What is a Brine?

Essentially a brine is just salty water in which food is soaked. This helps augment the flavor and the texture of the meat. Most white meats (chicken, turkey and pork) can benefit from a soak in a brine. Other flavors (spices, sugar) can be added to a brine, but to be a brine it must have salt.

I do this nearly every time I prepare a chicken dish. It’s just so simple and easy to do and results in a huge boost in flavor. Even a half hour soak in salty water is noticeable.

But how does this work? Why salt? Should you add anything else (sugar, pepper)? How long to soak it? Click through the jump to find out why it works and how to quickly make your own.

If you just need a quick reminder of proportions, scroll to the bottom.

How does it work?

  • First, surrounding meat with water will result in some of that water being pulled into the meat.
  • Second, along with the water, other dissolved flavors will be pulled into the meat. Anything that can dissolve can be added to a brine. I have even brined a turkey in a mixture of sugar, salt, pepper, vegetable stock and other spices.
  • Third, the added salt reduces evaporation during cooking, helping keep the meat tender and juicy. This is because anything added to water must be removed for it for the water to leave. Have you ever seen the salt crystals left behind when sea water is left to evaporate—the water just changes state, from liquid to gas, and the salt is removed from it and remains behind.
  • Fourth, salt changes the nature of the cells in the meat causing them to pull in and hold more water than before. Cell membranes allow water and other things (i.e., salt) to pass through. Once salt gets in, it begins to denature proteins—all that really means to us is that the proteins change shape and get too big to move out of the cells. Because of the salt, these “denatured proteins” are basically trapped in the cells. As more stuff is trapped in the cells, osmosis tries to pull more and more water into it to dilute the cells.

Whew, enough technical stuff. Just put your meats in salty water and they’ll be juicer and taste better.

What exactly do you include, how much, and for how long?

Always use salt (it is what makes a brine a brine). A good rule of thumb is for every two pounds of chicken, use about 1/4 cup salt and a quart of water. Sugar is optional. If you use it, use the same amount or less than salt. Sugar aids in browning and improves flavor (hey, it’s sugar). Other spices are even more optional. It’s really more of a personal preference, but I feel that you get diminishing returns by adding extra spices so I rarely go to the trouble. Because most other spices don’t dissolve as easily as salt or sugar, those flavors won’t be as noticeable. I’d rather just add them directly to the meat rather than lose them in the water. Sticking to just salt and sugar, which is cheap and everyone has in their pantry, means less trouble for you and an already vastly improved dinner. This means that your average whole chicken should use about 2 quarts of water, 1/2 cup salt and 1/2 cup sugar.

Now that your meat is swimming in salty liquid, how long should it soak?
For chicken, an hour will do fine. As little as 30 minutes makes a difference, so go for it if you can. Turkey requires a lot longer. A whole turkey can brine for 6 to 12 hours and turkey breasts alone can brine for 3 to 6 hours. Pork should brine for at least an hour.

So, in short:

  • For every 2 lbs chicken: 1 qt water, 1/4 cup salt, 1/4 sugar. Brine time: 1 hour.
  • For a 15 lb turkey: 2 gallons water, 1 cup salt (no sugar). Brine time: 6 to 12 hours.
  • For a 20 lb turkey: 3 gallons water, 1 1/2 cups salt (no sugar). Brine time: 6 to 12 hours.
  • For 5 lbs of pork: 3 cups of water, 1 1/2 tbsp salt and 1 1/2 tbsp sugar. Brine time: 1 hour.

Feel free to look up other proportions. There are no concrete rules about how to brine, but be aware that too much salt will yield meat too salty, and too little salt will not be enough to brine properly.

Cooking for Engineers has a very good explanation of what a brine does and some more suggested proportions.

Cook’s Illustrated also has a great article that gives suggested ratios on how much to use for different kinds of meat.

P.S. No interesting pictures for this post. It would just look like a ziptop bag of water with raw meat floating in it. Not terribly appetizing, so I thought I’d skip posting that!

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