Kitchen Confidence

How to Brine Meat -- And Why You Should Bother

By • May 27, 2014 • 22 Comments

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Why you should start brining your meat -- and how to start.

Why to Brine Meat on Food52

Have you ever suffered the travesty that is a dry, tasteless chicken breast? Or tried to cut into a pork chop, only to be rewarded with a bicep workout and a rumbling stomach? Or chewed your way through a turkey that tastes like it might've been made out of sand? 

We have, too. It was unpleasant. Thankfully, it never has to happen again -- just harness the power of science, and you can brine your way to consistently better meat. Here's why it works -- and how to use its potential for good.

More: Thanks to the dry brine, this genius turkey comes out juicy and crisp every time. 

Dry Brined Turkey on Food52

Why Brine?

Brining was originally used for food preservation in the pre-refrigeration era. However, there are two solid reasons why you should brine your meat in this century: flavor and texture. Brining infuses the meat with savory, finger-lickin' flavors, all while tenderizing it to butter-soft texture. So how does it work?

Let us turn back the clock to seventh grade science class for a moment. Does the word "osmosis" ring a bell? That's how brining works: When you place meat in a bath of salty, flavorful liquid, the solution will travel into the meat in order to equalize the salt levels. This means that, before even hitting the heat, your meat has a higher liquid content -- so when you cook it, your meat will lose the same amount of moisture, but will still end up juicier. As culinary expert and general food science nerd Harold McGee puts it: "This is one time when we find our old nemesis 'water retention' actually playing a beneficial role!" 

How to Brine Meat on Food52

While you brine, your meat is not only gaining liquid; it's also gaining salt, and the higher salt concentration will begin to break down its proteins. Think of the proteins in meat as tight, stubborn coils -- then salt comes along, gives them a deep tissue massage, and they begin to relax. This yields a meat with a more tender mouthfeel and reduced chewiness. Kenji Alt-Lopez of Serious Eats sums it up perfectly: less tightening = less moisture loss = juicier meat. 

What to Brine

Some meats benefit from brining more than others. Drier, leaner meats are at the top of the list, as they don't have as much fat to contribute moisture and flavor. Poultry breasts, pork chops, shrimp, and that infamous Thanksgiving turkey are all good candidates for brining. As barbecue season draws near, racks of ribs are also begging for a briny dip, which will help them retain moisture through a long smoke. Before purchasing a piece of meat to brine, check the label to make sure it hasn't already been injected with a salty solution.

More: Brining is the secret to the ultimate fried chicken.

Fried Chicken on Food52

Bath Time:

The basic ratio for any wet brine is 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water. If you're feeling fancy, throw in some smashed garlic cloves, peppercorns, or citrus -- also smashed. Another general rule of thumb is to leave your meat in its brine for roughly one hour per pound -- never brine your meat more than the prescribed amount, lest the proteins break down too far, turning it into unappetizing mush.

Pro tip: If your meat has skin on it, pat it dry a few hours before cooking time, then leave it in the fridge, uncovered. It will end up juicy and tender, with shatteringly crisp skin.

How to Brine Meat on Food52

Dry Brining:

Dry brining is technically a misnomer. The term "brining" implies a liquid, and dry brining could more accurately be categorized as a rub, or a "cure," for your meat. However, the end result is quite similar. By coating your meat in a salty mixture, it both re-distributes moisture and pulls the seasoning deep into the meat. Dry brining is also a clean, simple seasoning option if you don't want to fill your fridge with large containers of submerged meats, for some reason.

How to Brine Meat on Food52  How to Brine Meat on Food52

That's the Rub:

General dry brining technique calls for 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat, plus whatever other (dried) herbs and spices you so choose. Pummel everything into a sandy texture with a mortar and pestle, then rub it onto your meaty canvas.

Place the meat in a Ziplock bag and refrigerate 1 to 2 days (though if you're in a rush, just leave it in for as long as possible). Pro tip: Adding a pinch or two of sugar to your dry brine will help the meat caramelize as it cooks. 

How to Brine Meat on Food52

A few general brining safety tips:

  • To avoid scary bacteria, always brine in the fridge. 
  • For the same reason, make sure none of your meat is exposed to the air.
  • Always let your meat come to room temperature before cooking.

Are you on team wet brine or team dry brine? Tell us in the comments! 

