How does salt, sugar, and water can improve texture and flavor in meats, poultry, and seafood.
To bring back moisture and flavor to meats brining has long been considered one of the best and easiest forms of preparation. Soaking a turkey in a brine solution of salt (and often sugar) and a liquid (usually water) -provides it with a plump cushion of seasoned moisture. The turkey will actually gain a bit of weight, or water retention that stays with it through the cooking process. This water weight gain translates into moist meat; the salt and sugar convert to make the meat seasoned, flavorful meat. And this applies to all likely candidates for brining (see below). For a complete understanding of the process, see our examples that follow.
How it works
We won't go into elaborate detail but it is necessary that we explain the under riding principle of brining before we move on. Brining works in accordance with two principals, called diffusion and osmosis, that like to keep it in equilibrium. When brining a turkey, there is a greater concentration of salt and sugar outside of the turkey (in the brine) than inside the turkey (in the cells that make up its flesh). The law of diffusion states that the salt and sugar will naturally flow from the area of greater concentration (the brine) to lesser concentration (the cells). When water moves in this fashion, the process is called osmosis. Once inside the cells, the salt, and, to a lesser extent, the sugar causes the cell proteins to unravel, or denature. As the individual proteins unravel, they become more likely to interact with one another. The interactions results in the formation of a sticky matrix that captures and holds moisture. Once exposed to heat, the matrix gets and forms a barrier that keeps much of the water from leaking out as the meat cooks. Thus you have a turkey that is better seasoned and much more moist that when you started.
Two Types of Brining
Both table salt and kosher salt can be used to make brine. We prefer kosher salt because it has a cleaner flavor than table salt (usually contains iodine and anti-caking agents that can affect flavor) and because it has an airier structure, which give it higher propensity to dissolve. Essentially, kosher salt is less salty that table salt. A cup of table salt weight about 10 ounces, which a cup of kosher salt (depending on the crystalline structure) weights about 5 to 8 ounces. Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt is used because it weighs about half or 5 ounces per cup making it exactly half as strong as table salt. You may need to adjust the amount called for in the chart.
Best Candidates for Brining
Lean and often mildly flavored meats with a tendency to overcook- such as chicken, turkey, and pork - are perfect candidates for brining, which leaves them plump and seasoned. Many types of seafood also take well to brining, especially when they are subjected to cooking methods that cause extreme moisture loss. For instance, we don't brine salmon fillets before grilling (the fish has plenty of fat and flavor and won't dry out if pulled from the grill when still translucent in the center)., However, when grill-roasting a whole side of salmon, brining allows the fish to spend considerable time on the grill picking up smoke flavor without becoming dry. Shrimp, which is extremely lean and often mushy, is another good choice for brining (the brine actually firms the shrimp).
In contrast, beef and lamb do not benefit from brining. Unlike poultry and pork, these meats are generally eaten rare or medium-rare and are therefore cooked to a relatively low internal temperature. As a consequence, they do not lose as much of their natural moisture as poultry or pork, which are generally cooked to higher internal temperatures. Beef and lamb also contain more fat, which makes them more favorable and helps to keep them moist. For many of the same reasons, gamier, fattier birds, such as duck and squab, don't benefit from brining.
Brines are featured in many recipes, which given the particular constraints of time and the nature of the food being brined recommend a wide degree of formulas. To start, we reviewed our recipe and calculated a ration of water to salt to sugar as well as an average brining time per pound of meat. This standard formula was used to cook various cuts of poultry and pork and several types of seafood, and it worked in all but a few situations. High roasting (roasting at 450 to 500 degrees), broiling and high-heat grilling all require brine with less sugar to ensure the skin or exterior won't burn. (After brining a turkey or fresh ham, rinse well to remove any remaining sugar). To keep the flavors of the high heat brine balanced, the amount of salt was reduced.
Note: The time allotment shown is based on the weight of a single item brined. If brining multiple items adjust the time allotment accordingly.
|Type of Brine || Cold Water || Salt|| Sugar || Amount of Brine || Time|
½ Cup Diamond Crystal Kosher
¼ Cup + 2 Tablespoons Morton Kosher
¼ Cup Table Salt
1 Quart per pound of food not to exceed 2 gallons brine
|1 hour per pound, but not less than 30 minutes. Or more than 8 hours|
|High-Heat Roasting, Broilig, or High-Heat Grilling|| 1 Quart|
½ Cup Diamond Crystal Kosher
3 Tablespoons Morton Kosher
2 Tablespoons Table Salt
| 2 Tbsp|| 1 Quart per pound of food not to exceed 2 gallons brine ||1 hour per pound, but not less than 30 minutes. Or more than 8 hours|
Effects of Brining
Although excellent for bringing moisture to meats and poultry brining does have one negative effect on chicken and turkey. Adding moisture to the skin as well the flesh can prevent the skin from crisping when cooked. We found that air-drying, a technique used in many Chinese recipes for roast duck, solves this problem. Leaving the brined chicken and turkey dry uncovered in the refrigerator allows surface moisture to evaporate, making the skin visibly more dry and taut and therefore promoting crispness when cooked. Although this step is optional, if crisp skin is a goal. It's worth the extra time. For best results, air dry whole brined birds overnight. Brined chicken parts can be air dried for several hours.
Transfer the brined bird to a heavy-duty cooling rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Pat the bird dry with paper towels, and refrigerate. The rack lifts the bird off the baking sheet, allowing air to circulate freely under the bird.