When it comes to meat cookery, we always want to maximize flavor while keeping things juicy. What if I told you that one simple, additional step could help you achieve this every time. At the center of this is our favorite ingredient, kosher salt. I am, of course, talking about brining, the process of treating meat with salt or a salt-water solution before cooking.
There are many benefits to brining. For one, salt is absorbed into the meat, allowing the inside to be seasoned just like the outside. Brining also helps the meat stay juicy as over time, the water drawn out by the salt is then reabsorbed by the meat, giving it additional moisture. Finally, brining tenderizes meat as the salt helps break down proteins in the meat, making it more tender.
Not all brines are the same. There are two main types of brining: wet and dry. Wet brining means making a solution of salt and water and submerging the food in this. Generally, you are looking for a ratio of one cup of water to about half an ounce of kosher salt. By volume, this is about a tablespoon of salt but remember that different brands are not equal. By volume they will differ but will always be the same by weight so I stick to that. It is also common to add some sugar or brown sugar to wet brines, as well as spices, citrus peel, aromatics, and herbs. Many recipes will say you need to boil a brine. This is not true as salt can dissolve in non-warm water. As long as the salt is dissolved, you are good to go. I do, however, boil the brine briefly when I include whole spices to allow them to steep. Allow the brine to cool before you add your meat.
Dry brining, on the other hand, consists merely of salting your meat in advance of cooking. This allows the food to absorb the salt and flavor the meat but will not help the meat retain moisture the way wet brining does as there is no liquid to be dissolved. You may be thinking that sounds a lot like curing. The difference is that dry brining only consists of enough salt to season. Curing consists of packing food in salt (and that is for another article).
Each brine has its own uses. Wet brining is perfect for leaner meats where you would want more moisture to be retained during cooking. This means chicken, turkey, lean pork cuts (like loin), and large, lean cuts of beef. I prefer to brine for at least 24 hours before cooking in the refrigerator, but 48 hours will be even better for very large cuts and whole birds. Dry brining is my preferred choice for fatty cuts that contain a lot of moisture like leg of lamb or well marbled steaks. A few hours will do fine but over-night is best for large roasts. I put the meat on a rack over a baking sheet, uncovered on the way bottom of the microwave. This allows all the excess moisture to be drawn out and stay on the surface, giving your meat a more concentrated flavor.
When it comes to fish, I prefer dry brining as moisture is usually not a concern. Fish is so delicate that I also try not to dry brine it beyond 30 minutes to an hour. If pain frying, I also tend to pat the moisture that rises to the surface off to create a crispier surface.
Some recipes will call for washing the brine off the meat when the brining is done. I say never as I do not brine with more salt than I wouldn’t normally season with (dry) or stick to the ratio described earlier (for wet). Just remember not to resalt the meat if you are seasoning it with other ingredients before cooking.
So far, we’ve mostly discussed meat but what about veggies? When it comes to vegetables, brining liquids (wet brining) are used to pickle, but we will talk more about that in an upcoming article. Salting vegetables in advance (dry brining), however, is a great trick to draw out its moisture. I do this with cucumbers for tzatziki sauce, cabbage for sauerkraut, or mushrooms (or really any vegetable) when I want them to get nice and brown. You can always salt vegetables in advance to allow them to become internally seasoned.
Water is not the only liquid that can be used for brining. Many brines for poultry are made with buttermilk. Buttermilk is ideal for anything that will be breaded or needs a crispy skin. The acid in the buttermilk helps the protein break down while the fat helps create browning and moisture, or in the case of breading, gives a wet layer for the crust to stick to.
We cannot talk about brines without discussing their distant relative, the marinade. Marinades are like wet brines but instead tend to use an acid as the liquid base, like vinegar or citrus juice, instead of water. Soy sauce, maple syrup, and other liquids also make for a nice base. The difference is that a marinades do not have a high ratio of salt to liquid. They are seasoned like something you could eat on its own, not like you were replicating sea water. Therefore, the marinade only seasons the surface of the food and does not penetrate down more than a few millimeters. This means that it does not season the inside of your food, provide moisture, or break down any proteins. And you have to be careful with marinades that contain acid as after a few hours, it will start to cook your food, making it mushy (except for ceviche but that’s for another article). I say, if you’re going to marinade, only keep the food submerged for a few hours at the most but even one hour will do. I also save some of the marinade (before it touches the meat) to baste the food in while or after cooking as some of the flavor will be lost during the cooking process.