Brining Basics: To Brine or Not to Brine?
Cooks extol the virtue of brining. They tell us it yields more tender, more moist, more flavorful meat. They swear by the method—soak a piece of meat in a salt solution and allow the magic to work. If you ever wonder about it, here’s the basics of brining and more. I’m actually going to experiment with it, right here. It may be one person’s experiment but, hey, at least, it’s unbiased.
In line with the whole idea of brining, I’ve read done some research and here are some basics to maul over before the process. They say success favors the informed, so there.
What is Brining?
Brining is like marinating, except that where marinade serves to infuse the meat with flavor, brining serves to put moisture into the meat. Of course, you can also add flavor but that’s secondary. Moist, juicy, succulent is the whole idea.
A brine is a solution made of salt and water. Usually, it’s one cup of salt to one gallon of water. Now, that’s the general rule but cooks have found ways to play it up or down, depending on dietary needs. Table salt or kosher? Food experts prefer kosher salt and if you must use table salt, make it iodine free. Because one cup of table salt weighs about 10 ounces and one cup of kosher salt weighs about 5 to 6 ounces, you may have to use more kosher salt. Recommended: If you use Diamond kosher salt, use about 2 cups of salt to one gallon of water and if you use Morton kosher’s salt, use about 1- 1/3 to 1-1/2 cups of salt.
It’s pretty scientific if you ask Alton Brown, but let’s not get too technical. However, there’s a good reason for people to use brining. Salt breaks down protein bonds in the muscle fibers and create space for water to move in. The extra moisture gained in the brining process will ensure less water loss when cooked.
A Few Key Points to Remember As You Brine
- The solution should be cold. If you need warm water to dissolve the salt and sugar, be sure to chill it before dropping in the meat. Or add ice cubes to lower temperature or use cold water (you just have to stir more to dissolve solids).
- You can make the flavor more interesting by adding a variety of herbs, spices or switching up the liquid. Give yourself permission to play with flavors. Replace all the liquid or part of it with some of these suggestions: apple cider, beer, wine, tea, stock, rice wine or soda. If you prefer sweetness in the meat, add ½ cup sugar to 2 quarts of water. It also promotes browning when you cook the meat.
- How much brining solution to make depends on the amount of meat used. Make enough to completely cover meat.
- How about time? That depends on the size of the meat. Delicate meat like fish and shrimp require less brining time. (Refer to chart below for an idea of brining time).
- Pat meat dry after brining before cooking. You can choose to grill, bake or pan-fry.
- 2 cups cold water
- 1/3 cup white wine
- 3 tbs kosher salt
- 3 tbs brown sugar, (Or coconut palm sugar)
- 3 tbs fish sauce
- 1 stalk lemon grass, (thinly sliced)
- 4 or 5 leaves of Kaffir leaves, (bruised to release flavor)
- 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, (smashed)
- 4 to 5 pods chili pepper, (optional)
- 1/2 lemon, (squeeze the juice)
- Put cold water in a big bowl.
- Add Kosher salt and brown sugar and stir until dissolved.
- Add fish sauce, lemon juice, white wine. Grate the rind of kaffir lime for added flavor (optional).
- Toss in the rest of the ingredients.
- Put chicken breasts into the brine solution. Make sure it's totally covered.
- Refrigerate for about 2 hours
- When it's ready, pat the chicken breasts dry. In this recipe, I pan-fry it over medium heat for about 10 minutes on each side (or until done).
Basic Ingredients for Thai-Brine Chicken
When making the brine, it's best to use a non-reactive bowl. Alternatively, place meat in a ziplock-bag and then pour the brine solution into the bag. Place bag into a bowl or pot to catch any leak.
When the brining is done, you may choose the cook the meat any way you like. Bake, grill, smoke or pan-fry, the choice is yours. I decided to pan-fry the chicken breasts.
Pan-frying the Chicken
The meat is done and I let it sit for about 10 minutes before slicing them up. It makes for easier cutting.
Basic Brining Technique
Brining versus dry rub
So, how did my little experiment go? Granted that this is my first attempt at brining, I did find it hard to believe how much salt I had to use. I was surprised that the meat didn't turn out as salty as I thought it would be.
Is it moist and juicy? Yes, to a certain extent. The meat is tender and tasty. However, I think I can achieve the same effect with regular marinating. With regular marinating, the process is easier- I simply season the chicken breasts and bake and the meat is actually more flavorful with the marinating option.
But that's my take. If I attempt brining on a whole bird, it may be different.
If you're feeling adventurous and would like to try it, here's a basic brine to begin with:
- 1/4 cup Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 4 cups of cold water.
Dissolve kosher salt and sugar in the cold water.
Want to play it up a bit?
- Try fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary, basil, lemon grass, oregano. and garlic, among others.
- Spices such as chili peppers, pepper, Sichuan peppers, cinnamon sticks, allspice, cardamon. mustard seed.
- Liquids such as apple juice, orange juice, beer, wine, rice vinegar, apple cider, soda. Use it to replace part or all of the liquid in the recipe for added flavor.
2 cups salt /1 gallon water
12 to 24 hours
1/2 cup salt/ 1 quart water
Large whole chicken
1 cup salt/ 2 quarts water
3 to 4 hours
1/2 cup salt/1 quart water
shrimp (1/2 pound)
1/2 cup salt/1 pint water
1/2 cup salt/ 1 pint water
|Serving size: 1/2 chicken breast|
|Calories from Fat||27|
|% Daily Value *|
|Fat 3 g||5%|
|Saturated fat 0 g|
|Sugar 4 g|
|Fiber 0 g|
|Protein 28 g||56%|
|Cholesterol 74 mg||25%|
|Sodium 99 mg||4%|
|* The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so your values may change depending on your calorie needs. The values here may not be 100% accurate because the recipes have not been professionally evaluated nor have they been evaluated by the U.S. FDA.|
As you can see brining is one way to make meat moist and juicy. The process can be fun as you play with different ingredients to produce desired flavor. And once you made the brine solution, you can simply allow the brine to do work.
For more brining recipes: