with Mike Johnston
boiled brine brine brining cold brine seeds seedtoseed
Brining = Juicy and Tender Protein. The process of brining adds flavor that can be tasted not just on the exterior but throughout the interior of the protein.
When you think about brining, you might think about the 24 hours it takes to brine a turkey. You might think that while it may be worth it, brining is something you’ll only do for special occasions. It’s true, brining a turkey takes a long time; but only because turkeys are big birds and simply need more time for the process to work.
Brining is not just for turkeys!
No matter how you slice it, brining is an extra step, which means it takes more time. So let’s get the time concern out of the way and hopefully keep you interested in adding this process your everyday cooking.
Drum roll, please….
…and the basic brining time equation is:
1 hour per pound
So, for your weekday meal you’ll need an extra hour or so to make it much more flavorful. If you miss by a few minutes either way you’ll be just fine, but for those of you out there who think, “If a little brining is good then a lot of brining must be better,” that’s not really how it works. If you go too much longer than the 1 hour per pound method you risk the protein becoming too salty and over seasoned.
Before we get to the science of how brining works, let’s talk about why you should make the time for this extra step. For me it’s simple—brining makes the food I cook the taste much better, which gets me more compliments, which feeds my ego, which makes me want to cook more. If vanity doesn’t drive you (or even if it does) the real reason you should brine is simple…
Brining = Juicy and Tender Protein
The process of brining also has an added bonus of flavor that can be tasted not just on the exterior but throughout the interior of the protein.
Do you want to "grill to kill" or "grill to thrill"?
If you are 40 or older, you may remember when you were a kid and your parents would “grill to kill.” The dang steak was already dead and they’d cook it until it was dead, dead…you know what I mean? It may have been a good thing for 1970s sauce makers since you needed to saturate that hockey puck of a protein just to get some faux juiciness. Nowadays, most would agree that the perfect steak is cooked between rare and medium-well then rested for about 10 minutes so the meat retains that juiciness. Today, we “grill to thrill.” We have learned that, with a little patience, we can maximize the tenderness and juiciness that is a determining factor of truly great food. So we are 35 years, at best, evolved past cooking meat like a darn caveman. A little shocking when you think about it.
Grill to thrill, not to kill!
Why did it take us so long to make these changes to our cooking? The answer is obvious—science. Early scientists didn’t give much attention to the food cooking process because they had more important things to figure out. But, somewhere along the way, they realized that if you mix a little diffusion with a little osmosis you can beat back the drying effect that heat has on food.
Diffusion: This is basically a particle transfer. When you place a protein into salty water (the brine), the water contains much more salt than the protein does. So to create balance and to equalize the brine and protein, the salt gets absorbed by the protein— not just on the exterior but throughout. That absorption process is why we also add spices to flavor a brine.
Osmosis: This is when a liquid travels from an area that has more liquid to another that has less, through a membrane. A brine is almost all liquid and protein isn’t, so the liquid from the brine travels through and into the protein’s cells, hydrating them and resulting in a juicier protein!
Science? Check! Well, almost. What keeps the liquid in while you’re cooking the protein? That would be capillary action.
Capillary Action: This is the manifestation of surface tension. When the salt travels into the protein it makes some of the molecules loosen up. So when you cook the protein, those loose molecules interact and create a shield that traps the liquid in.
So there you have it…
(Diffusion + Osmosis) + Capillary Action + Heat = Juicy Protein
Recipes for Success
As with most things, there is more than one way to create a brine. In fact, with the involvement of spices and various liquid options, the possibilities are pretty much endless. That said, there are two basic types of brines you can create: cold brine or boiled brine. I prefer the boiled because it can involve the use of spices. But, first things first, let’s deal with what you are going to need whether you use the cold or boiling method.
Here are the basic brining items you’ll need, along with some recipe calculations to keep in mind:
Container: A non-reactive container (like glass, stainless steel, or a brining bag) large enough to hold the protein and the liquid needed to brine, but small enough that you can refrigerate it to keep the brine and protein cold.
Liquid: Fully submerging the protein in the brine is important, so the shape and size of your container will determine how much liquid you need, Plan on about a pint of liquid per pound of protein. Additionally, water should be the predominate liquid. If you choose to add another liquid for flavoring (like beer or broth), I recommend replacing less than a quarter of the water with the flavored liquid.
Salt: Two types of salt will work: kosher salt or table salt. If using kosher salt, add ¼ cup per quart of liquid. If using table salt, add 2 tablespoons per quart. The reason for the measurement difference is the size of the salt crystals. Kosher salt has bigger crystals and isn’t as compressed as table salt, meaning you can get about twice as much table salt by weight into the same sized volume measurement container.
Sugar: This is an optional ingredient and is typically used to balance the saltiness of a brine. Use about 2 tablespoons per quart of liquid. You can decrease that amount if desired, but I wouldn’t recommend using any more or it could make the final cooked protein burn easier and taste too sweet. If you are using a sugar-heavy seasoning (like Platte River Rib Rub, Asian Delight BBQ Rub, or Brown Sugar & Spice Honey Ham Rub) to flavor the brine, you can skip the sugar all together.
