Monday, December 5, 2011

Brining – Salt, Sugar, and Water, OH MY! Locking in moisture and adding flavor.

We all love tender, juicy pieces of meat.  However, every once and a while we might get a little overzealous on our cook times, or simply forget about our cooking meal while we are enjoying a grill-side beverage with friends.   When this happens we end up with a dry piece of meat. Chicken and pork tend to be unfortunate victims of our wary ways, but there is a solution to this problem….a brining solution. 

If you were to research the science behind brining you would come across words such as diffusion and osmosis.  Words that may, hauntingly, take you back to your high school science class. A simple brine solution is nothing more than a mixture of salt, sugar and water. Without getting too technical, and causing science class nightmares, a simple explanation of how brining works is that the brine solution contains a higher concentration of water and salt than the meat, so the solution passes into the meat cells adding water and flavor to the inside of the meat.  Once inside the meat, the salt causes the cell protein strands to denature, or unravel. Once unraveled, the proteins can now interact, and when heated, the proteins will get tangled together and form a barrier that keeps the water from leaking out when cooked.

In addition to adding and locking in moisture, brines can be used to add flavor as well.  Various ingredients can be added to your brine solution to add flavor to otherwise mildly flavored meats like, chicken, turkey and pork.

Which type of salt you use is a matter of preference.  However, it’s like deciding whether or not to use conventional or synthetic oil in your car.  There are differences and advantages with both.  I personally like to use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.

Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt
Cooks Illustrated in the November/December 2001 issue gave a good explanation of the difference between Kosher Salt and Table Salt.  That issue brought out that kosher salt is more airy and will dissolve easier than table salt.  Also, kosher salt is less salty than table salt.  And, a cup of table salt weighs 10 ounces while a cup of the Diamond Crystal Kosher salt weighs exactly half, 5 ounces, making it half as strong as table salt.

To summarize, kosher salt is less dense than table salt, does not contain any extra items like iodine and anti-caking agents that can affect flavor, and dissolves easier.

Refrigeration Required
When brining you want to keep your solution and meat cold.  You don’t want the brine solution to cook your meat, or bacteria to form from a warm solution.  Either place your meat and brine in the refrigerator, or a cooler.  If using a cooler keep it cool with Ziploc bags with ice or reusable freezer ice packs.

The size of meat you are trying to brine will determine the size of the container you will need.  Ziploc bags, coolers or Tupperware containers can all be used.  Make sure the food is immersed in the brine.  For food items like chicken, pork and fish I like to use Ziploc bags.  

Ziploc Bag


How Long Should I Brine? 
The length of time meat needs to be in a brine depends on the type of meat and its size, as well as the amount of salt used in the brine—the saltier the brine mixture, the shorter the soaking time. Below is a table showing some common brining times.

Whole Chicken
3-8 hrs
Chicken Pieces
1-2 hrs
Whole Turkey
12-48 hrs
Turkey Breast
4-8 hrs
Cornish Game Hens
1-2 hrs
Pork Chops
2-6 hrs
Pork Tenderloin
2-8 hrs
Whole Pork Loin
24-72 hrs
1-2 hrs

3 1/2 Cup - Water
1/4 Cup - Kosher Salt
1/4 Cup - Sugar
1/4 Cup - Red Wine Vinegar

Mix together until salt and sugar are dissolved.

There are many recipes for brines and flavor solutions that can be found.  Experiment and find out what works best for you.  The little extra time in preparing a brine solution and soaking your food will be well worth the effort.

Let me know how your brining works out and if you have any recipes you would like to share. Please feel free to email me at