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Old 09-23-2004, 09:18 AM   #11
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Why Brining Keeps Meat
So Moist

A food scientist explains how a soak in a salt solution makes lean meat juicier and more flavorful

by Shirley O. Corriher

Roasted turkey breast, sautéed pork chops, and stir-fried shrimp all tend to suffer a common fate when they're cooked even a few minutes longer than necessary: they get dry and tough. Actually, any kind of meat or fish will taste like shoe leather if it's severely overcooked, but turkey, pork, and shrimp are particularly vulnerable because they're so lean. Luckily, there's a simple solution (literally) for this problem. Soaking these types of leaner meats in a brine -- a solution of salt and water -- will help ensure moister, juicier results.

How a brine works
Moisture loss is inevitable when you cook any type of muscle fiber. Heat causes raw individual coiled proteins in the fibers to unwind -- the technical term is denature -- and then join together with one another, resulting in some shrinkage and moisture loss. (By the way, acids, salt, and even air can have the same denaturing effect on proteins as heat.) Normally, meat loses about 30 percent of its weight during cooking. But if you soak the meat in a brine first, you can reduce this moisture loss during cooking to as little as 15 percent, according to Dr. Estes Reynolds, a brining expert at the University of Georgia.

Brining enhances juiciness in several ways. First of all, muscle fibers simply absorb liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid gets lost during cooking, but since the meat is in a sense more juicy at the start of cooking, it ends up juicier. We can verify that brined meat and fish absorb liquid by weighing them before and after brining. Brined meats typically weigh six to eight percent more than they did before brining -- clear proof of the water uptake.

Another way that brining increases juiciness is by dissolving some proteins. A mild salt solution can actually dissolve some of the proteins in muscle fibers, turning them from solid to liquid.

Of all the processes at work during brining, the most significant is salt's ability to denature proteins. The dissolved salt causes some of the proteins in muscle fibers to unwind and swell. As they unwind, the bonds that had held the protein unit together as a bundle break. Water from the brine binds directly to these proteins, but even more important, water gets trapped between these proteins when the meat cooks and the proteins bind together. Some of this would happen anyway just during cooking, but the brine unwinds more proteins and exposes more bonding sites. As long as you don't overcook the meat, which would cause protein bonds to tighten and squeeze out a lot of the trapped liquid, these natural juices will be retained.

Brining basics
How long to brine depends on the size and type of meat you've got. Larger meats like a whole turkey require much more time for the brine to do its thing. Small pieces of seafood like shrimp shouldn't sit in a brine for more than half an hour. In fact, any meat that's brined for too long will dry out and start to taste salty as the salt ends up pulling liquid out of the muscle fibers. (Be sure not to brine meats that have already been brined before you buy them, such as "extra-tender" pork, which has been treated with sodium phosphate and water to make it juicier.)

It's vital to have a brine with the correct salt concentration, especially for lengthy brining times. Small, thin pieces of meat like fish fillets or shrimp can withstand a concentrated brine because they'll be immersed for only half an hour or less. But for longer brines, Dr. Reynolds suggests using 9.6 ounces of salt for every gallon of water. One scant cup of table salt per gallon of water would put you within range.

If you're using kosher salt, you'll need to use more of it by volume. This is because kosher salt has larger crystals and is bulkier than table salt. I actually prefer using kosher salt in brines because it dissolves much faster, and it comes in nice big cartons. Using Diamond Crystal kosher salt, you'll need 2 cups per gallon of liquid. Morton's kosher salt is denser, and you only need 1-1/3 to 1-1/2 cups per gallon of liquid to get the brine concentration that Dr. Reynolds recommends.

