Putting meat into a salt-water solution or brine is an age-old method of preserving and flavouring food. Feta and halloumi cheeses are both aged in brine for flavour and pork is cured in brine to make bacon and ham were the salts inhibit bacterial spoiling and flavours the meat. Brining is increasingly popular with professional chefs to help chicken, other poultry and pork stay juicy and moist during cooking and is used a lot in American home cooking especially preparing meat for barbecuing and grilling. There are slight risks in home curing but using the brine to add flavour and moisture and not preserve the meat is perfectly safe.
Using a brine is simple, economical and tasty. Just follow the steps below and remember the following, you don’t have to salt brined meat before cooking. Once brined, pork and chicken cooks faster so be careful and use a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat, check the temperature and do not overcook. Brining any meat will add a significant amount of liquid to it before cooking, you can actually increase the total weight of a cut of pork by 15% or more.Therefore the amount of water that remains in a piece of meat during cooking can increase greatly and the resulting cuts and joints will be juicier and tenderer.
The Science Bit
The process by which additional moisture, salt ( and flavourings ) are added to the meat is called osmosis.Osmosis happens under laboratory conditions when water flows from a lower concentration of a solution to a higher concentration through a semipermeable membrane. In your piece of meat, this is the membrane that surrounds the individual pork or chicken cells. When the meat is placed in a brine solution, the fluids in each meat cell are less concentrated than the salt water in the brining solution. Water flows out of the cells in the meat and salt is absorbed. The salt then dissolves some of the fiber proteins, and the meat cell fluids become more concentrated. Water is now absorbed back into the cell. Brining adds salt and water to the cells so that when the meat is cooked and water is squeezed out, there is still water left in the cells because more water was added before the cooking process.
Preparing the Brine
You can use sea salt and some people believe the mineral content is beneficial to the end flavour, it is however expensive. Americans use Kosher salt which is also used in manufacturing and commercial meat processing and has a large flat crystal shape. For our basic brine recipe table salt, preferable without iodine, is absolutely fine. We want to achieve a five percent solution, sea water, by comparison, is around 3.5% and to do this we need to add 50g of salt per litre of water. The solution should be salty to the taste but not thick with salt. If you follow this ratio you have an ideal brine for pork and chicken, as you experiment you can find further information on different strengths of brine to use but be careful, too much salt or leaving the meat in the brine for too long will leave you with salty meat.
Dissolve the salt thoroughly in potable freshly boiling hot water and leave to totally cool. For the amount of brine, you will need, consider the size of the container you are going to use and the size of the meat you want to brine. A brine solution should be enough to completely submerge the meat you want to brine. For larger quantities of brine dissolve the salt in a third of the water then when cool add it to the remaining amount of cold water.
You can add a variety of flavors such as herbs and spices, sugars, beers, wines, fruit, and vegetables. Experiment with flavour combinations they are almost infinite. The most basic are sugars, some sweetness tends to offset a saltiness the brine might otherwise impart to the meat and is a popular flavouring, think of Black Forest hams and sticky barbecue ribs.
Add approximately 20g per litre of brine to give a sweet base flavour and to encourage browning during cooking. You can use cane sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses and maple syrup as sweeteners.
Additional flavours should not overpower the meat but add subtle notes to the cooked result. Vegetables such as onions, celery, carrots, and garlic should be chopped to increase the amount of surface area of the vegetables in use in the brine solution. You can replace some of the water with apple juice, cider, orange juice, beer, wine, rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and tea. Both pork and chicken are ideal partners with Oriental flavorings such as Mirin or Japanese rice wine and soy sauce, use a little less salt if you substitute a large amount of soy sauce as it is quite a salty condiment. Finally consider ginger, fresh herbs, juniper berries, cloves, cinnamon stick, vanilla bean, mustard seed, coriander seed, star anise, hot pepper flakes or Sichuan peppercorns.
How to Brine
When your prepared brine is cold you can brine your pork or chicken. This needs to be done in an inert glass, stainless steel or plastic container. You can also purchase heavy duty bags specifically for the purpose, including turkey size from American online food equipment suppliers. Make sure the container is thoroughly cleaned in very hot soapy water before use. Fill with your brine solution, immerse your meat and weigh it down with a clean heavy plate to make sure no chicken or pork is exposed to the air and cover the container. Place in the bottom of your refrigerator. Refrigeration is absolutely required during brining. The meat and brine solution must be kept below 40 degrees F. at all times. Warning a container large enough to hold a whole turkey might be too big for your fridge and you may have to ask a friendly butcher to brine it for you.
When it comes to the amount of time you want to brine something it is more important not to brine too long than not long enough. While some cuts of meat can use days in a brine, even a relatively small amount of time can be helpful. The size, cut and grain will also affect the time required for immersion.
Pork Chops (1 inch to 1½ inch thick) 12 to 24 hours
Whole Pork Loin 2 to 4 days
Whole Pork Tenderloin 6 to 12 hours
Whole Chicken ( 4 pounds ) 4 to 12 hours
Chicken Pieces ( thighs and drumsticks ) 1 to 2 hours
Whole Turkey ( 12 pounds ) 1 to 2 days
Cooking the Meat
Remove the chicken or pork from the brine and dispose of the used brine. Rinse twice after removing it from the solution and pat dry on kitchen paper. If you are not ready to cook at the end of the brining time, remove from brine, rinse the meat and refrigerate until ready to use. Do not salt brined meat before cooking. Cook according to your favorite recipe adjusting the cooking time as the meat may cook a little quicker and brown faster if you use a sweetened brine.