Brining Tips & Tricks
Here are a few tips and tricks that apply to either both the cold and boiled brining methods:
- Before you begin brining you need to figure out how much liquid you will need to fully submerge the protein. This will allow you to calculate the amount of salt and sugar needed. To do this, simply place the protein into the container and, using a measuring cup, calculate the amount of liquid it takes to completely submerge your protein. Now that you have that info, you can figure the proper salt and sugar ratios.
- Once you add the protein to the brine, if the protein starts to rise and float on the surface of the liquid, place a plate or something similar on top to weigh it down.
- If you are using pieces of protein, the average weight of the pieces (not the total weight) is used to calculate the brining time. Example: 3 one-pound pieces of protein = 1 hour of brining (not 3 hours). The exception to this rule is pieces weighing 8 ounces or less; those should brine for no more than 30 minutes.
- Whether you use the cold or boiled method for brining, you will need to thoroughly rinse and pat the protein dry after you are finished brining. If crispy skin is desired, let the protein air dry in the refrigerator, uncovered, for about an hour
Cold Brine (brrr!)
A cold brine is the simplest way to brine. However, with this method, you are limited to salt, sugar, and liquids as your flavoring options. (No spices? The horror!)
1) Mix together liquid, salt, and sugar (if using) until salt and sugar are fully dissolved.
2) Add the protein to the brine, making sure that it is fully submerged.
3) Leave the protein in the brine for an hour per pound. Store in the refrigerator, as the brine must be kept cold at all times during the process.
Boiled Brine (with spices of course!)
A boiled brine requires a little more work, but in my opinion well worth it to infuse the protein with additional flavors. Spices—whether they’re whole, ground, dried herbs, or even one of our signature seasonings—need the heat from the boiled liquid to release their flavor and truly impact the tastiness of the cooked protein. You'll need about 1 tablespoon of seasoning per quart of brining liquid.
1) In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, dissolve the salt and sugar (if using) into 1½ cups of the liquid. When dissolved, add the spices and/or flavorings and bring to a full boil for 1 to 2 minutes. Tip: There is no need to boil all the brine liquid because you can fully dissolve the salt and sugar and extract the flavor out of any seasonings in 1½ cups of liquid.
2) Allow boiled brine to cool completely to room temperature. Tip: You can speed up the cooling process by adding ice cubes or the rest of your liquid (chilled) to the boiled brine.
3) Add cooled, seasoned bring liquid to the remaining brine liquid you measured out. Add the protein, making sure that it is fully submerged. Leave the protein in the brine for about 1 hour per pound. Store in the refrigerator, as the brine must be kept cold at all times during the process.
4) Remove protein from brine, discard brining liquid, and prepare for whatever cooking method you plan to use.
Flavoring a Brine
Think of brining like a blank canvas—the possibilities are endless in terms of the flavor combinations. Any and all spices and seasonings are in play, but I think whole spices (like seeds, chiles, cinnamon chips or sticks, peppercorns, etc.) work best. Our own Citrus & Savory Brining Spices feature aromatic garlic and bay leaves, the citrus flavors of coriander, lemon, orange, and lemon verbena, as well as sweet allspice and sharp peppercorns. It's a great all-purpose blend for brining turkey, chicken, pork, or shrimp. If you want to branch out a bit, however, we've come up with five flavor profiles for brining spices you can easily make yourself to take your brine in a different direction. Fresh aromatic ingredients, like shallots, onions, garlic, and herbs, are options as well. When it comes to liquids, apple or citrus juices, beer or wine, and even vinegars can be particularly impactful.
There are endless flavor combinations for a brine!
To brine or not to brine?
It might be easier to mention the items that don’t benefit from brining than to list all of the proteins that do. Fattier meats like beef and lamb are usually cooked to lower finished temperatures, keeping them juicy and tender. Gamey birds, like duck, squab, and goose, also contain more fat so they don’t really benefit from brining. Just about all other proteins can benefit from brining, including some shellfish and even tofu. Brining vegetables is even an option for adding flavor throughout.
Does brining replace marinating?
On the surface, the answer is no. Marinating tenderizes and adds flavor to the surface of the protein (not to the interior like brining does). And marinating really doesn’t do anything to increase the protein’s juiciness.
That said, I generally find that if I brine first I can significantly decrease my marinating time or even eliminate it altogether and use a dry rub to flavor the exterior of the protein. For example, when I’m making chicken I typically marinate it for 6 to 8 hours. But when I brine the chicken first, I can then marinate for just 1 to 2 hours and achieve juicier results than marinating alone. Because I generally use chicken pieces rather than a whole bird, the brining only takes 30 minutes. So I can brine for 30, marinate for 60, and cook in 30. This approach produces a better, more flavorful and juicy chicken in a quarter of the recommended marinating time! So while brining doesn’t replace marinating, using a combination of techniques can actually be even faster.
That’s a lot of info for a Brining 101!
But in the time it took you to read this you could be well on your way to having your brine completed. I hope you give it a try. I definitely think you’ll be pleased and realize that it’s worth the little bit of extra effort.