Cooking is enjoyable when done right. The bonus comes when you receive a compliment from your family and friends, especially from someone special. Do you agree with me? How many times has your meat dish particularly chicken breast turned out dry and tough? Something is not right - I always say this to myself. You probably would have too. Frustrate no more. The solution is to brine. You may have heard of this term but to be exact, what is a brine?
Read on to find out how does brine works, benefits of brining, what you should brine and how to do it correctly.
Firstly, let’s understand the term brine.
Explained on Wikipedia, brine is a high-concentration solution of salt in water. In different contexts, brine refers to salt solutions ranging from about 3.5% up to about 26%. Lower levels of concentration are called by different names which you probably know of, that is freshwater and saline water.
In the culinary term, brine is a common technique in food processing and cooking. Brining is used to preserve or season the food.
When applied to vegetables, cheeses and fruits, this brining process is commonly known as pickling. Meat products that are steeped in brine for a shorter period of time is a process you are more familiar with that is marinate.
So, what is a brine? Simply explained – Brine is a cooking process or technique where meat is soaked in a salt water solution to enhance its tenderness and flavour.
How Does Brine Work
Let’s talk about food science. Don’t worry. It is NOT complicated at all.
There are 2 effects in the brining process.
Firstly, salt disrupts the structure of the muscle filaments.
To elaborate on this point, a 3% salt solution (30gm per litre) dissolves parts of the protein structure that supports the contracting filaments. A 5.5% solution (60gm per litre) partly dissolves the filaments themselves.
Secondly, the interaction of salt and proteins result in a greater water-holding capacity in the muscle cells, which then absorb water from the brine.
So, how does these affect the outcome of the cooked meat? Juicy and tender.
Juicy. During the brining process, the meat’s weight will increase by 10% or more. When cooked, the meat still loses about 20% of the weight in moisture. But in this case, the moisture loss is cut into half because it has taken in 10%.
Tender. The dissolved protein filaments cannot coagulate into a dense compound, so the cooked meat comes out tender.
Good to know. The inward movement of salt and water and disruptions of the muscle filaments into the meat also increase the absorption of aromatic molecules from the herbs and spices in the brine. So, when you brine, add your herbs and spices! More on this. Read on…
On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
You must know that this is NOT a cookbook. A cookbook gives you the recipes but it does not explain why. For instance, when cooking, why do you need to add herbs and spices first and sometimes last? Neither does it explains which spices blend well together.
In order to become a better home cook, you need to know what, how and why.
Understanding the physical, biological and chemical makeup of food and how the law of science works during the food preparation process will definitely help you cook better if not best. Do not let food science intimidate you.
On Food and Cooking gives you insights into food, its preparation and its enjoyment. It translates technical food science into cook-friendly kitchen science. Throughout the book, you get to know the historical evolution of foods and learn cooking techniques to up your cooking skills. How do you like that?
So the next question,
What To Brine
The purpose of brining is to ensure the meat stays moist - juicy and tender. With this in mind, lean meats are best to be brined. Why?
Lean meats are meats with a relatively low fat content thus becomes drier and tough when cooked. Pork chops, pork loin and tenderloin, chicken breasts and whole chicken are best to brine. Of course, not forgetting the Thanksgiving or Christmas Turkey.
On the other hand, lamb and beef contain more fat hence contribute more moisture and flavour. Moreover, they can be enjoyed rarer than chicken and pork. Shorter cooking time, less moisture loss.
I read that some people brine shrimp too! Well, I won’t be elaborating on this as I personally don’t favour brining shrimp.
You should consider this though - it is the barbecue season. Brining racks of ribs will help them retain moisture throughout the long smoke. Try it!
Recently, I found Farm Foods Market. They sell 100% grass-fed and finished beef online. Comes directly from local family farms. If you are interested, check them out. They have pork, chicken and seafood too.
Now, the important question is
How to Brine
The basic brine ratio of salt to water is 4 tablespoons of salt per 1 quart (4 cups) of water.
A general rule of thumb is to brine for approximately 1 hour per 1 pound (450 grams). Brining for too long will cause the proteins to break down further. Hence, you get mushy meat. You don’t want this, do you?
Use a pot that is large enough to submerge the meat. It would be better if there is a lid to cover.
Dissolve the salt in the water. You must consider adding aromatics such as herbs and spices or citrus fruits for extra flavour (more on this below). Completely submerge the meat, cover and refrigerate.
As a guideline, a whole turkey ideally needs to be brined for about 12 hours. While smaller cuts like chicken breast and pork chops are normally ready to be cooked in between ½ hour to an hour.
