Brining Meat - How Does Brine Make My Meat So Moist?
Brining meat is a simple and classic cooking technique which is very good to know for the preparation of certain meats that tend to dry out. The purpose of brining meat is to impart moisture and cause a chemical change that will both tenderize the meat and make it less likely to lose moisture during longer dry-cooking methods such as grilling and roasting.
Around the holiday season people are often looking for good ways to prepare turkey without it becoming too dry. It seems that a bird as big as a turkey is impossible for many to cook without it becoming as dry as the Sahara, at least that's how some of my relatives cook it. Also, if your goal is to barbecue pork using the traditional low and slow methods; cooking long hours at low heat, then brining your meat is going to result in a much better and tastier product.
While brining meat is similar to marinading they are not the same thing. The goal of marinading is to add flavor while brining adds moisture, but flavors can be added to the brine mixture to “kick it up a notch” as Emeril Lagasse would say.
So, in effect, brining will take the place of marinading if your cooking method calls for longer cook times with dry heat methods, or in the event that you are using high heat methods such as grilling and roasting. Let's first explore what happens during the brining process.
Brining Meat – How it Works
There are two different processes at work when you brine meat: osmosis and diffusion. Now think back to chemistry class; do you remember what these are? Diffusion is a law that says molecules of a greater concentration flow to areas of lower concentration until an equilibrium is reached. Osmosis is the net movement of water across a selectively permeable membrane driven by a difference in solute concentrations on the two sides of the membrane. A selectively permeable membrane is one that allows the unrestricted passage of water, but not solute molecules or ions.
What that means in English is that, by virtue of diffusion, water moves through the cells of the meat via osmosis during the brining process, and salt and sugar molecules are carried with it into the meat.
So, you have a piece of meat or a turkey you are going to brine. You will mix up a specific ratio of water and salt and sugar, adding spices or seasonings if you like, and you will soak your meat in this brine solution. The concentration of the salt and sugar molecules outside of the meat is greater than inside, so the law of diffusion forces this to be equalized through the semi-permeable membrane that is the cellular walls of the meat. As water diffuses into the meat it carries with it molecules of salt and sugar. This is very important to the brining process, and just soaking the meat in water will effectively do nothing. It is the salt and sugar causing the osmotic pressure that drives the whole process.
When the salt moves into the cells it causes the protein strings within the cells to unravel in a process called denaturing. You can imagine the protein strands are balls of yarn, and the denaturing simply uncoils them. This unraveling is a good thing, because now your unraveled yarn can interact with other uncoiled balls of yarn and get tangled up with them. This, in effect, forms a matrix of sorts that retains the water. Aha! Now I see the lightbulb! When the meat is cooked the proteins lose flexibility as they solidify, and the moisture isn't allowed to escape which results in juicy turkey or pork.
Before we move on, there are meats which will not likely benefit from the process of brining. Most fatty meats such as beef, lamb, and duck are not good candidates. Conversely, many kinds of fish and other seafood, especially shrimp, can benefit from brining. The process will actually firm up shrimp, and make them much better candidates for grilling. You should keep in mind, though, that this is a technique better reserved, in most cases, for cooking methods that take longer and impart no moisture.
How to Brine Meat
Before you start, you will want to have some basics:
- Salt – preferably Kosher for its courseness, but if table salt is used we will just use slightly less.
- Sugar – refined white is fine, but brown sugar is perfect for pork to barbecue.
- A vessel or ziplock bag large enough for your meat or bird. A note – do not use anything reactive such as aluminum. Glass, plastic, or stainless steel is best.
- Room in the refrigerator or a cooler with some icepacks. Ideal brining temperature is near 40F.
The basic recipe calls for 1 quart of brine per pound of food, but not more than two gallons total. For each quart of water, you will add ½ cup of sugar and ½ cup of Kosher salt. If you are using table salt, you should use ¼ cup plus an extra tablespoon or two. Add your dry ingredients to cold water and stir until dissolved completely.
If your method of cooking calls for high heat, you may want to drop the ratio slightly to 2 tablespoons of sugar and use a similar amount of table salt (¼ cup Kosher) to balance things out. This is primarily to prevent the sugar from burning on the surface during cooking.
If there are any flavorings you wish to add, now is the time. Herbs such as rosemary and bay leaves are perfect as are various spices, and the process of osmosis will carry them into the meat during the brining. Other popular additions are aromatics such as onion and garlic.
Your meat will need to soak in the brine solution for approximately 1 hour per pound, but not more than 8 total hours or less than 30 minutes per pound. This time estimate is made for one whole piece of meat, so multiple smaller pieces of meat will take less time, even if their overall combined weight is more.
For example, sliced pork chops weighing 3 pounds total would not require the same amount of time as a 3 pound pork shoulder. There are exceptions to these time scales with regard to cuts of meat that weigh more than 10 pounds such as a whole turkey or larger cuts of pork. A whole turkey should go about 24 hours and pork loin or butt would be from 12 – 24 hours.
During soaking you will need to make sure that you keep the meat cold. If there is not room in a refrigerator, then you will need a cooler or some other way of keeping the whole apparatus below 40F. The food safety danger zone is between 40F and 140F. In between those numbers bacteria can cause you some problems, so please be safe...especially with poultry!
Upon removing from the brine, you will want to rinse the meat well. This can be accomplished under running tap water with little effort, even a large turkey, especially if your sink has a sprayer. Just be sure you rinse all of the brine off the meat to prevent it from tasting too salty. If you like crisp skin you may want to dry off any poultry parts. Use paper towels to pat dry, and then hold in the refrigerator for a few hours until the skin is not soaking wet. You should see it looking a little “tighter”.
Cook your meat however you wish, and the result should be much juicier turkey or moist barbecue. Enjoy!
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