Brine Explained

What’s the deal with brine?  Like… seriously, what is it?  And why is it a big deal to some people, but far more people have cooked for a considerable amount of time without ever using or understanding it? These are all simple questions, with not so simple answers, but I’ll give it a go anyway! Brine is a salt/sugar solution that seasons, tenderizes, and draws out impurities in proteins (as well as some vegetables, but for the sake of ease and clarity, let’s just talk about brine as it pertains to proteins). I’ve never had the science of it explained to me (and finding an explanation of it on-line is not as easy as I thought it might be), but the concentration of salt in a brine, the thickness of the protein being brined, and the duration of the brining period all have an impact on the result. When executed properly, a brined piece of meat will be perfectly seasoned through the center, more tender than it would be otherwise, and moister than it would be otherwise.  And while a brine is technically not a cure (although chemically, they are not that dissimilar from one another), brining — like curing — does introduce a modest preservative element unto whatever it has been applied. Based on my own personal experience, this might be the most philosophically open-to-interpretation food-related issue I’ve come across as an advanced culinarian; within the past year, I had a ten minute discussion with two other chefs (who had multiple Michelin stars between them) about brine philosophy – and were it not for immediate duty calling, it could have gone on for hours. Discussed variables included (but were not limited to) the ratio of salt:meat, the ratio of salt:water, if measurements should be done by weight or by volume, and lastly, how/if all of those things were influenced by length of exposure and/or thickness of the piece(s) of meat being treated. These are all very valid and interesting concerns, from the perspective of the culinary obsessor. I understand though, that most people who cook on a less-than-regular schedule, do not fall into such a category. So, understanding that cooking is a delicate balance of what you know, and what the recipe you’re following is telling you, I’ve attempted to simplify it. All things from here on out are my own perspectives, not all of which are universally held, but none of them can be outright denied. Brine is a solution, consisting of a basic ratio of (by weight) water:salt:sugar    –> 20:1:1. So the most basic brine recipe you can concoct might be: 2000g. water, 100g. salt, 100g. sugar.  These ratios can be altered or manipulated as the situation calls for, but in my experience, this is the garden-variety, most reliable one. One can add whatever herbs, spices, aromatics or *other*s as they see fit. As it comes to “salt” and “sugar”, keep in mind that “salt” and “sugar” are merely chemical qualifications: “sugar” in common vernacular is inferred to mean “white granulated sugar”, but that is not in any way binding or exclusive.  Brown sugar, honey (my go-to preference), stevia, palm sugar, and any of the like are all acceptable substitutes for “sugar”, and by weight, are generally interchangeable (not only in brines, but in most recipes). The qualification of “salt” is also up for interpretation: soy sauce, fish sauce, salted shrimp (the key ingredient in catalyzing fermentation when making kimchi), or anything beginning with the word “pickled”, are all things that can be reasonably looked at as having a salt content that, while maybe not to the density of pure sodium chloride, is at least enough to carry out the function that “salt” is meant to do in a brine recipe. In the past, I’ve also executed recipes that call for citrus, like lemons or oranges.  This is fine in moderation, but it’s important to think about those things also from a chemical perspective: Lemons are highly acidic, and in excessive quantities, will begin to “cook” whatever is being brined, via the ceviche process.  I’d recommend no more than one lemon or lime per gallon of brine.  Oranges, on the other hand, are very high in fructose, and if you desire a recipe free from refined sugars, you can in fact replace the sugar in a brine recipe, with orange juice with similar results. When making a brine, some notes should be mentioned about technique: First of all, it’s imperative that the salt and sugar are dissolved and dispersed evenly in the liquid. Otherwise, they sink to the bottom of whatever container holds it.  Flavoring and desired effects aside, what this does is over-season whatever is on the bottom of said container (probably making it too salty to enjoy), and not only does it under-season what’s on the top, but most things that sit in un-seasoned water are more susceptible to bacteria growth.  In order to achieve even absorption, boiling is the most effective technique.  Mixing with a stick/immersion blender can be effective, but not always reliable.  The obstacle with boiling, is that you can’t apply a hot brine to a raw product without partially cooking the outside of it.  Rather than assembling a brine recipe, bringing it to a boil, and then waiting for it to cool naturally, what I prefer to do is assemble the recipe with half the amount of water called for, bringing it to a boil, and then pour it over the other half of water, substituted (and it’s imperative to remember to measure by weight, not volume) with ice. The other issues have to do with the aromatics chosen.  I suggest wrapping any herbs or spices in a cheese cloth bouquet, and leaving it in the brine solution, trapped under whatever is being brined, so it doesn’t float to the surface.  The alternative is omitting the cheese cloth and allowing aromatics to float freely around in the liquid (which can be annoying to scrape off of the surface of the meat), or grinding/chopping them into powder to mix into the liquid. As for how long a given piece of meat should be brined, it always depends on the size of the piece of meat.  When preparing a large cut of meat for deli cold-cuts, for example, an 8lb. turkey breast should be brined for 12-14 days.  However, it’s unlikely such a large piece of meat will frequently be present in the average home kitchen.  Pork chops, chicken and steak should probably only be brined for 24-48 hours.  Any more than that, and too much salt might be absorbed, and while it will still may be edible, it will be noticeably salty (which is not the designed result of seasoning).  Another potential result from brining something for too long, is the erosive effect the sugar can have, resulting in the protein breaking down a little too much, and becoming over-tender and somewhat mealy — bordering on mushy; a phenomenon particularly threatening to white meat like chicken, turkey or pork. The nice thing about brine is that it holds in a refrigerator for a very long time.  I bring this up to identify that you can make a large batch of brine, use only so much of it, and refrigerate the rest.  Rarely will my refrigerator at home not have ready-made brine in it.  That being said, because of its high salt content, it is reluctant to freeze in a standard home freezer. I realize that brining is a technique most home cooks aren’t comfortable with attempting.  It’s also something that requires a couple days of foresight, which not everyone naturally applies to their personal cooking routine.  I’d suggest doing something that I’ve become quite fond of, usually after coming home from a Costco or Sam’s Club:  I’ll buy a large piece/package of meat, bring it home, portion it out (usually in 1-1.5 lb. portions), and put it in brine.  Then a couple days later, I’ll remove it from the brine, package what I’m not going to use immediately (I have/use a Foodsaver, but zip-lock bags are almost as good), and freeze it.  Then, you are just a 4-6 hour thawing process away from portioned, brined meat to do with as you choose! My preferred, garden variety brine recipe: Bring the following to a boil: –      420g. water –      42g. kosher salt –      42g. honey –      15g. fresh garlic (about three cloves) –      2 sprigs thyme –      4 whole cloves –      5g. black peppercorns Boil until salt and honey are dissolved.  Pour over 420g. ice.  Allow ice to melt, and pour resulting liquid through chinois.  Use as needed, and keep excess in refrigerator and use as desired, up to 90 days.

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