Any food-safe nonreactive container is fine for brining. For brining turkeys, I use a plastic turkey cooking bag that will completely enclose the turkey; the meat needs to be completely submerged. I put the turkey in the bag and then set the whole thing in a large bowl. I add water to the bag with a measuring cup, keeping track of how much I've added. Then I add the correct amount of salt. If I'm brining a familiar turkey size and I know the approximate amount of salt, I just rub the salt directly on the turkey, inside and out, before adding the water. I put the bowl in the refrigerator (all meats should be refrigerated during brining) and let the meat soak for 12 to 24 hours. Discard the brine after use; for safety reasons, it should never be reused. (For a slightly different approach, see How to brine your Thanksgiving bird.)

Whatever you're brining, remember to rinse the meat or fish well afterward to remove any surface salt. Properly brined meat shouldn't taste salty, just very juicy with good flavor. But do reduce the amount of salt called for in the recipe; that is, don't add salt until the dish is at a point where you can taste it and judge.
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Old 09-23-2004, 10:07 AM   #12
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RE brining question - thanks Rainee

what a quick and very informative response - I also found http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/brining.html

I like to understand the principles of a technique - the 'net is wonderful but there's a lot of poor info out there. Nothing like learning from a master.
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Old 09-23-2004, 04:22 PM   #13
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Once you brine poultry or pork you'll never NOT brine again. It is a fantastic technique.

Make sure your brine has both salt and sugar in it (sugar enhances the savory flavor) and take advantage of the brine's ability to flavor the meat by adding herbs and spices to it.

You sure can dry rub after brining, but make sure you leave the salt out of the rub, or the meat will probablybe too salty.
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Old 09-24-2004, 02:53 PM   #14
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You all are very informative. Can you specify the timming for a 5 pound chicken for example? How do you actually know the correct time? What about a Leg of lamb, a beef tenderloin? etc...? Is there a way you can tell brining is complete? I always thought brining = overnight :o
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Old 09-24-2004, 03:18 PM   #15
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There's more of a scientific explanation but basically what happens is brining adds salt and water to the cells of meat through osmosis so that when the meat is cooked and water is squeezed out, there is still water left in the cells because the water became more concentration and was added before cooking.

Does that make sense? Even though salt can cause a piece of meat to dry out the fact is the brine has a higher concentration of salt than the meat; the brine draws the salt out of the meat but then through osmosis is replaced by the salted water of the brine - the meat's fluid cells then become more concentration and flavorful.
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Old 09-24-2004, 04:33 PM   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Moonlight
You all are very informative. Can you specify the timing for a 5 pound chicken for example? How do you actually know the correct time? What about a Leg of lamb, a beef tenderloin? etc...? Is there a way you can tell brining is complete? I always thought brining = overnight :o
Moonlight I can't give you an exact time, but for most things overnight will be too long. The meat would end up being too salty. For chicken breasts I go 2 hours. A whole 5 pound chicken I might go 4 or 5 hours, but I am just guessing at that.
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Old 09-24-2004, 04:40 PM   #17
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A chicken can be brined in about 8 hours - a turkey does take overnight. Chicken breasts take about 4 hours.

I wouldn't brine a piece of beef tenderloin - why ruin a good thing!! LOL

I also wouldn't brine a leg of lamb - we like ours rare and au natural. Well, I coat it with a rosemary/dijon pesto.

But to really find out exact recipes just go to google and type in brining, recipes.
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Old 09-24-2004, 04:48 PM   #18
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I tried brining my chicken breasts for four hours once and they were inedible. The texture of the meat changed too much and the meat was way too salty. The texture almost felt like the chicken was not cooked enough. I, personally, would not go over 3 hours for breasts. Try different times though and see what works for you. Everyone is different.
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Old 09-24-2004, 04:52 PM   #19
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Hi GB - I guess mine turned out because I brined in buttermilk. Try it sometime - it's awesome!!!! I know about that "texture" thing when it comes to brining. Thanks for the input.
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Old 09-24-2004, 04:54 PM   #20
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I have been meaning to try buttermilk for sometime now Kitchenelf. Maybe I will get off my butt and finally give it a shot this weekend :)
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