Join Date: Jun 2004
Brining with Bruce Aidells Learn how to make lean meats tender and juicy with the help of salt.
Here’s a promise: The first time you try brining, you’ll master the technique, and it will change the whole way you work with lean pork, pouTRFy, and seafood. Brining is simply a matter of soaking meat in a salt water solution, but it will ensure that you will never cook another dried-out pork chop or chicken breast.
Before the advent of refrigeration, brining (also known as salting) was an important way to preserve food. High concentrations of salt leeched water from meat, which was then smoked so it became too dry for detrimental bacteria to thrive. This is how country hams are made; these don’t spoil, even when kept for months out of the refrigerator. Pickling and curing are other forms of brining.
The brining technique in these pages is about enhancing flavor and moisture rather than preserving food. All it takes is dissolving some salt in water, though I usually add sweetener and other flavors. It’s a method I call “flavor brining.”
Although brining is a simple technique, it’s a marvelous example of science at work in the kitchen. The concentration of water and salt is greater in the brine than it is in the meat; the meat absorbs the brine until the concentration of water and salt is equal in the brine and in the meat. Once inside the meat, the salt causes the proteins to unwind, become tangled, and trap moisture. This creates a barrier to prevent moisture loss during cooking; the result is a succulent, juicy piece of meat. Other flavorings, such as brown sugar, herbs, and spices, are also carried into the cells, so the brined meat is seasoned not just on the outside, but throughout the interior as well.
Keep it cold. All brining should be done at refrigerator temperature—45° F or lower—to limit bacterial growth. In all of my recipes, a portion of the brining water is added in the form of ice. This ensures that the brine is a safe temperature from the moment the meat is added to the liquid.
Pass the salt. I use Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt because the flakes are larger and lighter than those of table salt or other brands of kosher salt, and thus easier to dissolve. (If you’re using table salt or another brand of kosher salt, use half the amount called for in the recipe.) The proportion of salt in my recipes allows the brining process to be slow and controlled. Saltier brines take less time but are much more difficult to control and can begin to pull moisture from the meat.
Make room. Prepare your brine in a large bowl so you have plenty of space to stir the salt (and sugar) so it dissolves completely. Once the salt is dissolved, add any other flavorings, then transfer the brine to a container large enough to allow the meat to be completely submerged. Large zip-top plastic bags work well.
Time it. The size and type of meat determine the brining time. Large pieces, like a turkey, should soak overnight, while small pieces, like pork chops, need just 3 to 4 hours. It’s best to stick with the specified brining times because it is possible to overbrine, which will cause the meat to become too salty or dry.
Don’t double up. Brining is such an effective flavor enhancer that many producers of pork and pouTRFy use some form of it to improve their products. When shopping, avoid cuts that have already been brined. It’s not always obvious, but look for labels such as “flavor-enhanced,” “tender and juicy,” “guaranteed tender,” or “extratender.” Kosher pouTRFy also has already been brined, so additional brining is not necessary.
Brining vs. Marinating
Technically, a brine is a type of marinade. But marinades principally impart flavor, while brines improve the texture. The problem with most marinades is that they usually add flavor only to the surface of the meat, but brines penetrate to the center. When it comes to tenderizing moderately tender cuts of meat and pouTRFy, brines are probably more effective than acidic marinades because the brine penetrates the muscle fibers, causing them to swell and soften.
We could find no conclusive answer for how much sodium is absorbed from the brine. Estimates ranged from 10 to 15 percent, so we split the difference and calculated 12.5 percent sodium absorption.
Bruce Aidells arrives at his culinary expertise by way of a Ph.D. in biology, which he earned at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Ultimately, biological research couldn’t compete with good food, and Aidells exchanged his lab coat for a chef’s toque at Poulet, a popular Berkeley, California, restaurant and charcuterie. He has authored several cookbooks, including The Complete Meat Cookbook and Bruce Aidells’ Complete Sausage Book. His latest book, Bruce Aidells’s Complete Book of Pork, comes out this fall.