Secrets of Brining
I have to say that brining is one of the more powerful, and yet under-utilised techniques used in today’s kitchen. Brining and curing used to be common in the olden days for preservation purposes, but with modern day refrigeration, these techniques are now used less for preservative intentions, and more for enhancing flavours and textural purposes.
Not many people embrace brining as a kitchen tool, partly because they do not understand the science and advantages that brining brings, or because it’s just too much trouble and advance planning is needed.
Yes, it’s an extra step in cooking. But I tell you this, it’s all worth it.
That chicken or duck you had for dinner last night had to live in this world for a few months to be food for you. Meat is taken from a life, and is very valuable. What we can do is to accord it the proper respect by cooking it as carefully as possible and in the best possible way.
If brining helps, why not do it?
Secrets of Brining – The Science Behind It
Brine is made up basically of two components, salt and water. Do not belittle this: combined together, they’re real powerful. A third component, sugar should always be added to the brine to negate the harsh effects of the salt. It can be in the form of syrup, molasses, brown sugar, honey, etc…
So what happens when you brine meat?
I’m going to cut right through the chase and tell you the science behind brining.
Brining works on the principles of diffusion, osmosis, and protein denaturing. When you immerse meat in a salt solution of 3% – 6%, the concentration of salt in the brine is higher than the meat. It is always Mother Nature’s law to seek a balance. Therefore, the high concentration of salt from the brine will slowly diffuse into the lower salt-concentrated meat (we know this because brined meat always taste saltier).
Meat is naturally packed with dissolved matter in their cells (think of proteins and amino acids). Now with the additional diffused salt from the brine, it is now packed to the brim and saturated with solutes. As you already know, nature likes to seek equilibrium…
“Wikipedia defines osmosis as the movement of solvent molecules (water) through a semi-permeable membrane (meat cell wall) into a region of higher solute concentration, aiming to equalize the solute concentrations on the two sides.”
What this means is that water from the brine will now move into the meat to try to balance out the higher concentration of solutes there, resulting in meat that contain more water and is juicier. When you cook meat, you will still lose moisture. But that moisture lost is compensated by the water absorbed, so you don’t lose as much.
But is that all to brining? Of course not…
The more important effect of salt is its ability to denature or unfold the proteins of the meat so that it becomes looser and will trap more water from the brine. In addition, the denatured proteins will not contract as much when cooked, resulting in tender meat.
Secrets of Brining – The Contradiction of Salt
You may wonder, “But I thought salt dehydrate meat and draws out the water?”
That’s how we get our smoked salmon, bacon, and all those wonderful cured meat products. How come the opposite happen when meat is brined? It absorbs water and becomes juicier instead.
You see, when salt is sprinkled on meat, together with the meat natural juices, it forms a very concentrated salt solution on the surfaces of the meat. As there are no water surrounding the meat like in a brine, osmosis will work in the other way; pulling moisture out from the meat to try to equalize and dilute the highly concentrated salt solution on the meat surfaces.
The opposite happens in brining. The solutes in the meat are more concentrated than the brining liquid. Therefore water migrates into the meat instead of the other way round.
That’s why I said earlier: salt + water = powerful stuff.
In fact, a short brining time is better than none at all. In cooking, it is the surface of the meat which takes much of the heat. As such, even a short immersion time in a brine, which will work on the surface of meat will help to some degree.
Secrets of Brining – Here’s how we do it
I usually brine only pork and poultry. Beef and lamb contain lots of natural fats, and as such, I don’t find it necessary to brine them. But it’s all a matter of choice.
My favourite ratio for brining is a 5% salt solution. This means for every litre of liquid, I will add 50 grams of salt. In addition, I will add 2.5% sugar into the brine solution so that the salt will not taste so harsh.
My tip for you is to weigh your ingredients. A cup of table salt is different from a cup of kosher salt as the shapes of the salt crystals are different in sizes. I only use cheap table salt in a brine, no point using expensive fleur de sel when you are going to discard the brine after use.
You can add aromatic vegetables, citrus, herbs or spices into the brine to give it that extra oomph. Water can also be replaced partly with beer, wine, juices, vinegars, or whatever you think will work. As I said before, the kitchen is your playground.
Here is a table to brine timings. Brining is a powerful weapon to have in your kitchen arsenal. Having said that, use this technique with restraint. If you’re new to this technique, it is always better to under-brine than to over-brine. Otherwise, you’ll end up with meat that is too salty. You can slowly re-adjust the timings when you’re more experience with the brining technique.
Here are a few pointers to take note in brining:
- Always use cold brine and keep the meat cold in the refrigerator. You don’t want to have bacteria feasting on the meat.
- Ensure the meat is completely submerged in the brine. Use something to weigh it down if necessary. Using a taller than wider container will require less liquid.
- Use a non-corrosive container. A plastic or stainless steel container will work just fine.
- Rest the meat in the refrigerator after brining. This is to let the salt diffuse throughout the meat so that it will be evenly seasoned.
Just in case you were busy, forgotten about it, and your meat ended up too salty, you can soak it in water to let some of the salt diffuse out. Or you can just simply braise the meat without additional seasoning.
With this essay on “Secrets of Brining”, I hope that you will give it a try, and include this powerful technique into your repertoire.