Now that you know the basics of brining, wouldn’t you want to know more?
- • Is the type of salt used important?
- • What type of pot should I use and does it matters?
- • Do herbs and spices help enhance the flavour of the meat?
I bet you are curious to know. Read on…
What Salt to Use
Table salt or kosher salt? The answer is – it does not matter.
However, kosher salt has bigger crystals and is not as compressed as table salt. In this case, you will need to adjust the measurement depending on which salt you are using.
Kosher salt. Follow the basic brine ratio that is 4 tablespoons of salt per 1 quart (4 cups) of water.
Table salt. Use 2 tablespoons per quart.
What Pot to Use
Use a non-reactive pot. Or a brining bag.
If you have not heard of “reactive” and non-reactive” cookware, let me explain. These 2 terms refer to the type of metal used to make the pot or bowl.
Reactive pots are made of aluminium, cast iron and copper.
Non-reactive pots are glass, stainless steel, ceramic and metal cookware with enamel coating.
Why use a non-reactive pot?
Food cooked in a reactive pot will pick up a metallic flavour. If the food you are cooking is very acidic or very alkaline, the colours turn. No, you don’t want this. Don’t freak out yet.
These chemical reactions normally take some time to occur. Using reactive pots or bowls for a quick stir fry or to prepare ingredients is totally safe. Should you be simmering or brining, use a non-reactive pot or bowl.
Sadly, non-reactive pots are usually pricy (take a look at Made In Cookware). But then, it is better to be safe and worth the buy if you are going to use them often.
Add Your Herbs and Spices
It is pointless to add herbs and spices to a brine. Wait, what? You ought to know that heat is needed to release the flavours of herbs and spices. Therefore, they do not work with cold brine - the brining method you have been reading about.
The good news is - use the boiled brine method. Undoubtedly, more work is involved.
If taste and aroma are important to you, it is definitely worth the extra effort.
A step-by-step guide to a boiled brine
1. In a medium saucepan or pot, dissolve 4 tablespoons of salt in 1 quart of water over medium heat. Don't be confused, this measurement is the basic brine ratio. You may adjust, double or reduce the measurement to your needs.
2. Once dissolved, add your herbs and spices. A general rule of thumb to follow is 1 tablespoon of seasoning per quart of brining liquid. Bring to boil for 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Allow boiled brine to cool completely to room temperature.
4. Add your choice of meat. Ensure it is fully submerged. Remember the rule? 1 hour per pound. Store in the refrigerator.
5. Once ready, remove the meat from the brine and cook!
1. You need NOT boil all the liquid! Measure out half the brining liquid that is the dissolved salt water. Boil the other half with the seasoning. Combine both once the boiled brine is completely cool. This way, the waiting time is shorter.
2. Cold or boiled brining, you should rinse the meat thoroughly after finish brining. Also, pat dry if crispy skin is what you desire.
3. Sugar can be added to the brine to balance the saltiness. Use 2 tablespoons per quart of liquid.
Herbs and Spices to Use
There are no fixed rules to follow. If you are familiar using spice rubs, use the same to brine.
Fresh herbs or dried, ground spices or whole, I encourage you to experiment with the combination which is endless. Bay leaves, rosemary, thyme and cinnamon are common. Try allspice too.
Other aromatics such as garlic, onion, shallot, scallion and ginger add more flavours. Not forgetting lemon slices or zest.
Consider adding liquids such as citrus juices, beer or wine and vinegar.
Read more about spice rub. It will give you more ideas on the combinations and meat pairing.
I understand that you may not have the time to figure out all the combination of herbs and spices. Here is a link to 6 Easy Brine Recipes from Real Simple.
To Sum Up
Brining, food science translated to kitchen science or call it a simple kitchen trick will certainly give you a juicier and tastier treat. It is all about texture and flavour.
Simply soak your choice of meat in salt water solution. Adding your herbs and spices, plus other aromatics and sugar are all you need to do the job. It may seem a hassle, but is it not rewarding and satisfying knowing that your dish will turn out delicious. I am sure you love the compliments from whom you are cooking for.
Now, who doesn’t want to be a better home cook? You sure do. So do I. Let’s impress your family and friends. Start brining!
Say bye-bye to that bland and tough piece of chicken breast.
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Good job! And thank you for reading until the end. If you end up here, I am pretty sure you are serious about taking your cooking to the next level of deliciousness.
Knowing what a brine is and all the preparations needed, do you think it is worth taking the extra steps and hassle in brining? Let me know your thoughts at the comments section below.
Should I miss out anything, please feel free to chip in.
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From the Corner of My Home – Spice Up Your Life with Herbs and Spices
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