Barbecuing is a hobby that allows for lots of experiments. One of those experiments is often brining, a technique that uses salt to improve the flavor and juiciness of your foods. A barbecue brine recipe doesn't have to be complicated, and there are several ways to go about it.
What Brining Is and Does
Brining just means applying salt to your meat far enough ahead of cooking time so the salt can get into the muscle fibers. Exactly how it works is a matter of organic chemistry. Food writers without a science background tend to speak of salt getting into the meat through osmosis, and food writers with a science background like to explain why that's wrong.
The bottom line is that the science of why it works doesn't really matter. The only thing that matters to most people is that they get a tasty meal, and brining can certainly deliver on that. Brined meats – and fish, poultry or vegetables, for that matter – are usually juicier and more flavorful than their non-brined equivalents.
That's worth an extra step or two, and a bit of added effort.
Your Ribs Might Already Be Brined
Before you run out and buy a box of salt, take a moment to look at the ribs in your local store. Pork and chicken are sometimes already brined when you buy them. The label might say "seasoned" or something like that, but the seasoning is typically salt.
Brined meats soak up a bit of their brine, so when you buy pre-brined meats, you're paying pork prices for salt water. That works in the packer's favor, but it's not all bad. That practice brings the benefits of brined meats to cooks who would never think of brining on their own, or might not have the option. The downside of course is that if you brine pork that's preseasoned, it will be very salty.
In practice, because there's relatively little meat on the bones, ribs aren't often sold that way. If you want to be sure, slice off a small sliver of meat from the rack and fry or microwave it until it's cooked. If it tastes seasoned at all, it's pre-brined. If all you taste is unseasoned pork, you're good to go.
Using a Wet Brine
The most common approach to brining meats calls for a wet brine, which is a solution of salt and water. Brines are measured by their concentration, or the percentage of salt dissolved in the water. For quick-brining a few ribs or chickens at home, that concentration is usually about 5 or 6 percent by weight.
It's easy math for cooks who use the metric system, because you'd use 60 grams per liter of water. In U.S. measurements, you might find ounces easier to work with than pounds. A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds, for example, or 133.44 ounces. If you multiply 133 ounces by 6 percent, you'll get just over 8 ounces. Your ratio, then, would be a half-pound of salt for every gallon of water.
Some brines call for sugar as well, which mellows the sometimes-harsh flavor of the salt. The standard technique is to dissolve your salt, along with the sugar and any other flavoring ingredients, in hot water. Then you cool and refrigerate the resulting brine before adding your meat. The brine and meat should always remain at a food safe temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below; otherwise, you're running the risk of foodborne illness.
Basic Wet Barbecue Brine Recipe
So to make a basic wet brine for your ribs, you need to use a half-pound of salt in a gallon of water, or a quarter-pound in a half-gallon. To speed the process, don't heat or boil your whole brine. Use a smaller amount of hot water, just a cup or two, and once the salt is dissolved, you can stir it into the remainder of the gallon of cold water along with the sugar and any other flavorings.
You'll need a nonreactive container of some kind – stainless steel, glass or food-grade plastic – to hold the brine and the ribs. Heavy zipper-seal bags work well for most meats, but they're iffy with ribs because the ends of the bone can pierce the bag. Use enough of your brine to immerse the ribs completely, and hold on to the rest for your next batch.
Brine your ribs for up to 2 hours, keeping the brine at refrigerator temperature. If you haven't got room in your fridge for a container that large, add ice to the brine until it stops melting. At that point, it should be below 40 F, but use a thermometer to make sure. Once your ribs are brined, remove them, pat them dry, and season and cook them as usual.
Using a Dry Rib Brine
Another approach to brining is what's called a "dry brine," which is a barbecue fanatic's way of saying "I put salt on it directly." Simply put, you sprinkle your ribs with salt just as you would at the table, but you leave them uncovered in the fridge for a couple of hours.
During that time, the salt draws moisture from the pork, which will dissolve the salt and turn it into a very small quantity of brine solution. This spontaneous brine gets pulled back into the protein fibers in the same way a conventional brine does, and seasons the meat deeply.
Many barbecue lovers incorporate salt into their dry rub, which essentially turns the spice rub into a dry brine. The self-brining process moistens the spices and helps them stick, and as the salt is pulled into the meat, some of the flavor molecules from the spices come along for the ride.
Basic Dry Brine Recipe/Technique
At the simplest level, you can dry brine by just sprinkling both sides of your ribs with salt and waiting a couple of hours. If you'd like to add more flavor, choose a prepared dry rub that you like or create one of your own. Common ingredients in rib rubs include sweet, hot or smoked paprika, garlic and onion powders, ancho or chipotle chile powder, commercial chili powder mixes, cumin, coriander, dried citrus zest and brown sugar.
It takes 1 to 2 hours for the salt to do its work, though you can leave the ribs for an extra few hours if necessary.
Brines and Marinades
Cooks often opt to marinate tough cuts of meat, to add flavor or – less successfully – to tenderize them. Marinades typically include a variety of flavoring ingredients, plus an oil to infuse fat-soluble flavor molecules. You'll also usually use an acidic ingredient, for its own tart flavor and tenderizing effect as well as its ability to infuse water-soluble flavor molecules.
Acidity on its own can add flavor to your ribs, which is why some recipes call for soaking ribs in apple cider vinegar. The problem with acidity is that it does have some tenderizing power and can give the surface of your ribs an oddly mushy texture if you use too much or leave them soaking too long.
A more sensible approach is to use a balanced marinade, with much less acidity, and to only marinate for a few hours. If you want to combine the marinating and brining stages, you can turn your marinade into a brine by adding the correct ratio of salt, or dry-brine it first and then marinate it.
Cooking for Tenderness
Brining and marinating won't do much to tenderize ribs, which are filled with tough, stringy muscle and chewy gristle. No rib brine will let you take them straight from the fridge to the grill, for example, and sizzle them up the way you would with a steak.
Instead, cook them "low and slow" for a long time, whether you prepare them in your oven, on the grill or in a smoker. Temperatures of 250 F to 300 F are ideal. Over a period of 2 to 3 hours for baby back ribs, or 3 to 4 1/2 hours for bigger, meatier side ribs, the tightly wound muscle fibers will slowly relax, the fat will melt and render, and the tough connective tissue will dissolve into gelatin.
Once they've reached that fork-tender stage, you can slather them with sauce if you wish and grill or broil them briefly at high heat to caramelize the sauce before you serve them.
- Stella Culinary: The Science Behind Brining
- Steve Raichlen's Barbecue Bible: The Science of Brining
- Amazing Ribs: Salting and Wet Brining - Flavorize, Moisturize, Tenderize
- Amazing Ribs: Dry Brining, Easier and Less Wasteful Than Wet Brining
- Amazing Ribs: The Secrets and Myths of Marinades, Brinerades, and How Gashing Can Make Them Work Better
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.