Brining is a process similar to marinating in that both expose food to a flavored liquid, but they actually work in significantly different ways. Marinating is usually a relatively short process (3 – 5 hours) that primarily uses acid to break down meat fibers, resulting in greater tenderness. The flavors involved are often strong and leave a big impact on the food. Brining on the other hand, uses osmosis (via a combination of salt and water), to develop flavor and moisture.
How does brining work?
Salt draws moisture out of food; which doesn’t sounds like a good thing. As an experiment, take two slices of eggplant, and liberally salt one but not the other. Let them sit on separate plates for 10 minutes. When you come back, you’ll find that the salted slice has exuded a significant amount of water to the surface, while the other still looks relatively dry. That water is drawn out by the salt. So you may ask, if salt pulls water out of food, wouldn’t brining a piece of meat pull all of the moisture out of it? Well, the answer is it does, but that ok because of….Osmosis.
Osmosis, is a process where water moves and out of cells. And because salt draws water, we can use it to actually move water in and out of food. Without getting into the gory details, the salt in a brine, given enough time, will carry moisture (and potentially flavor) into whatever is being brined.
Most brines also contain sugar, to balance out the salt, and bring some additional flavor the party. You can also add many other flavors, like peppercorn, or other spices, herbs, or other flavoring liquids.
Unlike marinades, you need to brine for a long time (I never do less than 8 hours). Short periods will draw moisture out of food, without giving time for it to be pulled back in.
Applications – what should I brine?
I generally use brines for low fat cuts of meat. Brines are great for chicken, pork, and turkeys. In fact, I don’t think I’ve cooked an unbrined pork chop in years.
Depending on the meat, and what your mood is, you can vary up the brine’s flavors but they should always have salt, sugar and water.
Some Brine Recipes:
How to make a brine
The basic brine consists of three elements – salt, sugar, and water (technically just water and salt, but I never make one without sugar). I use about ½ cup of both sugar and salt to one quart of water. To ensure that the salt and sugar dissolve in the water, I’ll mix the salt/sugar in boiling water, using ½ the amount of total water, and then cool the mixture by added the other ½ quart’s worth of water in ice cubes.
While water is water, and salt, salt (actually there’s many different types of salt, but for a brine I’d just use regular kosher salt), you can definitely have some fun with the sugar. White table sugar is just fine to use, but brown sugar carries a different flavor, as does honey, molasses, and maple syrup. By swapping any of these with white sugar you can modify the flavor of the finished product.
You can also add other flavor components to the dish – peppercorns at a minimum, but any other spices or herbs you’d like, or aromatic vegetables like onion, carrot and celery. With each, the flavor will get carried into the meat as it brines.
Preparation & Cooking
I like to take the meat out of the brine for 15 – 20 minutes before I’m ready to cook it, so that it comes back up to room temperature (always keep your brining foods in the fridge) and to release some of the excess moisture. Then I season them as normal.
One thing to note, is that the meat’s taken on a lot more sugar than its natural state, and sugar burns more quickly than protein. So be a bit more diligent than normal and check the sear a little sooner than you might otherwise to prevent burning.