BRINING and other related recipes: what, why and how

Brining and other related recipes - Embers on the hearth

Brining is usually associated with old grandmas, people with too much time do to their Christmas turkey, and fancy chefs so they can charge more for their food. The reality is that brining is extremely easy and can completely change the texture and flavour of the foods you cook at home.

So, before dismissing it as old-fashioned or too fancy, give it a chance. I’m sure, you’ll change your mind.

What is a brine?

A brine is basically salty water. The amount of salt can be as low as 3%, and as high as 25% depending on what the brine is going to be used for. For most home-cooking, brines between 5% and 10% are the most common. When in doubt, a basic 7% works well for most purposes.

Of course, you are not just limited to salt. Other ingredients like spices, herbs or vinegars can also be added to the brine to change the flavour.

As you can imagine, there is some math involved in making a brine, but it’s nothing too complicated and I will show you step-by-step how to go about it.

When it comes to cooking, brining can be done either with this salty water or with coarse salt (this is called dry brining), for this guide I’m sticking to the salty water kind of brine.

Is brining the same as pickling, curing, dry brining, or marinating?

Brining is different from all of those. You may these words used as synonyms, but that’s not right. They all mean very different things!

  • Brining has a low level of acidity, it is done over a short amount of time and is meant as a way to enhance the texture (and sometimes flavour) of food.
  • Pickling is done for long-term storage. It can be done with an acid (vinegar) or a brine (salty water) as a medium for lacto-fermentation.
  • Curing is a long-term drying process that is used for preservation.
  • Marinating involves more acid than brining, usually vinegar or lemon juice, and the goal is to add flavour to the food.
  • Dry-brining happens when you cover food in salt for a while before cooking. It is usually used as an alternative to traditional brining when the cook wants to keep the food very crispy after cooking.

What can I brine?

Pretty much anything that is edible and has a somewhat high water content can be brined: meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, fruit. However, brining is generally used a s a way to make drier meats juicier and flavour cheese.

A brine will change the flavour of the food and also help with preservation (to a degree). If dry brining is used, then the moisture content will go down and a curing process will start take place.

Why should I bother with brining?

When cooking meat, about 1/3 of the water content is lost. Brining is one way to prevent this loss. The water of brine gets into the meat, so it will start the cooking process with a much higher water content. The salt of the brine helps flavour the meat and kick starts the breakdown process of the muscles, which makes the meat more tender.

While this process is much more obvious in meat, it also takes place in other foods. And even if you’re not going to cook vegetables, fish, or cheese the brining process can greatly improve the flavour. I almost always brine potatoes before roasting them and they taste much better than when they are salted on the outside.

If you prefer a crispy texture, dry brining is a better option.

Making a brine

Get your ingredients

All you need for a brine is water and salt. Don’t use delicate flavouring salts (you’ll just be wasting your money) or table salt with anti-caking agents (they’ll mess up your brine). A cheap sea salt or table salt without an anti-caking agent will work. If you’re not sure whether your table salt has an anti-caking agent, check the list of ingredients, it will be listed there.

To make a brine you’ll also need a scale and maybe a calculator (if maths are not your strong suit).

Weighing the water

You will need enough water to completely submerge whatever it is you are brining. There are basically two ways to do this:

  • You can put the food in the brining container, cover it with the water, and transfer the water to a different container to weigh.
  • You can put the food in the brining container, set your scale tare to 0, and weigh the water as you add it.

Which method works better depends on what you are bringing, the container you are using, and your scale.

Adding the salt

Once you know how much water you have, you’ll need to calculate the amount of salt. This is a basic ‘rule of 3’ calculation that you learnt at school (and probably forgot about).

The calculation goes:

salt weight = (brine percentage x water weight)/100

For example, if you have 600 grams of water and want a 7% brine you would do this: (7×600)/100 = 4200/100 = 42 grams of salt.

Once you have the salt weight, you add it to the water and mix until it dissolves.

Adding flavours (optional)

At this point you can add any additional flavours you want. Anything that would go into a spice rub, will work in a brine.

Herbs and spices will help with flavour and sugar will help with caramelization. Be careful with acids, as they will start ‘cooking’ meats if you use them and you will be marinating instead (think of the way a ceviche is prepared).

Brine and chill

Cover your food in the brine (if you haven’t already) and keep in the fridge until ready to cook.

  • Fish needs to be brined for 20 to 30 minutes
  • A whole chicken and smaller cuts of pork need to be brined for about 4 to 5 hours
  • A whole turkey and larger cuts of pork need to be brined for 10 to 15 hours.
  • Vegetables, cheese and tofu can be kept for several days. If left outside, lacto-fermentation will start after the first day or so.
  • Beef and lamb are usually not brined (unless they will be well-cooked).