Brining food is similar to marinating, but more focused. Brining means to soak in a salt solution. Yes, there can be other things in the brine, and that can be really good, but at the core a brine is salt based. This is because there are specific goals to brining. Most notably moister and tenderer meat for the end result.
The Science of brines
Using simple physics, in this case capillary action and osmosis, water and salt migrate through the structure of the meat. A primary structural component of meat is myofibril, occupying about 70% of the volume in lean meat. The myofibril can expand to more than twice their volume when immersed in salt solutions and the meat overall can increase by as much as 10% by weight. That means more moisture in the meat, and can help with a better result after cooking with increased moisture levels.
The swelling of muscle fibers has a minor effect on the tenderness of the meat. More importantly, increasing the saline level within the cell allows the salt to essentially dissolve some of the meat proteins further facilitating softer meat.
Calculating the amount of salt to us is a point where opinions get somewhat divergent. Many brine recipes call for 5 ounces of salt to one quart water. Five ounces by weight is just under ½ cup kosher salt or just over ¼ cup table salt, because the finer crystals pack in tighter. This ratio creates a 15% brine solution, and you will see this common in many recipes and cooking advice sites. A 15% salt solution will be too salty and has a high risk of overdoing the salt flavor in your food.
Keeping with the scientific approach, meats and fish average about 0.9% salinity. You don’t want to raise that number by much more than 0.5% or it will likely be too salty to enjoy. Seawater is right around 3.5% salinity in general. All that leads to a numerous reputable sources agreeing that just under 6% salinity in your brine is an effective number to facilitate salt and water absorption, although you can get good results going as low as a 3% solution.
Dry Brine versus Wet Brine
Interestingly, this question has two important aspects that greatly affect the result; what type of meat and what cooking process. For example, take a brisket and a chicken breast, soak both in a 6% salt solution. Obviously longer for a thick fibrous brisket than a thin chicken breast, 4 or 5 days versus 6-8 hours respectively.
Both will increase their weight by close to 10% as a result of brining with similar salinity in the meat itself. We know they will be cooked differently and that will shift this scale…a lot. Oven roasting the brined chicken to an internal temp of 160 degrees will leave you with chicken that has retained almost twice the weight a non-brined breast retained, so you truly get that moist meat result.
The king of barbecue, the brisket, will be cooked low and slow to hit the magic 203 degrees internal temp. As a result you end up cooking out all that extra moisture during the process. That isn’t to say the brisket is dry, it has just shed the water weight ending up with the same weight result as a non-brined brisket.
Make sure the brine is at room temperature or colder before placing in the meat, never place meat in a warm/hot brine.
Which brings us to dry brining. Obviously there is no water to be absorbed into the meats. Not only that, you have to put a solid layer of salt on the exterior of the meat. This can cause a gradient of saltier meat on the outside and less so in the middle. It can also over salt the meat if you are not careful. This is one breakdown on weight loss; Plain 15%, Dry 12%, Brined 8%. The end result is that dry brined chicken meat will lose less moisture than non-brined, resulting in a juicer end result.
Brisket is completely different. A dry brine for about one third of the time compared to a wet brine produces similar salinity in the meat. But remember all that extra water cooked out of the wet brined brisket? We all know the stall, that period where the moisture leaving the meat evaporates creating the cooling effect that stalls temperature gain in the meat. That extra water means extra time to get the brisket through the stall and cooked, particularly when compared to dry rubbed. Also, the dry rub creates a better bark.
But, and there always is a ’but’. Salt diminishes smoke absorption. That same rearranging of the proteins in the meat as a result of higher salinity makes the meat less able to absorb the smoke flavors. These flavors transfer much more effectively to the meat with moisture. Using coarser salt for your rub will help create fewer salted ‘spots’ allowing better smoke flavoring. So, dry rub is better for brisket and slow cooked red meats. And you get the best results of bark and smoke with a moist smoking environment and coarse salt in the dry brine.
Brining for Texture AND Flavor
We’ve spent a lot of time on the positive attributes of using salt to improve the texture of your meat to be smoked. Naturally it will bring salt to the equation making the natural flavors show better when the time comes to eat up. This step will also allow you to bring more flavors than just the salt to your recipe.
The most common addition, is sugar. Virtually every meat ready for the smoker will be improved with judicious sweetening. Anything from honey to brown sugar agave syrup or plan granulated sugar. Similarly to salt, you want to watch the amount you used but obviously for different reasons. It is harder to throw the flavors as far out of whack as salt is capable of, but it can still be too sweet.
For brining your basic rule of thumb is an equal amount of sugar to salt. Dry rubs you can go a little heavier on the sugar in general. Be aware of what equal amounts means, see below. Our recipes will be done in American standard kitchen measures of volume; cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, etc.
There is a lot more than sugar that can be included in your brines and rubs. Citrus and other fruits, pepper and just about any spice, and herbs, all have a place in the brining and rub process. Too high an acid content can alter meats in both good and bad directions. You can get the fruit flavors from rinds peels and zest without significantly changing the ph.
Salt weight and volume differences
Many of us don’t have a kitchen scale right at hand. So be aware that weight by volume of finely ground table salt is higher than kosher salt. There are also variations between kosher salt types, larger crystals pack less densely so they have even less weight by volume. One cup of fine salt weighs in at just over 10 ounces. Kosher salt a hair over eight ounces for each measured cup. Since kosher salt typically has less additives than table salt, that is our go to ingredient. If you use fine grind, adjust accordingly.
Classic brisket dry rub
- ¼ Cup kosher Salt
- ¼ Cup brown sugar
- 2 Teaspoons Granulated Garlic
- 2 Teaspoons Onion Powder
- ¼ Cup Paprika
- 1 Teaspoon Black Pepper fine grind
- 2 Teaspoons Cayenne Pepper
- 1 Teaspoons Dried Oregano
- 2 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
- 1 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
- 1 Teaspoon Chili Powder
- In a bowl mix together all ingredients.
- Depending on how chunky your brown sugar, is grab a whisk or throw a glove on and mix this until the pieces are all broken up and evenly sized.
Herbed Brine for Chicken or Turkey
- Boiling pan
- 1 Gallon water (divided)
- 1 Cup salt (1 1/2 cups Kosher or coarse salt)
- 1 Cup white sugar
- 10-20 Fresh tarragon leaves (or 1/4 cup dried tarragon)
- 1 Teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 2 whole bay leaves
- Bring two quarts of water to a boil, add all ingredients stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and add in remaining water. Wait until, cooled fully to add you meat.
Maple brine for turkey, chicken or pork
- Boiling pan
- 4 Quarts water divided
- 1 Cup dark brown sugar
- 1 Cup white sugar
- 1 Cup soy sauce
- 1 Cup maple syrup
- ¾ Cup sea salt
- 8 Cloves whole garlic cloves peeled
- 6 Bay leaves
- 3 Large fresh thyme sprigs
- 2 Tablespoons molasses
- 2 Teaspoons whole black peppercorns
- 1 Cup bourbon whiskey
- Add all ingredients to one half of the water and bring to a soft boil until sugars are dissolved. Add remaining water and let cool before adding meat.
Brine for smoked salmon or other seafood
- Boiling pan
- 10 Cup of water
- 1 Cup of Kosher Salt
- 1 Cup Brown Sugar
- 1 Tsp Onion Powder
- 1 Tsp Garlic Powder
- Bring two cups of water to a boil, dissolve all ingredients in while stirring continuously. Remove from heat, add extra water, and allow to cool completely before brining your seafood.