Are you sick and tired of dry, flavorless chicken breasts? How about pork chops that taste and feel like you're chewing on a penny loafer? Well, if that's the case (and even if it isn't) you will want to explore the fantastic world of brining! Long ago, before the advent of refrigeration or ice boxes, our culinary forefathers needed a way to preserve their foods. Historically, large amounts of salt were applied to meats and poultry to keep them free of bacteria and edible for longer periods of time. This process is known as curing. When it came time to cook, the food was typically rinsed and used as it normally would be. The resulting foods were usually a bit salty, but extremely tender and juicy. Although we don't really need the preservative aspects of curing as much as we once did, we can still get the residual benefits of juicy tender meats by brining.
I'm sure at first glance, you're thinking, "Isn't my food going to taste more like a salt lick than a chicken breast?" The answer is "No!!" If done correctly, brining can turn even the worst cut of pork or poultry into a succulent slice of heaven. Since livestock has gotten increasingly leaner over the past 50 years or so, with breeding practices eliminating fat specifically in poultry and pork, our foods have gotten more and more bland. While the pork and poultry may be "healthier" now, all of the fat (flavor) that gets infused into the flesh while cooking has been reduced. Brining helps to return some of that flavor, while increasing the moisture level within the meats. Since the meat has a higher moisture level, it takes less time to cook and is more forgiving if overcooked. The very issue of fat is the reason why beef, lamb and duck will not benefit from brining. Lamb and beef have a much higher fat content than pork, much like fattier birds like duck and game fowl, making them naturally more flavorful.
Before we begin, it's a good idea to know exactly what we're doing. Strictly speaking, there are 2 chemical processes at work when you brine something -- osmosis and protein breakdown.
- Osmosis occurs when a liquid (water) passes through a partially permeable membrane (surface of the food), from a solution with higher concentrations of solute (salt) to a solution with lower concentrations. Basically, imagine that you have a balloon full of lightly salted water and you put it into a bucket full of heavily salted water. The saltwater outside the balloon will try its best to get inside the balloon and equalize the salt content. The same thing happens when we brine. The salt water already inside the meat draws the salted and seasoned water into the food. This allows us to season not only the surface of the food, but the inside as well!
- Protein breakdown occurs as a result of osmosis. When the saltwater is drawn into the flesh of the meat, the proteins that make up the food begin to break down. The bonds that hold these proteins together are very sensitive to changes in salinity, causing them to deteriorate. Not only does this make the meat tenderer, but also it allows the flavorings in the brine to permeate all of the food. When we add things like sugars and spices to the brine, they are able to piggyback on the salt and enter the meat as well!
So, now that we know what we're doing, let's get brining!! The first thing we want to do is prepare the brine. For me, there are 2 types of brines -- a big brine and a little brine. The first is for large things like whole turkeys and chickens, large cuts of pork to be smoked, and whole turkey breasts. The little brine can be used for about 3 or 4 whole chicken breasts, chicken parts, pork chops or a pork tenderloin.
- 1 cup sugar (white or brown)
- 1 cup kosher salt (not iodized table salt)
- 1 gallon cold water (16 cups or 128 ounces)
- 8 lbs. ice
- Flavorings of your choice (discussed below)
- Find yourself a good-size receptacle for the brine. I like to use an old pickle bucket with a cover or an upright beverage dispensing type cooler. The cooler is nice because it will keep the food cold, and you won't have to use up any fridge space. Bacteria hate temperates below 40 degrees, so that's where we want to keep the food... Nice and cold.
- Put the first 3 ingredients (sugar, salt, water) into the container. Mix well until all of the dry ingredients are completely dissolved.
- Add any seasonings you'd like. Fresh herbs work best, but dried work too. Powdered spices are another good addition. The seasonings that you select will depend greatly on the food you are brining. Quantities are usually pretty big, so when in doubt, add more. When using fresh herbs, I add the entire bunch chopped well. Dried and powdered spice quantities range from 4 to 8 tablespoons. Mix well.
- Add the ice and then the food to be brined.
- Consult the list below for brining times.
Making the Little Brine
- 4 cups water
- 2 tablespoons sugar (white or brown)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt (not iodized table salt)
- Flavorings of your choice
- Combine all ingredients in a container that will hold all of the water, plus the food to be brined. Depending on how much food I'm brining, I'll sometimes mix the brine in a mixing bowl and then add it to a zip-top bag with the food already in it. Other times, I'll use a covered casserole dish. The bag approach works best, though, as you're able to eliminate almost all of the air in the bag and increase the amount of surface area of the food that contacts the brine.
- Flavoring quantities are smaller for a little brine, but still proportionately pretty big for the mixture. One quarter to a half bunch of fresh herbs chopped well is good. Dried spices and herb quantities can range anywhere from 1 to 4 tablespoons depending on what it is.
- Place whatever container you've chosen in the refrigerator for the suggested time below.
These times are a guideline. They can be adjusted a bit, but are pretty spot on. When in doubt on the larger foods, shoot for a time in the middle.
- Whole Chicken (4-5 Pounds) -- 8 to 12 hours
- Chicken Parts -- 1 1/2 hours
- Chicken Breasts -- 1 hour
- Whole Turkey -- 24 - 48 hours
- Turkey Breast -- 5 - 10 hours
- Cornish game hens -- 2 hours
- Shrimp -- 30 minutes
- Pork chops -- 12 - 24 hours
- Pork Tenderloin (whole) -- 12 - 24 hours
After your food is sufficiently brined, it's time to cook! Brined foods tend to taste best when grilled or smoked. However, brining a whole chicken or turkey for roasting is a great idea. Now that we have the basic brine down, we can mix it up a bit. A brine is any salty solution, so we have a little wiggle room as far as what the brine is made from! That means we can substitute juices for water, put in a few cups of soy sauce or vinegar, or even use honey or agave nectar as part of the liquid component. Keep in mind that if you substitute something, you will have to take whatever it is into consideration. What that means is that if you're using a sweet juice, you may want to cut the sugar down a bit. If you add soy sauce, reduce the amount of salt you add to the brine. The best way to figure out what works well and what doesn't is to try it a few times.