Ask The Chef
Brining, or soaking meat in a saltwater/seasoned water bath is an excellent way to add flavor and juiciness to the meat. As you have found out, it is a wonderful way to produce an exceptionally moist, flavorful Thanksgiving turkey. But the method works for other meats and seafood as well.
Although it is an age-old process that was more used for preserving meats than adding flavor, restaurants and some home cooks are now using it extensively. While it's in the brine, the meat cells absorb liquid and any flavoring you've used, carrying it deep into the meat. The result is meat that's seasoned through and through and much harder to dry out.
Indeed, one of the great weaknesses of the versatile chicken breast — its tendency to dry out and turn to rubber — can be corrected by brining. And as Bruce Aidells, author of The Complete Meat Book and the new Complete Sausage Book, says, "Unless you're really careful, it's damn near impossible to produce a decent pork chop without brine." A brined chop will stay moist even if it's cooked a little too long.
And one of the great things about brining is that there are so few rules. Most brines start with water and salt — traditionally, 3/4 pound of salt per gallon of water, but since we're not concerned with the brine as a preservative, you can cut back on the salt. Many people also add sugar. A good, basic solution is 1/2 cup of kosher salt and 1/2 cup of sugar to 1 gallon of water.
But beyond that, you can add flavor in all sorts of forms. You can add garlic, onion, peppercorns, hot pepper flakes, Sichuan peppercorns, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, mustard seed, coriander seed, juniper berries, ginger, cinnamon, clove, star anise, or vanilla bean. Use brown sugar, honey or molasses in place of the sugar. (Some people avoid the sugar entirely, complaining that it makes everything taste like ham. But some sweetness tends to offset a saltiness the brine might otherwise impart.)
There are no constraints on the liquid either. You can use apple juice, cider, orange juice, beer, wine, rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, stock, tea, or other liquids to replace some or all of the water. You can also put together decidedly Oriental flavorings with soy sauce, the Japanese rice wine mirin, or other choices.
The amount of brining time is likewise not set in stone. Even a little brining is better than none. A chicken breast may need no more than a half hour. At the other extreme, thick, dense meats, like pork roasts can really benefit from two days or more in brine. But, meat can absorb only so much liquid, and left too long in brine will taste over-seasoned and become a bit mushy.
The thickness of the meat, the strength of the brine, and your own taste determine how long to brine an item. As a general rule of thumb, the stronger the brine solution, the more quickly the meat will be ready to cook. For the basic brine mentioned above, the following times are appropriate:
- Shrimp: 30 minutes
- Whole chicken: 8 to 12 hours
- Chicken parts: 1-1/2 hours
- Cornish game hens: 2 hours
- Turkey (12 to 14 pounds): 24 hours
- Pork chops (1" thick): 4 to 6 hours
- Pork chops (1-1/4" to 1-1/2" thick): 5 to 8 hours
- Whole pork tenderloin: 6 to 12 hours
- Whole pork roast: 2 to 4 days
Here are a few other brining tips:
- Many people start the brine with hot water or heat the brine initially to dissolve the salt and sugar better and to bring out the flavors of any added seasonings. But the solution must be cooled completely before you add the meat.
- If you're brining a meat for more than an hour, it must be kept in the refrigerator.
- The meat must be fully submerged in the brine. Weight it with a heavy plate if necessary. With some smaller cuts of meat, it is possible to brine them in Ziploc storage bags, squeezing out all the air before sealing.
- Rinse the meat after removing it from the brine solution and then dry the surface thoroughly before cooking.
- If you're not ready to cook when the meat is finished, remove it from the brine, dry it off and keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready.
- Don't salt brined meat before cooking, and cut way back on the salt in your solution if you have a kosher chicken, which has already been salted.
- Don't reuse brine.