Brine vs Marinade Part 2
This maybe a bit techy, but in order to properly brine your protein you need to understand how and why it works.
Background on Brining Historically, brining has been used as a method to preserve meat. Meat is soaked for many days in a very strong saltwater solution with the addition of sugar, spices, and other ingredients. This curing process binds the water in the meat or removes it altogether so it's not available for the growth of food-spoiling microorganisms. With the advent of mechanical refrigeration, traditional brining became less popular for food preservation, but is still used today in the production of products like corned beef and pastrami.
Introducing Flavor Brining In recent years, there has been a surge in popularity of "flavor brining", a term coined by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly in the book The Complete Meat Cookbook. While traditional brining was meant to preserve meat, the purpose of flavor brining is to improve the flavor, texture, and moisture content of lean cuts of meat. This is achieved by soaking the meat in a moderately salty solution for a few hours to a few days. Flavor brining also provides a temperature cushion during cooking—if you happen to overcook the meat a little, it will still be moist. At a minimum, a flavor brine consists of water and salt. Other ingredients may include sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, fruit juices, beer, liquor, bay leaves, pickling spices, cloves, garlic, onion, chilies, citrus fruits, peppercorns, and other herbs and spices. Many recipes call for bringing the ingredients to a boil to dissolve the sugars and bring out the flavor of herbs, then cooling the mixture to below 40°F before use. Sometimes a small amount of a curing agent like sodium nitrite or Morton Tender Quick (a mixture of salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite and other ingredients) is added to a flavor brine. These curing agents create a color and taste reminiscent of ham and help prevent the growth of botulism. This is important when cold smoking brined meat at temperatures below 140°F or when smoking a large brined turkey that might not reach 140°F internal temperature within the first 4 hours of cooking. Sodium nitrite and Morton Tender Quick can be purchased at butcher supply stores or from suppliers like Allied Kenco. Tender Quick is also sometimes found in larger supermarkets. It's important to point out that not everyone likes the effects of brining on meat. Some people don't like the texture that results, while others complain about the flavor, saying that it makes everything taste like ham (especially if sodium nitrite or Morton Tender Quick has been added to the solution) or that the meat tastes too salty. You'll have to judge the results for yourself.
How Brining Works Pick up any book or visit any website that describes how brining works and you'll probably see the principles of diffusion and osmosis mentioned. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines diffusion as "the process whereby particles of liquids, gases, or solids intermingle as the result of their spontaneous movement caused by thermal agitation and in dissolved substances move from a region of higher to one of lower concentration." Merriam-Webster defines osmosis as "movement of a solvent through a semipermeable membrane (as of a living cell) into a solution of higher solute concentration that tends to equalize the concentrations of solute on the two sides of the membrane." There is general agreement among food scientists and writers that the processes of diffusion and osmosis are involved in achieving equilibrium between the flavor brine solution and the meat—in other words, that these processes attempt to balance the difference between the amount of water, salt, and flavorings in the flavor brine solution and the amount of water and dissolved substances inside the meat cells. However, opinions differ as to the mechanics of this balancing act. The most commonly offered explanation is that the flavor brine solution contains a higher concentration of water and salt than the meat, so the solution passes into the meat cells through their semi-permeable membranes, adding water and flavor to the inside of the meat cells. This explanation is offered by authorities including Cook's Illustrated magazine and Robert L. Wolke, author of What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained. Other experts state the opposite situation, but with the same end result: That meat cells contain a higher concentration of water and dissolved solids than the flavor brine solution, so the solution passes into the meat cells through their semi-permeable membranes, again adding water and flavor to the inside of the meat cells.
Shirley O. Corriher, author of CookWise, provides this explanation in her book. Yet another explanation is that the flavor brine solution does not actually penetrate the meat cells at all. Instead, it just flows into the spaces between cells, where it draws out some moisture through the semi-permeable membrane of meat cells, increasing the concentration of naturally occurring sodium inside the cells. Some of the flavor brine solution remains between meat cells where it flavors the meat. The California BBQ Association website provides this explanation in an article written by Joe O'Connell. Regardless of the explanation, all sources seem to agree that a higher concentration of salt inside meat cells causes protein strands to denature. The tightly wound proteins unwind and get tangled together, and when heated, the proteins form a matrix that traps water molecules and holds onto them tightly during cooking. In the case of the first two explanations, the denatured proteins hold on to some of the water, salt, and flavorings that flowed into the meat cells; in the case of the third explanation, the denatured proteins are holding on to free water that was already inside the meat cells and would have been lost had the meat not been brined. Which of these explanations is correct? I'm not sure, but in the end, it doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that flavor brining results in meat that is more moist and flavorful than unbrined meat, regardless of which explanation you choose to believe.