Jump to Comments (22)

Tags: meat, brining, wet brine, dry brine, thanksgiving, grilling, how to cook meat, kitchen confidence

Comments (22)

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4 months ago Kelsey Borowski

Where does marinading come into play here? After the whole brining process? If so, should I cut back some of the brining time to throw it in a marinade?

France

4 months ago Catherine Lamb

If you're already brining your meat, you typically won't marinate it as well!

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6 months ago James A. Morris

I use a wet brine for chicken, pork roasts, pork Chops, and shrimp. I use a rub for brisket, ribs, steaks (beef). Important to remember to dry the outside of brined meats and to still season the surfaces. I add a cup of sweetener as well as a cup of salt per gallon of water along with chiles, garlic, pepper, and bayleaf. The same brine makes remarkable naturally fermented pickles, peppers and jalapenos....

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7 months ago Liz

How much salt/sodium is added to the meat when brining? I'm guessing if I am on a low salt diet I get to eat DRY meat!

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7 months ago Janet

If you're going to give a formula for a basic brine, you should either give the weight of the salt or specify what kind of salt you're talking about. A given volume of fine salt can weight twice as much as coarse kosher salt, thus resulting in a brine that's twice as salty.

France

4 months ago Catherine Lamb

Good point! We always use kosher salt.

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7 months ago hayley.marcus

Two questions:
1) how long should the different types of meat be brined for ?
2) for a dry brine/rub, if it is only salt, should you wipe it off before adding flavor rubs or sauce? (Will it be too salty?)

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7 months ago Armelle PD

Great article, thx. Question: since the process breaks proteins down and there is an osmosis taking place, is there a loss of proteins or any nutrients?

Stringio

7 months ago Patricia Carrillo-Metcalf

Thank you for this ;)

Stringio

7 months ago Blonddee

Depends upon the type of meat, the cut of the meat and the cooking method. By the way, I am against leaving the meat out to come to room temperature. Doesn't that encourage bacteria groth?

France

7 months ago Catherine Lamb

not if you don't leave it out for a long time! It also ensure that the meat will cook evenly.

Stringio

7 months ago Peter Davis

Kanji, who you linked, argues (and proves) how leaving meat out to come to room temperature is pointless.
The best way to ensure even cooking is to flip regularly.

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7 months ago Mr_Vittles

Curing Walmart steaks is my ticket to eating well and saving money.

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7 months ago Libia Chavez

Wet brine for larger meat cuts and dry rub for thinner/smaller ones.

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7 months ago cucina di mammina

I love wet & dry brining meats but I do use the dry brine (or dry rub) method mostly due to time and I also prefer o avoid the liquid excess in the meat. I experiment with salt and spices, with a bit of sugar all the time and I am always very happy with the results

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7 months ago Gaia Goodness Natural Foods

I love brining! I use it for fried chicken and pork chops, excellent! I usually inject brine into my turkeys. One year I did a Jerk brine in the turkey, soo goood. I've only brined pork and poultry, haven't tried it on beef yet. Will give it a try the next time I do a roast since those tend to get a little tough. Thanks for the post!

Stringio

7 months ago Moe Rubenzahl

Good article on an important topic. A couple of notes:

- Save the flavor components (sugar, apple juice, spices) for applying directly to the meat. Only salt and water penetrate the meat. (Source: Extensive experiments and Cook's Illustrated.)

- As you say, dry brine is a misnomer but regardless, it trumps wet brine. J. Kenji Alt-Lopez says wet brine waters down the meat, reducing flavor. I haven't tested that but I have done extensive dry brining and it works at least as well, is far easier, and avoids handling gallons of contaminated water.

- It doesn't affect results but as a technical matter, brining does not happen through osmosis. See below and search page for the term "osmosis."

Best source: http://www.seriouseats...

France

7 months ago Catherine Lamb

Good tip on using the brine liquid for basting!

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7 months ago 1happykat

Great article. I've brined pork chops before but recently tried it on boneless chicken breast (using beer and some spices with the salt). The surprise was the resulting texture..something similar to smoke chicken...dense and really juicy.

France

7 months ago Catherine Lamb

Love the idea of using beer as brining liquid!

Stringio

7 months ago BJ Godby

Awesome, thanks for all the tips. Cooked grass fed beef this week and it was "tuff" meaning a lot of extra chewing. Will try brining next.

France

7 months ago Catherine Lamb

Let us know how it goes!