Brining would comprise a chemistry class all its own if you needed to comprehensively understand how it works. The results of brining — juicier meat, richer flavor and increased tenderness — speak for themselves and require you to know just a few kitchen basics. Brines season meat, poultry and seafood almost all the way through and penetrate the surface of food further than salt alone. A versatile tool no longer confined to food preservation, brines also have just enough salinity to season vegetables without over-salting them.
Variations in Salt
The brand and type of salt you use in brine affects the concentration. For example, 1 cup of brand “A” kosher salt and 1 gallon of water might make a 5-percent brine; however, 1 cup of brand “B” kosher salt and 1 gallon of water could make a brine with too much salinity. In other words, measuring by volume is unpredictable, but measuring by weight isn’t. It’s important to measure salt by weight to get the perfect brine. For example, to make a standard 5-percent brine with 1 gallon of water, add 5 percent of the weight of the water in salt — .4165 pounds — or about 6 1/2 ounces. Kosher salt works best in brines, but you can use regular salt or sea salt when you measure by weight.
Pink curing salt — also known as Prague powder No. 1 — contains sodium nitrate, which helps prevent spoilage in meat while adding sharpness to its taste and a rosy pinkness to its color. The pink color adds more than aesthetics; it’s the color commonly associated with corned beef and pastrami. Although you might not pay it much mind, you notice it when it isn’t used. Piquancy is an important part of the flavor profile of pastrami and corned beef. Add 2 teaspoons of pink salt to 1 gallon of 5-percent brine when making corned beef and pastrami to get that classic delicatessen taste and look.
Standard brines contain 5 to 6 percent of water weight in salt and sometimes sugar to temper the harshness of the salinity. Five- to 6-percent brines are standard because that’s the amount of salt needed to create osmosis and diffusion. Brines over 6 percent impart an overly salted taste to meat, and brines less than 5 percent won’t initiate the reaction needed to introduce water to the protein cells. Vegetables are an exception to the 5-percent brine guideline as they have different cell structures than protein and react differently when exposed to salt. Vegetable brines need a 2- to 4-percent brine, or about 2 1/2 to 5 ounces of salt per gallon of water.
Proper brining considers the weight of the protein when determining brining time. It also takes into account food safety during the brining process. Make a brine by adding the salt to the water and bringing it to a boil it until it dissolves, stirring occasionally. If making a dish that relies on a seasoned brine — such as corned beef — add spices such as cinnamon sticks, allspice and mustard seeds when you add the salt. Let the brine cool to room temperature after the salt dissolves and transfer it to the container — plastic, glass or stainless steel — in which you’ll brine the protein. Place the brine into the refrigerator until it reaches refrigerator temperature and then submerge the meat, poultry or seafood in it. If the food floats, weigh it down with a plate to keep it under the brine.
Brining time depends on the types of protein. Corned beef and brisket need to sit in the liquid for 5 days. Whole chickens and turkeys need 24 to 48 hours in the brine, and seafood needs to be brined for 20 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size. Lobster always needs about 1 hour of brining. Vegetables only need simmered in brine until cooked through.
You only have to weigh the salt one time if you mark the measuring cup. After you weigh the salt, pour it into a measuring cup and then mark its height, using a marker. Next time you make a brine, simply fill the salt to the mark.
References and ResourcesRuhlman: Brine
Cooking for Engineers: Brining
North Carolina State University FBNS Extension: Brine Preservation of Vegetables
Ruhlman: How to Make Beef Brisket Pastrami at Home
Stella Culinary: The Science Behind Brining