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Brining is a popular method for improving the flavor and moisture content of lean meats like chicken, turkey, pork and seafood.

Introducing Flavor Brining:

 brining01.jpgIn recent years, there has been a surge in popularity of "flavor brining", a term coined by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly in the book The Complete Meat Cookbook.

While traditional brining was meant to preserve meat, the purpose of flavor brining is to improve the flavor, texture, and moisture content of lean cuts of meat. This is achieved by soaking the meat in a moderately salty solution for a few hours to a few days. Flavor brining also provides a temperature cushion during cooking—if you happen to overcook the meat a little, it will still be moist.

brining03.jpgIt's important to point out that not everyone likes the effects of brining on meat. Some people don't like the texture that results, while others complain about the flavor, saying that it makes everything taste like ham (especially if sodium nitrite or Morton Tender Quick has been added to the solution) or that the meat tastes too salty. You'll have to judge the results for yourself.

How Brining Works:

There is general agreement among food scientists that the processes of diffusion and osmosis are involved in achieving equilibrium between the flavor brine solution and the meat—in other words, that these processes attempt to balance the difference between the amount of water, salt, and flavorings in the flavor brine solution and the amount of water and dissolved substances inside the meat cells. However, opinions differ as to the mechanics of this balancing act.

The most commonly offered explanation is that the flavor brine solution contains a higher concentration of water and salt than the meat, so the solution passes into the meat cells through their semi-permeable membranes, adding water and flavor to the inside of the meat cells. Other experts state the opposite situation, but with the same end result: That meat cells contain a higher concentration of water and dissolved solids than the flavor brine solution, so the solution passes into the meat cells through their semi-permeable membranes, again adding water and flavor to the inside of the meat cells.

Meats That Benefit From Brining:

Lean cuts of meat with mild flavor tend to benefit most from flavor brining. The usual suspects include:

  • Chicken: whole, butterflied, or pieces
  • Cornish Hens: whole or butterflied
  • Turkey: whole, butterflied, or pieces
  • Pork: chops, loin, tenderloin, fresh ham
  • Seafood: salmon, trout, shrimp

brining04.jpgPoultry is probably the most commonly flavor brined meat because it is naturally lean and gets quite dry if overcooked. Lean cuts of pork are also good candidates for the same reasons as poultry, except that in the case of pork, much of the fat (and thus flavor) has been intentionally bred out of the animal by an industry intent on providing meat that appeals to health-conscious consumers.

Beef, lamb, duck, and other meats with high fat content and bold flavors do not benefit from brining—they're naturally moist and flavorful. They also tend to be cooked to lower internal temperatures and thus don't lose as much of their natural moisture.

Which Salt To Use:

koshersalt.jpgKosher salt and table salt are the most common salts used in flavor brining. I use kosher salt most of the time because it dissolves quickly and it's what most professional cooks use in their kitchens, but I also use table salt on occasion. Sea salt can be used for flavor brining, but it tends to be quite expensive.

Salt Equivalent Measures:

Table salt and kosher salt do not have the same saltiness in a flavor brine when measured by volume—but they do when measured by weight.

Table salt weighs about 10 ounces per cup, while kosher salt weighs 5-8 ounces per cup, depending on the brand. If using kosher salt in a brine, you must use more than a cup to achieve the same salt flavor you would get from a cup of table salt.

How Long To Brine:

The length of time meat soaks in a flavor 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. Here are common brining times found in recipes:

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

It is possible to end up with meat that's too salty for your taste, so you may want to brine on the low end of the time range to see how it turns out. You can always brine longer next time, but there's no way to salvage a piece of meat that's been brined too long.

Brine Should Not Be Reused:

Discard the brine solution after use. The brine will contain proteins, blood, and other stuff from the meat that soaked in it. From a food safety standpoint, it is not advisable to reuse brine, even if it is boiled first.brining05.jpg

To Rinse Or Not To Rinse:

Some recipes suggest that you rinse meat after brining, while others skip this step. Do whatever the recipe calls for. Rinsing is common in recipes with a very high salt concentration or recipes that contain sugar, since sugar can burn on the surface of meat during cooking.

Regardless of whether you rinse or not, make sure to pat the meat dry with paper towels before cooking.

Air-Drying Brined Poultry Skin:

smokedturkey.jpgCooking brined poultry at "low & slow" temperatures of 225-250°F can result in soft and rubbery skin. One solution is to place brined poultry on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet, pat it dry with paper towels, and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator for several hours. This allows some moisture to evaporate from the skin so it browns better. Try 4-6 hours for chicken and 12-24 hours for turkey.

Probably the best way to get better skin on brined poultry is to cook in the 325-350°F range. The higher temperature gets the fat under the skin hot enough so that it browns the skin.

Brined Meat Cooks Faster:

Brined meat tends to cook faster than unbrined meat. Some people believe that the water added to meat through the brining process conducts more heat, resulting in a faster cooking time. The more likely cause, according to Robert L. Wolke in an e-mail to TVWB, is that the denatured meat proteins are partially "cooked" by the brining process, so the heat has less work to do and the meat cooks faster.

So, if you're used to cooking an unbrined chicken or turkey for a certain length of time, start checking the internal temp about 2/3 of the way through the normal cooking time.

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