If you’ve ever wondered why some turkey is moist and flavorful, yet other times you’d rather just chew on a piece of cardboard, a meat brine may have been involved. A meat brine is a culinary tool that many chefs utilize to bring out the true flavors of meat while at the same time maintaining a high level of moisture.
Brines always seem to make front page news around Thanksgiving, yet a brine is quite effective on many cuts of meat besides a turkey. If you’re ever going to achieve the coveted level of BBQ Pit master, brining is a science you need to understand.
What is brining?
Brining is the process of soaking meat, poultry, or seafood in a salt-based solution. The salt chemically reacts with the meat in a way that causes it to absorb water which it retains during the cooking process. This is especially important on large cuts of meat such as turkey or a pork shoulder where long cooking times tend to dry out the meat.
In addition to water and salt, other ingredients are usually added to the brine mixture. Sugar, herbs and spices dissolved in the solution will be drawn into the meat along with the water. This is what gives the meat that additional flavoring.
How does brining work?
In scientific terms, brining relies on the laws of diffusion and osmosis. Diffusion dictates that liquids will move from a region of high concentration to a region of low concentration because of the constant and random movement of molecules. Osmosis then allows such molecular movement to permeate a membrane.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s use Tom turkey as an example. Mr. Tom is inserted into a bucket of water which contains dissolved salt, sugar and a variety of herbs and spices. The concentration of salt and sugar is greater in the bucket, than what’s inside Mr. Tom. The law of diffusion states everything must be kept in equilibrium, or equal. Therefore, the water will migrate naturally from the area of high concentration (the bucket) to an area of low concentration (Mr. Tom). This movement of fluid through the skin, or membrane of Mr. Tom is osmosis. Along with this movement of water, comes the salt, sugar and other flavorings.
No, we’re not done with science class just yet. Once inside the cells of the meat, the salt begins to slightly dissolve the protein structure of the cells. This disintegration of muscle fiber causes it to become somewhat gelatinous and moist. The application of heat will cause this matter to form a “crust”, thus entrapping the moisture and flavors while the cooking process continues. Mr. Tom has gained weight, he’s now retaining water.
Which meats benefit from a brine?
A rule of thumb is any meat that is dry or extra lean is a good candidate for a brine. Most poultry, some fish, seafood, and pork work well with a brine.
More important than the type of meat is the cut of meat and how it will be cooked. If the meat has a high fat content such as duck or beef, the fat content will keep the meat moist plus, maintain the natural flavors. A large cut of meat such as a pork shoulder or a turkey require longer cooking times. Often, this dries out the meat. This is a good application for a brine.
Another consideration to be aware of when deciding whether to brine is what the factory did to your meat. Many meats produced today have been treated at the processing plant. Be sure you read the package before deciding to brine, otherwise you may end up with a salty, inedible disappointment.
How to brine meat
Without getting into the basics of salt composition, use non-iodized salt. Preferably, Kosher salt. It is a cleaner salt and contains less sodium than table salt. Kosher salt also weighs in lighter than table salt because it is more course. When choosing brine recipes, be sure it is understood whether it states table salt or kosher salt. If not, kosher salt is a safe bet.
A basic brine formula to start out with is one cup of salt and one cup of sugar per gallon of water. Add the dry ingredients and some water in a pot and bring to a boil, while stirring. Reduce the heat and simmer while continuing to stir. This will help dissolve the salt and sugar as well as bring out the flavors of any herbs and spices you may have added. Allow to completely cool before finishing the brine mixture.
Brining should be done in a non-reactive container like glass or plastic. A zip lock bag works well for small pieces. Always keep the meat refrigerated. A five gallon paint-type pail can be used with larger cuts of meat. Pack the top with ice to keep the meat cold and submerged.
When brining large and dense cuts of meat such as a pork shoulder, simply soaking it in the brine will not be enough to reach the inner portions of the meat. In this instance, the brine should be injected into the meat with a flavor injector. These can be found at most gourmet cooking stores or online.
Brine the meat for an hour per pound. Once complete, rinse the meat with fresh water to remove any excess salt or sugar and pat dry with a paper towel. If you’re a fan of crispy skin on poultry allow the meat to dry uncovered in the refrigerator overnight.
Proceed with a dry rub and you are ready to cook. You’ll be amazed at the juiciness and added flavor the brine has given your meat.