A few weeks ago, I wrote about “corning” some beef brisket. In this instance, I was flavoring the beef foremost and preserving it to a lesser extent. “Marinating” meat is somewhat different, as most marinades, which are used to add flavor and include acid in the form of vinegar, wine or lemon juice, are of shorter duration, from literally minutes for fish to hours for meats. Marinating not only flavors, but also assists in breaking down tough muscle fibers, tenderizing the meat. “Brining,” wherein salt is included in the liquid, usually water, but no acid, and the meat is immersed for a few hours to a few days, is actually two processes; a short brine to enhance flavor and moisture content of the meat, and a long brine that not only flavors, but also aids in preservation by allowing salt to impregnate the muscle tissue. “Pickling” is a similar process involving anaerobic fermentation in brine, and traditionally produces a sour or salty taste. Pickling is used not only on meats, like tongue, but also vegetables are often preserved by pickling, like our dill cucumber pickles or giardiniera, the Italian relish made of pickled vegetables.
For many years now, chefs have advocated “brining” certain meats for moisture retention and seasoning. We are all familiar with the fact that the breast meat on a turkey will be cooked before the red meat deep in the thigh is done, but by brining the bird for 6 hours or more, it will keep the breast moist and juicy, while allowing the thighs to be thoroughly cooked. How does this happen, and what other meats can benefit by placing them in a salted water solution?
To answer the latter question first, the principal candidates amongst our meats for brining include poultry and pork. Beef and lamb are not candidates for brining as they have more fat within and around their muscle, which aids in keeping the meat moist during cooking. In addition, they are usually cooked from a rare to medium doneness, which prevents them from drying out. Poultry and pork, on the other hand, are cooked to a higher internal temperature, making them susceptible to being dry if overcooked.
By producing a salty brine which includes aromatic vegetables and seasonings, one can not only enhance the protein’s flavor, but also its moisture retaining properties. Two scientific principles are at work here; osmosis and diffusion. Nature supports equilibrium, and when we have a 5% salt solution on the outside and a minimal salt concentration inside, the law of diffusion states that the area of greater concentration (the brine) will flow to the area of lesser concentration (the protein cells). Osmosis is the physical process that abets diffusion, by allowing molecules to pass through a semi-permeable membrane. Thus not only the salt and flavor from the aromatics enter the muscle cells, but moisture does also. The salt in the solution denatures the proteins, allowing them to form a matrix that traps the water inside the cells. Thus the meat is prevented from becoming dehydrated, and it stays moist and juicy.
Try brining you next chicken or pork chops and you’ll love the results.
1/4 Cup plus 2 Tbl honey
12 Bay leaves
3 Rosemary sprigs
1/2 oz fresh thyme
2 oz flat leaf parsley
1/2 cup garlic cloves, crushed, with skin left on
2 Tbl black peppercorns
5 oz kosher salt
8 cups water
This amount of brine is good for up to 4 lbs of pork. Feel free to substitute other herds or aromatics, as you please.
Combine all the ingredients in a large pot, cover and bring to a boil. Boil 1 minutes, stirring to dissolve all the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely, then chill before using. You can keep it in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Place your pork in a plastic bag and pour the brine over it. Place in the fridge and brine for 10 hours or overnight. Remove the pork and proceed with your recipe.
Enough for up to 10 lbs chicken
5 lemons, halved
24 bay leaves
4 oz. flat leaf parsley
1 oz fresh thyme
1/2 cup honey
1 head garlic, halved through the equator
1/4 cup black peppercorns
10 oz kosher salt (c. 2 cups)
2 gallons water
Combine all the ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Boil 1 minutes, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely, then chill before using.
Add the chicken in either a brining container or a large plastic bag. Pour the brine over the chicken to cover and place in the fridge for 6 to 10 hours, before using. Dry the chicken thoroughly and proceed with your recipe.