The rules for brining go like this: Salt is crucial. Give it some time. But don't overdo it.
Most of us know brining as a Thanksgiving buzzword. Cooks everywhere have caught on that if you toss your turkey into a salt-water bath for a few hours before roasting (that's brining, at its simplest), you're likely to end up with a juicier bird. But why does the brine buzz stop there?
Yes, holiday turkeys are divas: They're generally huge, tend to dry out, and very lean, so they can need an extra somethin' somethin' before they get their roast on. But brining is not limited to bone-in beasts: It's a great way to get more seasoning and moisture into many lean meats (chicken, pork chops and tenderloins, fresh ham, and brisket among them) and even some seafood (shrimp, large cuts of salmon).
The rules for brining go like this: Salt is crucial. Give it some time. But don't overdo it. The science behind it is more complicated, but suffice it to say that when you submerge meat or fish in a solution with more water and salt than it contains innately, some of that liquid and seasoning will eventually creep its way in and start bullying the proteins a bit. They break down, similar to the way they do when heat is applied in cooking, and make room for more moisture.
It's important to note that this does not happen right away. In fact, at first, the brining process can actually pull moisture out of meat. It takes some time for it to work its way back into the muscle fibers, salt in tow. That's why brining requires a little planning ahead.
Just how long you need to soak depends on the food at hand. The little guys like shrimp or a delicate piece of fish shouldn't need to sit in a brine for more than 15 to 30 minutes. Cuts with a little more mass like chicken pieces, pork chops or pork tenderloins benefit from about 1 to 3 hours. And the big boys can take anywhere from 4 hours (briskets, whole chickens and ham) to 48 hours (yep—holiday turkeys). Whatever you're brining, be sure to fully cover the item in liquid and store it in the refrigerator.
Cooking technique and time may change after you've brined. You don't need to salt meat after the fact (actually, you might want to rinse meat after brining it, or at least pat dry to avoid a too-salty taste), and shouldn't need nearly as much or any for a pan sauce or gravy made with the drippings. You might even be able to cut cooking time down, since the salt has already altered the proteins similar to the way cooking them would. (On the contrary, if you happen to overdo it on the timing a bit, you might still be okay—the extra moisture provides a bit of a cushion.) Finally, since the skin on poultry also absorbs some of the brine, those of us (guilty) who fiend for crispy skin may need to let the bird air out in the fridge for a few hours before cooking it.
How Much Salt Should You Use?
Again, mostly it's the salt that's important in a brine. Since kosher salt (best to use) and table salt (perfectly fine, too) measure unevenly, a good general ratio: Use 1 pound salt for every gallon of water. (If you're scaleless, that's roughly 1 cup of table salt and 1.5 to 2 cups kosher salt, depending on how coarse your kosher.)
Adding Extra Flavor
You can impart further flavor into meats by adding more than just salt and water to brines: Experiment with sugar (honey, maple syrup and fruit juices or ciders work, too), herbs, and other aromatic ingredients (garlic, onion, peppercorns) to your taste. It's common, but not necessary, to boil the brine first to bring out the full flavor of these ingredients. If you go that route, just be sure to fully cool the water back to fridge temperatures before submerging your meat.
About the author: "Sue Veed" is an editor at a Manhattan-based food magazine and a current culinary student who's trying to learn it all so she can cook it all. She'll take us along for the ride as she makes the journey from home cook to professional. Among things she may never master: looking natural in a chef's hat, and acting demure whenever a pork product hits the table.