(Approx. reading time 3 mins 22 secs)
Brining is usually seen as something old grandmas do, something some people with too much time do to their Christmas turkey, or something fancy chefs do to be able to charge more for their food. The reality is that brining is extremely easy and can completely change the texture and flavour of the foods you brine.
So, before dismissing it as old-fashioned or too fancy, give it a chance. I’m sure, you’ll change your mind.
What is a brine?
Check all the posts where I talk about salt.
A brine is basically salty water. The amount of salt can be as low as 3%, and as high as 25% depending in what the brine is being used for. For most home-cooking, brines are kept between 5% and 10%. When in doubt a basic 7% works well for most purposes.
Of course, other ingredient (like spices, herbs or vinegar) can also be added to the brine to change the flavour.
When it comes to cooking, brining can be done either with this salty water or with coarse salt (this is called dry brining), for this guide I’m sticking to the salty water kind of brine.
As you can imagine, there is some math involved in making a brine, but it’s nothing too complicated and I will show you step-by-step how to go about it.
Is brining the same as pickling, curing, or marinating?
Brining is different from pickling, curing, and marinating. Brining has a low level of acidity, it is done over a short amount of time and is meant as a way to enhance the flavour (and sometimes texture) of food.
Marination involves more acid than brining (usually vinegar or lemon juice), while pickling (a long-term brining process) and curing (a long-term drying process) are used for preservation.
A brine can also be used as a medium for lacto-fermentation if left long enough.
What can I brine?
Pretty much anything that is edible and has a somewhat high water content can be brined: meat, fish, vegetables, cheese.
A brine will change the flavour of the food and also help with preservation (to a degree). If dry brining is used, then the moisture content will go down and a curing process will take place. However, brining is generally used a s a way to make drier meats juicier.
Why should I bother with brining?
When cooking meat, about 1/3 of the water content is lost. Brining is one way to prevent this loss. The water of brine gets into the meat, so it will start the cooking process with a much higher water content. The salt of the brine helps flavour the meat and kick starts the breakdown process of the muscles, which makes the meat more tender.
While this process is much more obvious in meat, it also takes place with other foods. And even if you’re not going to cook vegetables, fish, or cheese the brining process can improve greatly the flavour.
Making a brine
Get your ingredients
All you need for a brine is water and salt. Don’t use delicate flavouring salts (you’ll just be wasting your money) or table salt with anti-caking agents (they’ll mess up your brine). A cheap sea salt or table salt without an anti-caking agent will work. If you’re not sure whether your table salt has an anti-caking agent, check the list of ingredients, it will be listed there.
To make a brine you’ll also need a scale and maybe a calculator (if maths are not your strong suit).
Weighing the water
You will need enough water to completely submerge whatever it is you are brining. There are basically two ways to do this:
- You can put the food in the brining container, cover it with the water, and transfer the water to a different container to weigh.
- Or you can out the food in the brining container, set your scale tare to 0, and weigh the water as you add it.
Depending on what you are bringing, the container you are using, and your scale one method might work better than the other.
Adding the salt
Once you know how much water you have, you’ll need to calculate the amount of salt. This is a basic ‘rule of 3’ calculation that you learnt at school (and probably forgot about).
The calculation goes:
For example, if you have 600 grams of water and want a 7% brine you would do this: (7×600)/100 = 4200/100 = 42 grams of salt.
Once you have the salt weight, you add it to the water and mix until it dissolves.
Adding flavours (optional)
At this point you will add any additional flavours you want. Anything that would go into a spice rub, will work in a brine.
Herbs and spices will help with flavour and sugar will help with caramelization. Be careful with acids, as they will start ‘cooking’ meats if you use them.
Brine and chill
Cover your food in the brine (if you haven’t already) and keep in the fridge until ready to cook.
- Fish needs to be brined for 20 to 30 minutes
- A whole chicken and smaller cuts of pork need to be brined for about 4 to 5 hours
- A whole turkey and larger cuts of pork need to be brined for 10 to 15 hours.
- Vegetables and cheese can be kept for several days, but lacto-fermentation will usually start after the first day or so.
- Beef and lamb are usually not brined (unless they will be well-cooked).