicy. Herbs are up to you, but I think dill is often used.

Here is my soup cooking.

The asian market where I now do 94% of my shopping has a great variety of seafood, and for this I used salmon heads ($1 a lb) and a big tray of smelt (tiny little bait fish). Since this isn't nearly the breadth of fish that you would ideally use (generally something like 6-10 different kinds of fish are used) I used some fish stock I made awhile back from tilapia carcasses (and I suck at fileting fish so there was lots of goodness in the stock)

For service, aioli is required. It's darn easy to make yourself. Just whisk up an egg yolk with a little water, and, while whisking, drizzle in plain vegetable oil (it actually tastes kinda funky if you use olive oil, I have found). This will emulsify the oil and water together and make mayonnaise. The amount of oil depends entirely on what consistency you desire; the more you add the thicker it will get. I think they've done experiments and found that a single egg yolk contains all the emusifying power you need to make 20+ gallons of mayonnaise, so dont worry about eggs. It will need a good amount of salt to taste right.

Then, to make it aioli, add a bit of turmeric, and pureed garlic. The easiest way to do this is press a fork down on a plate and rub a whole clove against the tines of the fork, pureeing it. I used about an entire head of garlic for 1 quart of aioli, but this is entirely a matter of taste.

For the soup, make some big croutons by toasting pieces of bread, and spread aioli on them. Set them afloat in a big bowl of soup. Optionally, you can sprinkle with cheese; traditionally, gruyere or something similar (emmenthaler, etc). I only had asiago on hand, but whatever works.

Nantucket Cranberry Pie

Announcing the first of the Thanksgiving recipes! I got this recipe from NPR during a show about cranberries. It's a very simple and easy pie (great if you need to make a last-minute dessert), which uses our favorite seasonal fruit. It can be served warm or cold and with or without whipped cream, though I argue it's best as-is.

I didn't take this awesome picture--it's from the NPR website (Andrew Pockrose). Yes, it's as delicious as it looks.

Preheat the oven to 350 and butter a 9" or 10" pie plate.

2 c. cranberries (fresh or frozen), coarsely chopped*
1/2 c. walnuts, coarsely chopped*
1/2 c. sugar

2 eggs
3/4 c. melted butter
1 c. sugar
1 c. flour
1 tsp. almond extract

*(Retain some of the most attractive cranberries and walnuts for decoration)

Toss together the chopped cranberries, walnuts, and sugar for the filling. Place this mixture in the buttered pie plate and pat it down gently.

I chopped these using a food processor but you can just use a knife.

Mix together the batter ingredients until smooth. Pour the batter over the cranberry filling and smooth the surface with a spatula, making sure all the cranberries are covered with batter.

Get creative with the decorating!

Decorate the surface of the batter with walnuts and cranberries. Place in the oven and bake at 350 for 40 minutes, or until the edges are slightly browned and the entire surface is crusted over. The pie will be dense and delicately flavored.

This is how it should look when it's done--molten cranberry goodness around the edge and a light crust across the top.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Here's another one for posterity. I found it in my old email box, back when I asked mom for the recipe while living in the dorms:


Begin by preheating the oven to 400 degrees - place well-oiled iron muffin pan in oven while you prepare batter.

Put into blender*: (you can double or multiply by 1.5)

1 cup milk
1 cup flour
2 eggs
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 TBSP sugar
1 TBSP melted butter

Blend until smooth; pour into muffin cups about 2/3 of the way. Check at 20 minutes; remove if brown. The magic is the hot oil in the hot pans. They will be popunders if you do not preheat the pan.


*I find they work pretty well if you use mixers. You can actually just mix vigorously, if it comes to that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Sage

This recipe was sort of implied in our previous gnocchi post, but I thought I'd post it as a stand-alone recipe because it's just so darn good. The time consuming part is making the gnocchi, but once that's done with the rest goes quickly. If you want to freeze some for future use (which you will be very thankful you did), freeze the gnocchi in a single layer after they are formed, but before they are boiled. Once they're frozen fully, place them in a ziploc bag and simply dump them in boiling water when you're ready to eat them. They can be eaten right after boiling or fried in a little oil if you want crisp edges.

Use the guidelines below as a ratio, which you can increase for a larger batch. This makes enough for 2 meals for 2 people or so. Apparently true gnocchi don't even contain egg, but I haven't tried the recipe that way. If you try that and it works out, let me know.

The gnocchi with lamb summer sausage and steamed brussels sprouts (I grew them!) with butter and lemon.


