I’m a technique man. Always have been, always will be. Once or twice a week I use a simple technique in the kitchen that is about the oldest around. It involves water, salt and time. Maybe you remember a little thing called osmosis from science class. In a nutshell osmosis is the movement of water molecules from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. So, just what the heck am I doing in my kitchen and what does this marvel of science have to do with it? Meat cell walls are semi-permeable. Water and salt can pass into the cell, but proteins cannot pass out of the cell. Once inside the meat, salt causes the strands of protein to denature, or unwind. This changes the structure of the proteins, causing them to become tangled together and trapping moisture. When the meat is cooked, the denatured proteins solidify and form a barrier that keeps the moisture and salt in the meat. The result is meat with higher moisture content and improved texture. And since salt amplifies the flavor of foods, you have flavor throughout the meat.
Sadly, one kind of science has got to come to the rescue of another kind of science. Did you realize that pigs today are 50% leaner than they were just 20 years ago? Chickens follow closely behind. From a health point of view this scientific breeding is fantastic because fat is bad. On the other hand, both moisture and flavor have been sacrificed. Brining is a way for us to enjoy these leaner and healthier cuts of meat by insuring that they are moist and juicy. And if the brine includes pepper, herbs, spices, garlic, onion, lemon, beer etc., those flavors are carried in and trapped in the meat too. Instead of seasoning on the surface only, as most cooks do, brining carries the seasonings throughout. The general term I like is “flavor brining” which distinguishes it from a stronger “curing brine” or “pickle”.
Professional chefs have used brines for years and not just for flavor or moisture. Brined meats can hold longer than non-brined meats. And brined meats can be slightly over cooked and still remain juicy. I typically brine all chicken breasts, pork loins, pork chops and turkey breasts. If you happen to brine a whole chicken or turkey, the dark meat will benefit somewhat too.
Flavor Brine #1 is a traditional brine containing just the basics:
This ratio of salt to water has been a standard for a number of years.
1 gallon of water
6 to 8 ounces of salt. (I prefer 6 oz., and use kosher salt or canning salt)
1/2 cup of sugar
A smaller batch of Flavor Brine #1:
1 quart of water
3 tablespoons of Morton's kosher salt
2 tablespoons of sugar
Seasonings like pepper, garlic powder, sage, lemon slices, onion slices, fresh herbs etc. are optional. A few ounces of flavored vinegar, wine, apple juice or even beer can be added as well.
thirdeye's Lite Brine:
Because a lot of folks watch their salt intake, I started getting inquiries about a brine with less salt. A lite brine so to speak. Many of my brining sources felt that less than 4 ounces of salt per gallon is not strong enough, but Smokin' Okie (Author of Brining 101) reminded me "...it's not the strength of the brine, but how long to let meat soak". Once I got his nod, I continued experimenting with my recipe and like the results on pork loin, pork chops and chicken pieces. Since this lite brine has less salt, less sugar is needed. If you want to add a sprinkle of your favorite rub, or maybe a splash of soy sauce, go for it. Because this brine is lite on salt, it's okay. In addition to immersion brining, I've also been injecting some of the same brine, details on both methods are below.
1 gallon of water
3-1/2 ounces of salt (kosher salt or canning salt)
1 tablespoon(minimum) of brown sugar, maple sugar, or white sugar
A smaller batch of thirdeye's Lite Brine:
1 quart of water
0.875 ounces of salt (7/8 of an ounce)
1 teaspoon (minimum) of brown sugar, maple sugar, or white sugar
USED AS A BRINE ONLY: I have done numerous cooks using this brine on pork loin roasts, boneless loin chops, bone-in chops and chicken breasts and thighs. I have been having wonderful results. Brine times of 3 or 5 hours on loin roasts, and 2 to 3 hours on thick loin chops, and 1 to 2 hours on the chicken breasts are what I prefer. Following the brine time, rinse the meat and return to the refrigerator for at least an hour or two to allow the solution to equalize.
USED AS AN INJECTION AND A BRINE: Out of the blue, 2Fategghead, a regular reader of my site and a member of the Big Green Egg Forum, posted about using my brine on pork tenderloins, but they were injected prior to going into the brine. The photographs and description of the finished tenderloins looked wonderful, so I immediately tried it on two tenderloins. I liked the results so much, I cooked two more tenderloins a couple of days later and the results were fantastic. 2Fategghead recommended pumping them full of brine before submerging them in the brine. The brine time is 1-1/2 hours in the fridge, and I rinsed and rested (equalized) mine for another hour in the fridge before grilling.
Expanding this same brine/injection method to chicken pieces works great too. My time for breasts and thighs is 1 hour minimum and 2 hours maximum, followed by at least a 1 hour rest in the refrigerator.
Flavor Brine #2:
1 gallon water
6 ounces of kosher salt
1 tablespoon Morton's Tenderquick
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 onion, chopped
¼ cup brown sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons pepper blend or crushed peppercorns
This brine has a different twist from Brine #1. It has less sugar, the addition of Morton's Tenderquick and less salt. Tenderquick has both nitrates and nitrites in a salt carrier. It's purpose is to tenderize, moisturize and color meats. It was designed for home use and differs in strength from professional or commercial curing salts, otherwise known as pink salts or Prague powders. I feel that Flavor Brine #2 is technically still a flavor brine and here's why. It gives us some of the things we like from cured products, namely flavor, a different texture and a hint of pink color to the meat. But it still is not as strong as a curing brine that would be used on something like bacon or ham. In other words, in this low concentration, it can't used for preservation. So I'm going to call it a flavor brine. This is a favorite of mine on chicken breasts and turkey breasts.
