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The Facts Behind Brining

by Benjamin Sauerborn
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So the million-dollar question is: is brining really a necessary step to cooking perfectly seasoned, moist, and delicious meat? Some argue the meat will lose the majority of its water as the muscle fibers contract like a ringed out wet towel, some say it makes meat taste too salty and spongy. Brining goes much farther than meat, vegetables, fruit and cheese are also commonly brined. It’s a way of preserving food and has been the case for thousands of years. During long voyages and war campaigns fish and other meats would be covered in salt to preserve and cure meats.  In the case of vegetables and fruits, the process is pickling. Similar to marination except that during the marination process, a significant amount of acid like vinegar or citrus juice is used. 

Brining is simple; treating food with brine or coarse salt preserves and seasons the food while enhancing tenderness and flavor with optional additions such as herbs, spices, sugar, caramel and/or vinegar. Brine just very salty water at its simplest. A good general rule to follow is to use 1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of distilled water. A fun little way my mom showed to check if it was ready was to place a raw egg on top of the water, if it floats, there’s enough salt. Kosher salt is best because it’s flaky and will dissolve well in water and create a crystal clear brine. Other salts can not be so easily substituted for kosher salt. Different salts have different weights. For example, one cup of kosher salt is 288g, whereas one cup of table salt weight 273g, which doesn’t seem like much but makes all the difference. 

When you brine with flavorings like herbs and spices you want all those flavors to absorb into the brine, and that won’t work with cold water. Boil around ¾ of the amount of water you need and pour that into a mixing bowl with all the herbs and spices. Add the rest of the water quantity in ice from and let the brine cool down completely before bringing anything. A warm brine is a perfect environment to foster bacterial growth especially for meats like raw chicken and pork.

How long you brine depends more than anything on the type and size of meat you use. Different meats, even different cuts of the same animal have different muscle structures. A very broad and general rule of thumb is to brine for an hour for every pound of meat, but again some cuts fare well doing longer, others do better in a shorter time. Follow the recipe if you’re using one.

How does brining work? It is a widespread theory that brining works through osmosis, this is untrue. Brining works through diffusion. The different definitions are as follows:

Osmosis: a process by which molecules of a solvent pass through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution into a more concentrated one.

Diffusion: Diffusion is net movement of anything from a region of higher concentration to a region of lower concentration. Diffusion is driven by a gradient in concentration. This means if the gradient of salt increases in the water higher to that of a chicken, diffusion happens and they even each other out.

What does this mean though? Picture the brining process in the form of osmosis. You have a big pot of saltwater with a chicken breast inside it. All meats contain minimal amounts of salt (NaCl) we’ll call it the ‘less concentrated’ solution. The surface of the chicken is the semipermeable membrane where salt and water particles can pass in and out. A semipermeable membrane is a type of biological or synthetic, polymeric membrane that will allow certain molecules or ions to pass through it. 

As water particles form the far more concentrated saltwater solution try to make their way through this membrane, they are deflected by the much larger salt particles as they collide, making it difficult statistically for many water particles to pass through into the chicken. 

The back end of this is that vice versa the water particles in the chicken will do the same and make their way out of the semipermeable membrane but with less large particles to throw them off. This would result in the opposite of the desired effect where the water particles in the chicken breast would escape at a greater rate than they are absorbed effectively causing the protein to lose more water than it gains. 

You may ask yourself why you cannot just soak the protein in plain water for the same effect. And you could. If you left a piece of meat in a container of water for long enough it would absorb that water, but salt not only adds flavor to the meat but greatly enhances the entire process. 

Dry brining: Covering protein with salt and leaving it to rest for a few hours will have the same effect as wet brining. After the salt has drawn all the moisture from the protein it can, the salty water will be reabsorbed into the cut leaving you with a brined product. Rinse off the excess salt before cooking. 

Brining is hardly restricted to salt and water. Wine, beer, vinegar and fruit & vegetable juices are all viable options, keeping in mind solutions like vinegar will turn your meat into mush if left for too long.

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