Have you ever suffered the travesty that is a dry, tasteless chicken breast? Or tried to cut into a pork chop, only to be rewarded with a bicep workout and a rumbling stomach? Or chewed your way through a turkey that tastes like it might've been made out of sand?
We have, too. It was unpleasant. Thankfully, it never has to happen again — just harness the power of science, and you can brine your way to consistently better meat. Here's why it works, and how to use its potential for good.
Why do you brine before cooking?
Brining was originally used for food preservation in the pre-refrigeration era. However, there are two solid reasons why you should brine your meat in this century: flavor and texture. Brining infuses the meat with savory, finger-lickin' flavors, all while tenderizing it to butter-soft texture.
So how does it work?
Let us turn back the clock to seventh grade science class for a moment. Does the word "osmosis" ring a bell? That's how brining works: When you place meat in a bath of salty, flavorful liquid, the solution will travel into the meat in order to equalize the salt levels. This means that, before even hitting the heat, your meat has a higher liquid content — so when you cook it, your meat will lose the same amount of moisture, but will still end up juicier. As culinary expert and general food science nerd Harold McGee puts it: "This is one time when we find our old nemesis 'water retention' actually playing a beneficial role!"
While you brine, your meat is not only gaining liquid; it's also gaining salt, and the higher salt concentration will begin to break down its proteins. Think of the proteins in meat as tight, stubborn coils — then salt comes along, gives them a deep tissue massage, and they begin to relax. This yields a meat with a more tender mouthfeel and reduced chewiness. Kenji Alt-Lopez of Serious Eats sums it up perfectly: less tightening = less moisture loss = juicier meat.
What meat should be brined?
Some meats benefit from brining more than others. Drier, leaner meats are at the top of the list, as they don't have as much fat to contribute moisture and flavor. Poultry breasts, pork chops, shrimp, and that infamous Thanksgiving turkey are all good candidates for brining. Before purchasing a piece of meat to brine, check the label to make sure it hasn't already been injected with a salty solution.
How long does it take to brine meat?
A general rule of thumb is to leave your meat in its brine for roughly one hour per pound — never brine your meat more than the prescribed amount, lest the proteins break down too far, turning it into unappetizing mush. The basic ratio for any wet brine is 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water. If you're feeling fancy, throw in some smashed garlic cloves, peppercorns, or citrus — also smashed.
Pro tip: If your meat has skin on it, pat it dry a few hours before cooking time, then leave it in the fridge, uncovered. It will end up juicy and tender, with shatteringly crisp skin.
What is dry brining?
Dry brining is technically a misnomer. The term "brining" implies a liquid, and dry brining could more accurately be categorized as a rub, or a "cure," for your meat. However, the end result is quite similar. By coating your meat in a salty mixture, it both re-distributes moisture and pulls the seasoning deep into the meat. Dry brining is also a clean, simple seasoning option if you don't want to fill your fridge with large containers of submerged meats, for some reason.
How to dry brine meat
General dry brining technique calls for 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat, plus whatever other (dried) herbs and spices you so choose. Pummel everything into a sandy texture with a mortar and pestle, then rub it onto your meaty canvas.
Place the meat in a Ziplock bag and refrigerate 1 to 2 days (though if you're in a rush, just leave it in for as long as possible). Pro tip: Adding a pinch or two of sugar to your dry brine will help the meat caramelize as it cooks.
A few general brining safety tips:
- To avoid scary bacteria, always brine in the fridge.
- For the same reason, make sure none of your meat is exposed to the air.
- Always let your meat come to room temperature before cooking.