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Brine and Brining

by Jane Wangersky | February 6th, 2014 | Cooking Basics
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roasted turkeyA brine, like a marinade, is a liquid that food is soaked in to tenderize and flavor it — only brines are simpler than marinades. The only essential ingredients in a brine are water and salt.

This video gives you a quick demonstration of brining a turkey. You’ll notice that there are several extra ingredients in the brine (including bourbon) and that the importance of having the water at a low enough temperature is stressed. We’ll also talk about these points a little further along.

First, why would you want to brine food? If you’ve heard of brine at all, you may think of it as the liquid pickles are preserved in.  Or you may be aware that corned beef is really brined beef (the grains of coarse salt are supposed to look like kernels of corn) or that Canadian bacon is brined pork loin. It’s true, salt can be a great preservative. But brine does much more than preserve.

As Michael Ruhlman says in Ratio, brine can both change the cell structure of meat, making it more tender and juicy, and carry flavors into muscle. So it prevents the dreaded dried-out Thanksgiving turkey and flavors your meat much better than a sauce that just sits on the surface. (I’ve found another advantage to brine: It gives a beautiful golden brown color to poultry.)

Ruhlman’s ratio for brine is 20 parts water to one part salt, which translates to two and a half cups water to two tablespoons of salt, at least if you use Morton’s. Whatever brand of salt you use, make sure it’s coarse.  He says brine shouldn’t be overwhelmingly salty, but should taste like soup with too much salt. At our house, the “too salty” point comes way before what Ruhlman recommends, so I usually use just one tablespoon per two and a half cups water.

You can either bring all the water to a boil, dissolve the salt in it, then let it cool till it’s completely chilled, or boil half the water, dissolve all the salt, and put in the equivalent amount of ice to cool it faster. (A cup and a quarter of water equals 10 ounces of ice; if you’re following Ruhlman’s directions, it’s good to have scales.) Cooling is essential to prevent bacterial growth.

You can also add any seasonings you want: onions, garlic, fresh herbs, even sliced lemons. Sugar’s a good idea if you use acidic seasonings.

As with marinating, the easiest way to bring meat and brine together is in a plastic bag in a bowl. As with marinating, do this in the fridge, and make sure the meat is covered.

Six to eight hours is the recommended time for brining, but I’ve left chicken in overnight without its getting too salty (probably because my brine is low-salt).

When you’re ready to cook, be sure to rinse the meat (or it’ll be too salty) and dry it. It’ll take less time than unbrined meat; a four-pound chicken can be roasted in just an hour.

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