When it comes to ultra-lean cuts of meat, or meats that must be cooked to higher temperatures to be considered “done” or “safe,” there is always an increased risk of them ending up dry and bland. The larger and thicker the cut, the greater that risk because of the time it takes for the center to reach the required temperature. And the extended cooking times associated with smoking meats can also cause cuts of meat to dry out. That’s when it is time to discover the advantages of brining.
Brining involves the use of lots of water and lots of salt to cause an osmotic pressure to draw extra water inside the meat. In the process, salt and other seasonings you add to the brine are also carried inside the meat, literally flavoring it from within. The salt also alters the protein structure in the meat to tenderize it and and form a microscopic matrix that helps retain the added moisture (and seasonings). This differs from a marinade, which uses an acidic ingredient to break down the texture of the meat and allow the flavors penetrate from the outside (but remain more concentrated at the surface).
There are several keys to success with brining.
Salt – The first is to use the right concentrations of salt and water. Typically between 3/4 and 1 cup of kosher or coarse sea salt (NOT table salt) per gallon of water is needed. Don’t go under that, or you are simply soaking the meat in salty water. If that much salt scares you, don’t worry – you’re not going to see all of it end up inside of the meat. And there are some other ways to reduce the salt as well…keep reading. Of course, going over that by too much can have adverse affects as well.
Time – Another key to brining is how long to soak. This is difficult to pin down exactly, but can be figured out with some good rules of thumb. The thicker the object being brined the longer it needs to go (think contact surface area compared to volume). The tougher the texture (pork compared to poultry), the longer it needs to go for the same surface area. The stronger the brine, the less time it needs to go. There is such a thing as too strong and too long – it will result in mushy textures (from over-tenderizing) and salty flavors.
The best thing to do is to start with shorter-durations using the 3/4 cup to 1 gallon of water mixture and adjust from there. If you give pork chops a try for 4 hours and find that they don’t have much difference to simply grilling them, then go for 6 to 8 hours on your next try. If that turkey isn’t moist or flavorful enough after 10 hours, then do your next one for 12 or 14 hours. If a cut-up chicken isn’t improved with 45 minutes in a well-seasoned brine, then go for an hour or 75 minutes next time. Just remember that you can always add more seasoning after it cooks, but you can’t get salt and seasoning out once it’s in there.
Temperature – Keep things cold for the entire process. The only exception is when dissolving the salt and any other seasonings. But prior to introducing your meat, you want the brine to be at refrigerator temperatures, and you want it to stay that way until you remove the meat. Otherwise you risk bacteria growth and even food poisoning (another reason to also make sure you fully cook to at least 140 degrees internal temp for several minutes). Additionally, if you add the meat to a hot brine, you will flash cook the outside and reduce the effectiveness of the brine and then will cause bacteria growth as it cools through the range of 140F to 40F. So keep it cold. If it won’t fit in the refrigerator, keep it in a cooler packed with ice.
Rinse, dry, & rest - After brining, make sure to rinse the meat well with cold water, then pat it dry and let it “rest” a bit before cooking (just like we do after cooking). Rinsing will wash the excess salt off of the surface of the meat, but will not wash away any of the flavor that was infused into the meat – except perhaps a small amount near the surface (osmosis working in the other direction). Patting it dry afterwards will stop that “reverse” osmosis, and letting it rest allows the newly introduced “juices” to settle and disperse inside a bit before cooking. This step also gives you a chance to perform any additional seasonings such as wet or dry rubs that will add even more flavor to the outside of the meat after cooking. Just be sure to greatly reduce or eliminate the amount of salt you use in your rub (you’ve already added it to the meat).
Season – Add as much flavor to your brine as you like, or can imagine. Use flavors that will stand on their own, or use flavors that will compliment your planned rub or cooking method. I typically prepare a “hot” brine – heating some of the water to dissolve the salt before adding cold water and then chilling the brine before use. Because I do it this way, I like to add the herbs and spices just after removing the salt water from the heat to create a sort of “brine tea.” This is especially useful for things like bay leaves, dried peppers, cinnamon sticks, and cloves that typically flavor best by steeping in hot liquid for a while. Most dried herbs also fall into this category, while fresh herbs often work best added to the cold brine to reduce their tendency to lose flavor when cooked.
Sugar – Use some sugar. I know – it’s a dirty word in the land of Paleo eating…and even in Primal territory. But hear me out, and consider a few things. First, it can be used to reduce the amount of salt in the brine – because it will work with the salt to still allow the osmosis to occur (I’m not going to explain the chemistry). You can’t quite substitute 1 for 1 here, but if you go somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/2 cup salt and 1/2 cup sugar to a gallon of water (so 2 parts sugar to each 1 part salt removed up to about half the salt), you’re still going to get the results you want. And that leads to the second point – at 1/2 cup (or less) per gallon of water, it is no longer a sweetener and instead a seasoning. And that’s what is in the brine – not what actually makes it into the meat. Will it trigger insulin release? Probably. Will it trigger it measurably more than the rest of the meal you’re consuming? I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but my instinct says “probably not enough to matter.” Finally, the use of sugar lends to mild caramelization in the meat that provides a better visual presentation compared to brined meats that use no sugar (they can end up sort of “ashy gray”).
Now that I’ve made my case, let me also state that I would not condone using plain table sugar. Why bother? Our purpose with a brine is to infuse flavor into the meat – so choose things that have some. I like to use honey in brines, because I’m partial to how it tastes. Maple syrup would be another good choice for certain recipes. Raw cane syrup or freshly ground dates might be some other ideas to try. Even apple juice would work. Oh, one last thing to consider – too much sugar will leave noticeable sweetness in the finished meat, and can lead to pork tasting like ham after cooking (how do you think they make ham?).
Low Acidity – One last thing is to be careful when adding things to the brine that contain acids. A little wine or citrus juice is great for giving signature and unique flavors, but if the amount of acid in the brine is too much, the acid can compound the tenderizing to the point of “mushiness” – mostly because the duration that the meat is in contact with the acid is so much longer than a standard marinade. So stick with no more than about 1 cup of mildly acidic (wines) to 1/2 cup of mid-acidic (citrus juices) liquid per 1/2 gallon of brine, as well as considering reducing the brine time a bit to compensate. Another option for citrus flavor is to use the zest, which is much more potent (especially when steeped).
That’s about all I’ve got in my bag of tricks regarding brining. You may find that the increased moisture will reduce some cooking times slightly (by essentially steaming from the inside), but that can vary with other conditions enough that I still use my thermopen or other meat thermometer to gage when things are done. Other than that, give it a shot, take good notes on how much and how long and how it tasted, and then adjust from there the next time. Good luck!