Brining meat, especially lean types such as turkey or pork chops, seems like an extra step when prepping a meal, but it pays off on the serving platter. When a meat lacks a lot of fat to keep it moist during cooking, a brine steps in and helps add moisture and cultivate lip-smacking juiciness.
When you cook a muscle fiber, which is what meat is, the protein denatures -- resulting in dryness and shrinkage. Meat loses approximately 30 percent of its moisture weight during cooking; a brine reduces this loss to about 15 percent. Brining adds more moisture to the meat prior to cooking, because the meat soaks up some of the liquid in the brine. The meat may still lose moisture during cooking, but since it started out juicier, it turns out juicier. The brining process also breaks down some of the protein in the meat from solid to liquid -- further enhancing the moistness.
Salt Is Key
Most brines have a fair amount of salt, which is key in denaturing the protein in the meat. When protein denatures, the bundles that hold them together in a stoic manner start to break down -- reducing toughness and creating a more tender meal. As the bonds break, water is trapped between them, contributing to moisture. While cooking facilitates this denaturing, salt enhances it so that more natural juices are released. The salt and other aromatics added further flavor the meat as well.
Making a Brine
The ingredients and amount of salt in a brine varies by recipe, but a good standard is using about 1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of water; however, certain brands with larger crystals may require you to use up to 2 cups per gallon.
Use any nonreactive, food-safe container to brine meats, including chicken breasts, pork loins, shrimp and whole turkeys. Large cooking bags, trash cans and non-aluminum bowls are acceptable. Add dried herbs to the brine to infuse the meat with flavor. Alternative liquids may also stand in for all or part of the water; try apple cider or beer, for example, on pork or turkey. Including sugar in your brine may change the flavor of the meat, but it won't affect its juiciness.
Larger pieces of meat or whole birds may brine overnight or up to 24 hours. Small cuts and shrimp may need just 12 hours.