2 lbs. cooked squash puree (steamed or baked)
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
~ scant 2 c. flour + more for dusting
1 tsp . salt
1/2 tsp. white pepper
pinch of nutmeg

Cook the squash immediately before making the gnocchi, so it's still hot when you form the dough. Puree the squash, ideally with a potato ricer or food mill.

Sprinkle the squash with the spices and make a well in the center of the puree. Add the eggs and half of the flour and combine well using your hands. Add the rest of the flour a little bit at a time so that the dough just coheres. You want to a) mix it very little, b) add as little flour as possible, and c) keep the dough very sticky and flexible. Once it forms into a very soft mound, turn it onto a floured board.

Cut off handfuls of dough and form them into snakes about 3/4" in diameter. Cut into 1/2" pieces. You can roll the gnocchi individually across the tines of a fork at this point to give them ridges (which hold more sauce), but I find this step to be time consuming and unnecessary. Mine never seem to hold the ridges through boiling.

If you're going to freeze some, place them on a tray in the freezer at this point. Otherwise, boil the gnocchi in small batches in well-salted water until they float, plus another 30 seconds or so. Strain them from the water and toss them in oil or melted butter while you complete the batch. Serve as is with grated parmesan, or use them in a recipe, such as the one below:

Gnocchi in Brown Butter and Sage

30-50 gnocchi
3/4-1 stick unsalted butter
10 fresh sage leaves, slivered
salt and pepper
fresh parmesan

In a heavy-bottomed, large frying pan, melt the butter very patiently over medium heat. Taking care not to scorch it, allow the butter to turn golden brown. Add the gnocchi and a couple pinches of salt and toss occasionally so that they get crisp and brown on several sides. Add the sage leaves, and pepper, and toss, cooking for one minute more. Remove from the pan and serve piping hot with a generous pile of freshly grated parmiggiano regiano on top.


This might also be good with some lightly cooked prosciutto slivers mixed in. Also, cooking virtually anything in brown butter makes it delicious, so I recommend this technique for all kinds of things. I like to cook steamed carrots in it with a little shredded red cabbage for extra color.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Susan's Cream Scones

Who is Susan? We don't know! This recipe comes from the Melting Pot II Cookbook, which was a kick-ass collection of recipes from the parents of one of the pre-schools in Santa Barbara. A friend of ours, Debbie Lipp provided this recipe from her friend Susan. Whoever Susan is, she makes a good scone!

1 1/2 c. flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 c. melted butter
1 egg, beaten
~1/2 c. buttermilk

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Beat egg in measuring cup and fill with buttermilk to make 2/3 cup. Stir in melted butter [should now be 1 c. of liquid]. Add liquids to dry ingredients and beat until just smooth [I have read that in Ireland this is done in a maximum of five strokes!]. Do not overmix. This is a very soft dough. Turn it out of the bowl onto a well-floured board. Flour your hands and pat the dough into a round. Cut it into six to eight wedges. Move the wedges onto a cookie sheet, spacing about 1/2 inch apart. Bake at 400 for 15-20 minutes. Serves 4-6.

If there are any left in the bread basket at the end of dinner, eat them with jam for dessert!


I find that this recipe works every time, is very fast to prepare, and impresses the hell out of anyone who eats the scones. I have used all kinds of different dairy products in place of the buttermilk: yogurt, sour cream, soured milk. I like to use sour cream, which I thin with a little water or milk. Buttermilk has the best results, and soured milk the worst (relatively), but all produce a delicious scone.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sunday Dinner: Mole Enchiladas, Spanish Rice, and Blueberry muffins

Here is my delicious Sunday dinner:

With blueberry muffins for dessert:

The enchiladas are as per Lillian's procedure, but using a mole instead of a red sauce , derived from this recipe but with total and utter lack of regard to their proportions (also with shredded chicken, black beans, and much cilantro):

And the Spanish rice as per this recipe, again following it quite loosely:

For those of you with large quantities of homemade chicken stock, you could obviously just make these, however, I needed some stock-like-substance, so I cooked the chicken with carrots, onion, some cinnamon stick, some cloves, and a bit of other stuff, then used the chicken broth for both of the above recipes. This worked out super duper well, since the chicken also tasted really good when it went into the enchiladas.

The muffins are from the following recipe, though I didn't have real yogurt so I just added water to labne (reasoning that labne is just yogurt minus water). The muffins are weirdly fluffly (not as dense as normal muffins) but quite tasty: