Meat

How to Brine Meat -- And Why You Should Bother

May 27, 2014

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

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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! 

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37 Comments

Janette T. November 27, 2017
How do you avoid the meat being "exposed to air" while brining and also while letting it come to room temperature?
 
tom August 8, 2017
https://www.cooksillustrated.com/how_tos/8243-the-science-of-brining
 
mutton H. June 5, 2017
I guess was trying to assess the depth of the marinade--<br />as in a smoke ring. .This is artical is very nice..Thanks for sharing the post..
 
Ash W. May 30, 2017
In my experience wet or dry brining is superior than just cooking and seasoning. Seasoning and salting takes time to penetrate meat. Do you notice that leftover often taste better? Because the seasoning has penetrated meat and vegetables more. Brining also reducing bacterial content in meat which also enhances flavor and digestion.<br /><br />In general, I would not brine for more than 3 days or keep food unless frozen for more than 3 days in the fridge.
 
walte April 13, 2017
Would brining do any good, (more flavor), for a crockpot chicken?
 
Dean P. March 3, 2017
I don't understand why you want the meat at room temperature. I haven't brined yet, but I grill my meat frozen solid...outside is nice and charred, inside stays moist. If the meat isn't frozen, I use it as cold as possible to preserve moisture and slow the cooking of the inside. Works for me.
 
Tony G. December 15, 2017
Sounds like you would be a fan of reverse sear.
 
James A. January 23, 2017
Apple juice or cider makes an awesome liquid for brining smoked shrimp or trout prior to smoking. Still add a sweet element (sugar, molasses, sorghum, agave, coconut sugar, sucanat) and salt to the proper proportion along with fresh thyme, pepper, garlic, bay, etc......
 
James C. January 22, 2017
By definition brining should remove water from the meat as the salt(/sugar) solution is a low water concentraton compared to the concentration of the salts and sugar in the meat. The meat would have a high water concentration so water would leave by osmosis. I think that brining allows the flavour molecues to enter the meat by diffusion and the muscle fibres to relax as well as preventing the growth of bacteria on the meat. That is the science, the rest is simply magic.<br />
 
Meredith November 17, 2016
Technically osmosis is the movement of water from high concentrations to low concentrations. Seasonings get pulled in as easily because they're bigger than water molecules.
 
Jay November 11, 2016
Thanks. I have made a mistake with marinating too long.<br />wasteful. I guess was trying to assess the depth of the marinade--<br />as in a smoke ring. I appreciate your response.
 
James A. November 10, 2016
the longer the amount of time in the brine, the deeper into the meat it goes.<br />If you leave stuff in a standard brine too long, though, you can ruin it. If time is not an issue, use an equilibrium brine. This requires 20 to 30% more time or as long as you want to leave it (within reason). Take the total weight of your meat and enough water to submerge it and make your salt .25% to 1.5%. Stay on the low side for seafood and the higher side for chicken-pork.
 
Jay November 10, 2016
How deeply does brining seep into the meat?
 
Sandra S. October 9, 2015
What is the maximum for leaving pork chops in the brine . I left mine for 48 hrs because of a change of plans .
 
Kelsey B. August 15, 2014
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?
 
Author Comment
Catherine L. September 3, 2014
If you're already brining your meat, you typically won't marinate it as well!
 
James A. June 9, 2014
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....
 
Liz June 1, 2014
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!
 
Janet June 1, 2014
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.
 
Author Comment
Catherine L. September 3, 2014
Good point! We always use kosher salt.
 
hayley.marcus May 29, 2014
Two questions:<br />1) how long should the different types of meat be brined for ?<br />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?)
 
Armelle P. May 29, 2014
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?
 
Harry L. June 10, 2017
No, the proteins and nutrients are not permissible to the cell membrane inactively, that is you will not lose anything within the cells of the protein. You will lose intercellular substances that will cloud your brine after use.<br />
 
Patricia C. May 28, 2014
Thank you for this ;)