To Brine or Not to Brine
To Brine Or Not To Brine, that is the question, is it not!! If you’re like most people, you have likely heard of brining – particularly when it comes to Thanksgiving turkeys, although many of you may not have tried it yet. More and more people are starting to brine their Thanksgiving turkey, and with good reason.
If you have ever even slightly overcooked a turkey, chicken breasts, or pork tenderloins, you’ll know that these lean meats can go from juicy to dry very quickly. Fortunately, you can prevent lean meats from drying out by adding moisture before you cook – a process known as brining.
What is brine?
Brine is simply a saltwater mixture that you soak the meat in before cooking. How much salt depends on what meat you are using and what kind of salt you’re using in your brine. If you are using table salt, you need less. If you are using a coarse salt like Kosher salt you will definitely need more.
You can add sugar or herbs and spices to your brine but the recipe at its most basic is simply salt and water. A basic brine ratio is a cup of salt to a gallon of water or 4 Tbsp of salt to 4 cups of water.
You can also dry-brine your proteins; this is usually done with beef or pork rather than poultry although you can use this method for chicken or turkey as well. I would not recommend the dry method for duck or goose as the fat layer would block the benefits.
Again you would start with a salt base. The rule of thumb is 1/2 tsp. of Kosher salt per pound of trimmed meat. From there, the sky is the limit for herbs and spices you can add. Herbs like thyme (if you have the time!) and rosemary work well. Spices like pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne, and even some pickling spice can work!
How do you Brine?
You need a container that will easily fit the meat you’re trying to brine. For your pork chops or some chicken breasts, a pot will work well; a whole turkey will require a bigger container. Some people swear by zipper closure bags for brining, but any food-safe container will work.
If you have a very large turkey, a couple of chickens, or very large pork roast you can use a picnic cooler. Make sure that you rinse it out well, line it with a large plastic bag, and place your meat in the cooler. If your cooler is too large to fit in your fridge you can simply add ice to liquid to keep it cool. It is your perfect homemade tank for large pieces of meat!
Put enough water into the container to easily cover the meat. Dissolve the salt (and sugar, herbs, and spices if you wish to add them) in the water. Although you can use room temperature water to help the salt dissolve I heat it to help the process along. I will even add other liquids like maple syrup or soy sauce for additional flavor!
Once the salt has dissolved I add ice to the mixture to cool it to refrigerator temperature. Never use warm or hot water without cooling it before putting your meat in it – you don’t want to partially cook the meat while it’s brining.
Cover, and let it sit for the recommended amount of time (there are lots of brining charts online that you can use – but a general rule of thumb is no more than an hour per pound of meat). Remove and dry off the meat then cook however you prefer. I like to smoke the meat as there are lots of recipes for your smoker when you brine your protein.
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU BRINE TOO LONG?
Brining helps your meat retain moisture while cooking and helps tenderize the meat at the same time. The salt helps break down some of the muscle fibers and proteins in the meat.
This is why it’s recommended to brine only lean meats (like pork, chicken, turkey, and some seafood). You should not brine meats such as lamb or beef as they have more fat in them so they are more tender and juicy when cooked. Keep in mind that this method will not decrease the cooking times of your proteins.
If you leave your meat in the brine solution for too long, you will end up with mush. This is because the salt will keep breaking down the muscle fibers and proteins and that is what gives the meat its shape. Typically you can brine chicken breasts and pork chops for an hour, while whole turkeys can be brined for 12-18 hours depending on their size.
The spices shown below are just an example of the kinds of flavors that you can add. Whether you are using the wet or the dry method, play around with the flavors until you find something that you like. I love when Julia Child said, “Have the courage of your convictions!” So try something new and trust yourself!
This method of preparing your proteins for cooking is recommended for any lean meat that you are going to cook. You can even cook it low and slow in your smoker; it will add an entirely new level of flavor!
If you’re planning to poach the meat, you don’t need to brine it first. Once you start to prepare you poultry, pork, and seafood this way you may never go back to plain old cooking again! It’s great for the barbecue too – your guests won’t believe how juicy and full of flavor your chicken breasts are!