Meats That Benefit From Brining Lean cuts of meat with mild flavor tend to benefit most from flavor brining. The usual suspects include: Chicken: whole, butterflied, or pieces Cornish Hens: whole or butterflied Turkey: whole, butterflied, or pieces Pork: chops, loin, tenderloin, fresh ham Seafood: salmon, trout, shrimp Poultry is probably the most commonly flavor brined meat because it is naturally lean and gets quite dry if overcooked. Lean cuts of pork are also good candidates for the same reasons as poultry, except that in the case of pork, much of the fat (and thus flavor) has been intentionally bred out of the animal by an industry intent on providing meat that appeals to health-conscious consumers. Beef, lamb, duck, and other meats with high fat content and bold flavors do not benefit from brining—they're naturally moist and flavorful. They also tend to be cooked to lower internal temperatures and thus don't lose as much of their natural moisture. Pork butt is not commonly brined because of its naturally high fat content, yet there are some recipes that do so. Brisket can be brined to become corned beef or pastrami depending on the seasonings used in the brine.
Brining Enhanced Meat Enhanced meat is injected by the manufacturer with a solution of water, salt, and other ingredients to enhance the moisture content and flavor of the meat. Examples include Butterball self-basted turkey and Swift Premium Guaranteed Tender Pork. Most people prefer to brine meat that's not enhanced so they have total control over the flavor being adding to the meat. If you choose to brine enhanced meat, take care not to brine it too long, or the meat may turn out too salty. Having said that, there are people who like to brine self-basted turkeys and do not report that they turn out too salty.
Which Salt To Use Kosher salt and table salt are the most common salts used in flavor brining. I use kosher salt most of the time because it dissolves quickly and it's what most professional cooks use in their kitchens, but I also use table salt on occasion. Sea salt can be used for flavor brining, but it tends to be quite expensive. If you have a cheap supply available, go for it; otherwise, stick to kosher salt or table salt. Some people say that kosher salt tastes "cleaner" than table salt because it does not contain the anti-caking agents added to table salt. Some people prefer non-iodized table salt over iodized table salt, believing that potassium iodide creates an off-taste. However, these flavor differences melt away when salt is diluted in large quantities of water in a brine. Taste testers felt that "all nine salts tasted pretty much the same" when dissolved in spring water and chicken stock.
Salt Equivalent Measures Table salt and kosher salt do not have the same saltiness in a flavor brine when measured by volume—but they do when measured by weight. Table salt weighs about 10 ounces per cup, while kosher salt weighs 5-8 ounces per cup, depending on the brand. If using kosher salt in a brine, you must use more than a cup to achieve the same salt flavor you would get from a cup of table salt. The chart below shows equivalent amounts of table salt and the two most popular brands of kosher salt. Table Salt 1 cup Morton Kosher Salt 1-1/2 cups Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt 2 cups Morton Kosher Salt weighs about 7.7 ounces per cup, making it three-fourths as strong as table salt. Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt weighs about 5 ounces per cup, making it half as strong as table salt. What if you're using something other than Morton Kosher or Diamond Crystal Kosher salt? Regardless of the type of salt—sea salt, pickling salt, and any other brand of kosher salt—just measure 10 ounces of it on a kitchen scale and you will have the equivalent of 1 cup of table salt.
Low-Salt Brining Doesn't Work Some people find that flavor brined meat is just too salty for their tastes. Will a flavor brine still work if you cut the amount of salt in half? Not according to the November/December 2002 issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine. Cook's brined shrimp, pork chops, and whole chicken in a full-strength solution and a half-strength solution for 1 hour per pound. After cooking and tasting, they found that the meats brined at half-strength were a lot less salty than those brined at full-strength, but the improvement in moisture content was marginal, at best. In fact, for shrimp and chicken, Cook's felt that there was no point in flavor brining at half-strength at all.