Brining is a process you can use to enhance the juiciness and add flavor to any piece of meat. Brining is a technique that has been around since the dawn of time as a way to preserve meat and fish long before the invention of refrigeration. Over time, brining became a way to prepare meat that is tough or dry so that the finished meal is tender and perfectly juicy.
A brine can be used for chicken, turkey, pork, beef, fish, and even vegetables. The trick to brining is making a brine that is salty enough without over-brining and making the meat too salty. Some proteins are best when wet brined, while others are better when using a dry rub. Sometimes, you might even do both a dry brine and a wet brine.
How Does Brining Work?
The basic principle behind brining is the reaction that moisture has with a salt solution. The salt solution retains water, trapping it into the meat so that when the meat is cooked, the moisture stays in. Generally, a brine will only penetrate the surface of the meat a small distance which creates a barrier that the internal juices aren't released as the temperature increases.
Both wet brine and dry brine work in similar ways, but there are some significant differences. A traditional brine penetrates deeper into the meat which can create a more salty meat, but also adds enhanced flavors. A dry brine works well to trap the moisture at the surface, but doesn't contribute as much to the finished flavor of the meat since it doesn't penetrate the meat very much. A dry brine can enhance the skin and give you a crispy bark when you are smoking meat.
How Do You Make a Brine?
At its most basic level, a brining liquid is nothing more than salt dissolved in water that meat or vegetables are placed in for a period of time. Adding herbs and spices to a brine solution increases the flavor of the meat and is the best way to infuse flavor without using an injector. An injector can be used to inject brine into meat which can shorten the brining time.
The basic ratio for a brine is one cup of coarse kosher salt to four cups of water. Heat the water in a large pot on the stovetop until hot, but it isn't necessary to make it boil. Stir the kosher salt into the water and continue to gently stir until the salt is completely dissolved. This is your basic wet brine.
What is the Correct Type of Salt
Not all types of salt are the same. We specify coarse kosher salt in most of our guides because the large salt crystals interact with the skin of many types of meat to enhance the texture without the risk of salt dominating the flavor.
Table salt typically has added iodine, an essential nutrient that many diets lack. Many people don't notice a difference in the taste, but for some people, table salt used in a brine changes the flavor. Fine ground salt is much saltier than coarse salt due to the size of the crystals. There are more crystals of fine salt in a cup than coarse salt crystals. It's fine to use fine salt, you'll simply use less.
Kosher coarse salt is just salt, there are typically no other ingredients, so it gives the purest salt flavor.
Adding Flavors to the Brine
One of our favorite ways to make flavorful chicken is to substitute all or part of the water with chicken broth. The broth makes for some of the most flavorful chicken you'll find. If your broth is already salty, reduce the amount of salt you use in the brine.
Here is another slick trick we use to add flavor. Replace about three tablespoons of the kosher salt with Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings. We've got a bunch of fantastic blends that make for unique dry or wet brines.
Wet brines benefit from adding aromatic herbs like rosemary, bay leaf, oregano, and basil. You can use ground herbs or dried herbs. Fresh herbs that are good to use include basil and oregano, while bay leaves should be dried for the best flavor.
Adding the herbs and spices to the brine is best done while it is hot. Allow the herbs to steep for several minutes in the hot salt water so they release the oils. You can press or crush fresh herbs, and even rubbing dry herbs can help release aromatics.
Some spices that are popular to add to wet brines are whole black peppercorns, chili flakes, garlic, and onion. These will also be added to the hot brine to steep and release flavor compounds. Brown sugar is an ingredient in some brine recipes, particularly when cooking pork.
When to Add the Meat
Always allow the brine to cool to room temperature before adding it to the meat. Hot brine should prevent most bacteria from growing, but the temperature of the meat will also increase, placing the inside in the danger zone for food-borne pathogens to grow.
You'll need a storage bag with a closeable top or a sealable container large enough to fit the meat and have it completely covered in the brine solution. Once the brine is cool completely, add the brine to the meat, cover, and refrigerate until the brining method is complete.
Making a Dry Brine
When using a dry brine, you are simply skipping the water and rubbing the salt directly onto the meat. The natural juices of the meat absorb the salt, creating tenderness and flavor. The dry brining process can be done well in advance of when you plan to cook, with some dry brines being allowed to absorb for 72 hours.
You'll use somewhere around one-half a teaspoon of salt per pound of meat. Sprinkle the salt onto the meat and pat it on. A dry brine method only needs just a few hours to work. Unlike wet brine, you'll typically not add herbs and spices. Instead, you'll use a dry rub to enhance the flavor.
You can pat dry, but don't rinse or wipe, but don't rinse. We also like to let our brined meat drain for just a short time on a roasting rack.
Why Should You Brine?
The results of brining are conclusive. The brining process improves the moisture retention of the meat and creates flavorful meat without excess salt overwhelming the flavor. The result is a more tender, juicy, and delicious chicken breast, pork tenderloin, or turkey breast.
A dry brine also improves the tenderness and helps the meat stay juicy while giving you a chance to experiment with flavors to make the bark of your meat tasty.
What Can You Brine?
One of the great things about brining is that it works with just about anything. You can wet brine to make juicy fried chicken, tender pork chops, or the most succulent Thanksgiving turkey. Various cooking methods will stipulate what brining process is best. Fattier meats won't absorb as much brine, while excessively lean meats will take longer.
You can also use a brine to quickly pickle vegetables. The process is often called refrigerator pickling, and it's a great way to preserve some of your favorite veggies from the garden this year. Brined vegetables will keep for months in the refrigerator and make a great snack for game day snacks in the fall.
One of our favorite recipes is wet brining a whole chicken and then smoking it using our spatchcock chicken recipe. This cutting and cooking process results in the chicken thighs and the chicken breasts cooking evenly. Brining chicken is a great way to make the best chicken.
Can You Brine Chicken Too Long?
It is possible to brine chicken too long. Most of the time, over brining simply makes food a little too salty. If you forget about your brining chicken for a few hours, you can soak it in clear, cold water and rinse it to help draw out some of the salt. Now, if you forget an entire bird for days, it may be beyond help. Overbrining makes meat mushy and it'll never be the same once that happens. Usually you'll brine a chicken for at least four hours and as long as overnight for the best results.
You can brine quickly by using an injector. Injecting the meat with a slightly weaker solution of about 10 percent salinity will speed up the process to about one hour.
A dry chicken brine is best for about 24 hours, but you can go longer if you want. You can use a dry brine to improve beef, particularly when you are air drying the meat.
To Rinse or Not to Rinse
You should not rinse the wet brine off of the whole turkey, chicken, or other meat. The main reason is that rinsing spreads bacteria-laden droplets all over your kitchen. You'll also rinse some of the salt off, allowing the natural juices to escape. When you brine a chicken, you don't want to waste the flavor.
Easy Method, Big Impact
Brining is a simple way to easily increase the flavor whether you are smoking whole chickens, or you just want to properly cook a turkey. Too much salt or too long to brine can possibly cause the meat to get mushy, so pay attention to the size of the meat. Thinner chicken parts will get too salty easier. Dry brines are a good way to easily get the benefits of a liquid brine and you can incorporate a dry rub just before cooking to increase the flavor.
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