----------------------------------- TIPS --------------------------
SALT: I have listed the salt in ounces because grain size will vary between brands. I happen to use Morton’s kosher salt and 6 ounces is approximately 3/4 cup (or 12 tablespoons). Just for reference on grain size... Morton kosher Salt weighs about 7.7 ounces per cup, Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt weighs about 5 ounces per cup.
Canning salt (a smaller grain natural salt) or sea salts can be used as well, just go by weight. The nice thing about canning salt is that it will dissolve in lukewarm water (see preparing a brine below) and is handy for making quick batches. If you are planning on injecting your brine, canning salt is the way to go. CAUTION: Canning salt and some sea salts may actually be "saltier" than the standard kosher salts. Some experimentation with actual amounts and brine times is needed when selecting these salts.
SUGAR: Sugars offset the harshness of the salt. My recipes list the minimum amount of sugar I feel is necessary to do the job. Feel free to add more. Brown and maple sugar are more flavorful, but white sugar will dissolve easier. Some of the competition BBQ cooks I know use close to a 50:50 ratio of salt and sugar in the brine for their competition chicken.
----------------------------------------------OTHER RECIPES -------------
Making a Brine From A Rub:
Anytime you have a rub you really like, (or have a jar of one you don't care for and never use), try it as a brine mix. Everything is in there.... salt, sugar, seasonings. Here's what you do: Take a pint of hot water and mix in a couple of tablespoons of the rub to dissolve. Add another pint of iced water to chill it down. Add a few cubes of ice if needed. Then brine some pork chops or chicken breasts and see how you like them. Sometimes if it's a salty rub, you might want to add some additional brown sugar. Make a note of the amount of rub you used (some rubs only need 1T per quart, others need 3T per quart) and write this information right on the label on the jar.
If you have several rubs you don't like (or just partial jars you want to use up so you can buy fresh) combine them in a mason jar to use for brining. The only downside to this is that if you like it.... you will never be able to duplicate it.
--------------------------------HOW TO PREPARE AND USE BRINES ----------------------
Bring a quart or so of water to a simmer. Dissolve all dry ingredients in the water then add any other seasonings like fresh herbs or lemon slices. The heat will help wake up those flavors. Simmer 5 minutes or so and remove from the heat, allow to cool somewhat. Meanwhile, mix some ice into the remaining water then add it to the hot water. A brine must be cold before adding any meat so transfer the brine to a non-reactive container and chill it in the refrigerator. Overnight is best. (An option to skipping the overnight cool down is to cut back on the 3 quarts of water and substitute more ice) A plastic food grade container works well when making a full batch. A deep CorningWare dish or a zipper bag will work for small batches. Submerge your meat into the brine and return to the refrigerator. Discard after use, do not re-use brines.
Here are some suggested brine times to get you started. If you are sensitive to salt, or experimenting with flavor combinations, try the lower end times first just to play it safe.
Shrimp …………… 5 to 10 minutes depending on size (use thirdeye's Lite Brine)
Chicken breasts … 1 to 4 hours
Pork chops ……… 1 to 4 hours
Whole chickens … 4 hours to overnight
Pork loin ………… 4 hours to overnight
Turkey Legs ........ 12 to 24 hours
Turkey Breasts … 6 to 24 hours
Whole turkeys … 12 to 48 hours
RINSING: Following brining, give smaller items a good rinse, and larger items a soak-out in cold water, plus a good final rinse. (The soak-out can be as little as 15 minutes for a whole chicken or several hours for a whole turkey)
RESTING: The next step is some rest time in the refrigerator, and I feel this is a very, very important step in the process. Shrimp only need about 15 minutes of resting. I will rest smaller pieces of chicken or pork chops for at least one or two hours, and up to 8 hours on a turkey breast. The resting time lets the salt and flavors retained in the meat disperse and reach a state of equilibrium of sorts. If you cook brined things right after coming out of a brine (even with rinsing or soaking) a lot of the salt is still near the surface. The heat of cooking will draw it out and the evaporation process will concentrate it. Then....when you take a bite, you are met with a salty flavor first. The equalization time lets everything settle down.
Following brining, rinsing and resting, cook as usual.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO OVER-BRINE? - Usually it's more like "Oops, I forgot about those pork chops, did I over-brine them".... The answer is yes and no. A brine works on osmosis, the movement of molecules from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. Eventually, over time, the concentrations will reach a state of equilibrium.
So, you have salted water that you are exchanging with the liquids in meat. The meat will absorb salt and water over time, and the meat will get progressively saltier to a point, based on the strength of your brine. So, if you had an average strength brine (1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water) and you liked a particular brine time for chicken breasts (say 2 hours) it's possible that you have not reached the state of equilibrium by the time you pull your chicken out of the brine and rinsed it. If you left it in 4 hours you may notice it's saltier (and maybe my now it's reached the state of equilibrium) but you may not be able to tell much difference between a 4 hour brine time and a 6 hour brine time.
This would be a whole different story if the same chicken from above was brined for 2 days instead of 2 hours. This length of brining could result in curing, as you are holding your meat in a salty environment for an extended period of time. in other words the salt is not just passing through, it's working on the meat fibers. Instead of just a moisture benefit, the salt could change the texture of the meat.