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.

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