What Is Brining?
Brining isn't just for turkey! In fact, it's worth it to brine beef, pork, chicken and fish.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
Brining is the process of infusing proteins with salt, sugar and and other flavorings via the process of osmosis. Osmosis, as you might remember from science class, has something to do with molecules passing back and forth through a membrane until there are equal concentrations on each side. What does that have to do with meat? It’s the how and why of brining.
What Is Brining?
Brining is the process of infusing proteins with salt, sugar and flavor. In addition, it tenderizes and moisturizes meat. Typically, the protein is soaked in a solution of water (or another liquid such as apple juice, beer or wine), salt and spices for a number of hours in the refrigerator.
Brining has been used for thousands of years to preserve meats and fish without refrigeration (corned beef and lox are two good examples). Today, of course, we have refrigeration, and the main reason we brine is for improved flavor and texture.
What Is a Brine?
The simplest brine is salt and water. Here's a little lesson on how brining works. Brine is far saltier than any type of protein. When you soak the protein in the brine, by the laws of osmosis, the salt wants to travel into the protein until the salt concentration in the protein and in the brine are equal to one another. Osmosis applies to other particles like sugar, which will do the same thing.
What Is the Benefit of Brining?
The benefit of extreme brining, packing proteins in pure dry salt or in a solution of salt water that has the absolute maximum amount of salt that water can physically hold (called a super-saturated salt solution) is preserving food. When the salt goes in, water comes out, and meats with very little water do not rot, which is why jerky comes in a bag on the shelf and not in the refrigerated case of the grocery store.
The benefit of what we’ll call gentle brining is transferring salt and other flavors into the meat itself and adding moisture. The moisture part is a bit counter-intuitive because preserving the meat means less moisture. Yes, but we’re talking about the gentle brining, where the salt that infuses the meat unravels and collapses some of the protein, allowing more water into the meat in addition to the salt.
Wet Brine Versus Dry Brine
A wet brine is exactly what it sounds like: a solution of salt, sugar, spices and other flavorings. It’s the brine most people use for turkey. Wet brining can be used for any meat or fish with a few adjustments to the salt concentration and the time the protein is in the brine. Corned beef is a great example of a meat that is wet brined in barrels. For the whole story of corned beef, see our story What Is Corned Beef?.
Dry brining is when meat is heavily salted and then left to sit for some time. The salted meat is put on a rack in a very shallow pan such as a half-sheet pan so the air can circulate around it. The meat can be left this way for hours or days, depending on the meat and the recipe. One common example of this method is the gravlax making process. Salmon is completely covered in a dry salt-sugar-herb mix and left to “cure” in the fridge. After two or three days, you brush away the cure and it’s ready to serve. For more on lox and smoked salmon check out our guide What Is Lox?. For the easiest, most impressive example of a dry brine, check out our Gravlax With the Works recipe, pictured above.
How to Make a Wet Brine
- Bring the salt mixture to a boil. Bring 1 cup boiling water, 1/3 cup kosher salt and 1/4 cup granulated sugar to a boil. Stir until the salt and sugar are fully dissolved. Remove from the heat.
- Stir in any flavor additions you'd like. Ideas include peppercorns, thyme and sage for turkey, lemon zest, thyme and tarragon for chicken or a couple teaspoons of pickling spice for pork.
- Cool the brine to room temperature. Add enough ice-cold water so the volume comes to 1 quart. Many brine recipes will tell you to heat up a whole quart of water, but we prefer to heat up less and then level off the volume with freezing water so the mixture doesn't take long to come to room temperature.
How Long to Wet Brine
Here are some rules for timing wet brining.
- Boneless chicken breast: 30 minutes at room temperature
- Fish fillets, shellfish and shrimp: 10 to 20 minutes at room temperature
- Whole chickens, pork loins and turkey breast: 4 to 12 hours in the refrigerator
- Full-size turkey: 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator (for more info on brining turkey in particular, check out our story How to Brine a Turkey, Two Ways)
If you have the time to let the meat dry out overnight in the fridge after it's done wet brining, it’s worth it. The dry skin will brown better than just-brined wet skin.
How to Make a Dry Brine
Dry brining is pretty simple: all you do is mix salt and spices together, then rub it onto the protein. For beef, chicken and pork, 1/2 teaspoon of salt per pound is a good amount to use.
How Long to Dry Brine
A good rule of thumb to follow for a dry brine is at least one hour for a beef steak, chicken or pork and up to 24 hours.
Here's why dry brining these smaller cuts of meat makes a difference. If you salted immediately before cooking, the salt will stay on the surface and be part of the crust. You’ll get that first hit of salty flavor when you take a bite, but it won't permeate throughout the meat.
Salting an hour before cooking is enough time for the salt to permeate inside the meat and tenderize it a bit. If you salt one day before cooking, the salt will have much more time to permeate the meat, so the flavor will be more evenly distributed and the meat will be even more tenderized.
Planning ahead isn’t always possible, you may not want an open pan with raw meat in your fridge, etc. But since you should always let meat (especially a steak) come to room temp before cooking, salting for the one hour ahead is great.
Beer replaces some of the water in this wet-brined chicken, and the flavor shines through the grilling and the sauce.
We love a dry brine, especially for a holiday when we have way too much in the fridge and don’t have room for a bucket of turkey in wet brine.
This recipe is a great example of how you can bring salt, spices, juice and zest together in a brine to elevate a pork roast.
The pastrami flavor in this brined turkey is delicious, and it would taste even more like pastrami if you grilled it with a few soaked wood chips for smoke.
Buttermilk, salt and hot sauce is a classic brine for fried chicken, but here it’s combined with salt, sugar and spices and applied to a rotisserie chicken. It won’t be exactly the same if you roast it, but it will be darn good.