Most of us have tried things that come in jars full of salted water: Eggs, peppers, olives and more. As a youngster, I used to hate capers because they made my dad’s tomato sauce a bit too salty, but have since learned to use such things with a light hand and even customize the flavour.
Brining (putting things in salty water) was introduced to me at Christmastime last year, and as a science-loving food nerd who was already into preserving, I was instantly sucked in. Acid levels? Salinity? Count me in!
Did you know that brine isn’t just for pickling chutneys and filling jars with cool-looking stuff? It also benefits mild-tasting lean meat and fish products!
Have you ever had a nasty piece of dried-out chicken, turkey, pork, or fish? Unfortunately, most of us have had those too! While the first solution is to make sure not to overcook the food, bringing extra moisture into it before cooking doesn’t hurt, especially because animal proteins without a lot of fat marbling in them dry out pretty quickly.
So how does this work?
- Decide what type of container your food should sit in. There should be more than enough room, and it has to fit in the fridge!
- Figure out how much water to use (put the meat in the container and fill to cover with water if needed). Toss the water out after!
- Any salt can be used for brine. A general rule of thumb is to start out with 30g of salt per liter/quart of water (all salts are the same by weight, but not by volume), and add more if you like, up to 75g (if using table salt, that’s between 2 and 5 tablespoons) . Keep in mind that saltier solutions are best for foods that will not be sitting in the tub for a long period of time.
When salt permeates the meat, the altered protein cell structure allows the meat to absorb water. And if you happen to flavour the water, ooh! You are in for a well-seasoned, juicy meal.
- Sugars, molasses or syrups can be added, to counter the saltiness and also help the meat caramelize when it gets cooked. Make sure not to add more than the salt, though!
- Crushed cloves of garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and ginger are a few ideas for aromatic flavouring agents.
- Spices and fresh herbs are also good additions, like peppercorns, star anise, chili peppers, thyme, rosemary, and dill.
- You can also brine with different liquids! Beer, wine, cider, juice, the list goes on. Sometimes when pickling or brining things I add a touch of flavoured acid, like raspberry red wine vinegar.
Keys to remember:
- Osmosis occurs best in cold temperatures. Fully dissolve the salt and/or sweetener in about 1/4 of the water (bring to a simmer then turn it off, or heat the water and do this in a bowl), add aromatics, and steep for 1/2 an hour to infuse their flavours and reap major benefits!
- Once cool, pour into the container, then add ice and remaining cold water to equal the amount that you measured earlier. Stir! If it isn’t cold, it needs to be refrigerated before adding the meat or someone might get food poisoning. Ugh!
- About an hour of brining time per pound of flesh (for each individual piece!) ought to do it, or a bit more if you used the minimum amount of salt. Giant pieces or large birds can sit overnight. Always keep the meat and brining solution in the fridge! It should go without saying, but you never know.
- Dry the meat with paper towels before cooking. If you’re cooking a bird, dry out the inside, too, and if you let it sit in the fridge (uncovered) afterward for a few hours, the skin will lose a bit of the water and become crispier in the oven!
- Because you’re infusing the meat with salt, ease up on adding it topically.
- The meat might cook a little faster, which is another added benefit!
It’s amazing how a few minutes of extra work can make a huge difference with your results. Give it a try!