t its most basic, brining is submerging meat in a solution of salt and water for many hours before cooking, enhancing meat’s ability to retain moisture and tenderness, while also seasoning it. Brining is becoming increasingly popular for home cooks since it’s relatively easy, inexpensive and produces great results. Brined meat is wonderfully juicy and full of flavor - all the way to the bone. Here are a few simple brining rules of thumb.
Well what is brining exactly? The brining process changes the structure of meat on a cellular level, hydrating through osmosis and retaining moisture through denaturation caused by a salt-to-protein chemical reaction. In other words, brined meat absorbs salty water then the salt reacts with the proteins creating little pockets, which trap moisture resulting in meat that’s ultra-juicy, tender and flavorful.
Always use a non-reactive food-safe vessel that is large enough to hold your meat while being surrounded and fully submerged in brine yet small enough to fit inside your refrigerator. You can purchase special ‘brining bags’ at most grocery stores but we find basic stainless steel stockpots, hotel pans or large, plastic food service tubs work just as well. If you’re brining a large bird, like a turkey, in an extra-large vessel, you may need to remove or adjust a shelf in your refrigerator to accommodate it. Supplement with gel icepacks to bring down the temperature of a large container quickly without affecting anything else that’s housed in your refrigerator. When brining whole birds, you may also need to weigh them down to keep them fully submerged. A heavy lid or plate that fits inside your container under its own lid works well.
What to Brine
Lean, mildly flavored meats that are usually cooked to a high internal temperature are great candidates for brining, such as turkey, chicken, capon, poussin, veal and pork. Naturally full-flavored, rich meats, like beef, lamb, venison and bison don't benefit from brining, their natural flavor should be left to shine on its own.
The Right Balance
The salt to water (and sometimes sugar) ratio is probably the most important factor in creating a successful brine. We recommend using kosher salt to brine as it has a clean taste and is free of additives that can change the final flavor. Sugar, although not a must, is a fantastic brining add-in. Sugars add flavor and facilitate browning. For all-purpose brine, a good rule of thumb is: ¼ cup of kosher salt and ¼ cup of sugar for every quart of water. You can also add aromatics or other flavorings to intensify the seasoning, like whole peppercorns, garlic cloves, dried herbs, whole spices, citrus or other fruit, mirepoix or fruit juices.
Time it Right
The ‘hardest part’ of brining is probably remembering to allow for enough time before you plan to cook! That said, in general, allow for about an hour per pound of meat. When brining birds, you may also want to allow time for air-drying the skin after brining. The downside of the meat absorbing all of that water is the skin is much harder to crisp. To remedy this, after brining and rinsing, pat dry and lay on a sheet pan, uncovered in the refrigerator for several hours, up to overnight. Exposure to the refrigerator's cold air is enough to dry out the skin for crisping.
- Always remember to rinse meat after the brine. It’ll remove excess surface salt and any herbs or sugars that could potentially burn. Don’t worry – it won’t "wash away" all of your hard brine work.
- When cooking brined meats, the meat juices are often too salty to make a pan-sauce. It’s a good idea to have some demi-glace on hand for sauce-on-the-fly, just in case.