BIG PICTURE 1- BRINING VS. MARINADING
It seems most folks have made a marinade at one time or another and are familiar with them. But many of those same folks haven’t brining food. Many people think brines and marinades are basically the same. That is not true.
The main purpose of a marinade is to impart flavor to a food and tenderize it to a lesser extent, Unlike a brine the food does not have to be completely submerged in the marinade.
- A marinade is a liquid mix containing at least one acid (vinegar, lemon lime juice, wine...) and at least one basic item (oils, yogurt, honey).
- The main purpose of a marinade is to infuse the food with intense flavorings.
- The marinade is typically made to be slightly acidic and a secondary purpose of the marinade is it will break down the food over time and tenderize it.
- If you keep the food in the marinade too long, you can turn it to mush. Do not keep the food in the marinade longer than the recipe calls for.
- It is important to follow the proportions in the recipe carefully so the food will have the right acidity.
- One difference between a marinade and a brine, is the food does not have to be immersed and completely covered by the marinade. You will turn the food to make sure both sides receive the flavoring.
A brine’s main purpose is to keep the food moist during cooking with the secondary function of adding some additional flavor to the food. This brisket soaks for 21 days and definitely benefits from the flavorings aded to the brine. Unlike a marinade the food is always completely submerged while brining.
This is a very simplistic description of the science behind brining. To learn more refer to the excellent article on brining at the Virtual Weber Bullet Website.
- A brine is a mix of one or more liquids, one is often water, and a salt.
- The brine soaks into the food and several chemical processes take place which gives the food more moisture and helps the food retain this moisture during cooking.
- You can also introduce a little extra flavor to your food when brining by using some other ingredients, but this is not the main purpose.
- If you keep a food in a brine too long it will be too salty.
- A brine completely submerges the food in the brine. This is not necessarily true of a marinade.
BIG PICTURE 2 - WHAT IS BRINING?
- Brining soaks the food in a refrigerated salt/ liquid mixture.
- The brine at first resides outside the cells of the food. The salt is drawn into the cell structure of the food. This in turn draws more moisture into the cells of the food.
- The composition of the area outside the cells is also changed. This serves as a protective barrier around the cells, which helps hold in the newly added moisture in the cells during cooking.
- The end result is a very moist food which can also have a small amount of additional flavor added through the use of additional ingredients.
BRINING - THE PROCESS
- Brining involves mixing liquids and salt and bringing them to a boil. Once the mixture has cooled other ingredients are added to bring a little extra flavor into the mix, if desired.
- The boiling helps thoroughly mix the salt and liquid so that the salt doesn’t just drop out of suspension and settle to the bottom of the pan. I would also guess the boiling is also used to kill off any bacteria present in the liquids.
- The brine needs to cool to room temperature and then it gets refrigerated.
- Once the brine has cooled and has had the other dry ingredients added, the food is added to the brine.
- The food and brine are refrigerated for 1,2 or more days. Depending on the recipe the food may also be soaked for several days in water at the end to draw out some of the salt.
- If the food is in the brine for a long time, such as a corned beef brisket, you will need to flip the food every few days. Long term brines are covered a little more in the BRINING section below
- Like any aspect of cooking you’ll want to practice good hygiene. Thoroughly wash your hands and make sure your work surface are clean.
- This is particularly true of items you need to brine for a long period of time, where you will be flipping the food every several days. This introduces more opportunities to introduce bacteria to the food. Make sure your hands are clean. Was them again when you are done.
- Make sure the food is completely submerged both when you start, and over time. If any part of the food is exposed to air, spoilage can follow. This is particularly true with long term brines. Make sure the level of the brine remains high enough to cover the food.
- The level of the brine will go down somewhat over time due to some of the brine being absorbed by the food item. Be sure to allow for this when you are figuring on the amount of brine to use. Make sure you have extra cover for the food.
- Do not reuse your existing brine for any purpose after you are done with it.
- If you need to make more brine to make up for the level of brine dropping, make a scaled down small batch and let it cool to room temperature. Then put it in a separate container and place it in the fridge to completely cool down. Only then should you add it to the main brining container.
- You can use many types of containers for brining. They are typically going to be some sort of plastic and the key factor is they must be made from food safe plastic. They will be marked as safe for contact with food.
- There are specially made brining bags which are food safe and use a heavier plastic than regular plastic bags. Plastic bags make me a bit nervous and one of the fears that kept me away from brining was the thought of a plastic brining bag springing a leak in the fridge. If I was to use a plastic bag, I would either double bag it or put the bag in another container like a large pan or plastic pail. The pail doesn’t have to be food safe since in theory it won’t contact the brine or food except if disaster strikes. But a non-food safe pail will save the fridge, but the food would be lost.
- For smaller items you can use food storage bags. Ziplock type bags where you press the seams together get better seals than the type with a zipper closure. Freezer bags are better than normal bags because freezer bags have thicker walls.
- A FoodSaver bag can be used for small items. Seal one end of the bag, add the food and the brine and use the manual function to draw as much air out as possible. Then seal the bag.
- Do NOT use trash bags, they are not food safe.
- Restaurants often get food in plastic pails. if you have connections at a restaurant you may be able to score some of these pails for free.
- Coolers make good brine containers if you have a place to store them where the temperature stays below 40 degrees throughout the brine period. You will need to use some sort of food safe weight to help hold the food down.
- You can use large non-reactive pans. The two suitable materials are stainless steel and anodized aluminum.
The container on the left is made by Rubbermade and can be found in the Kitchen section of most stores. It has a tight fitting lid and can be used for brining shallow foods like brisket. The Cambro container on the right is sold at restaurant supply stores. It holds 4.75 gallons (18 L) and has a snap on lid that is air tight. For longer brines you need to use additional means to get an airtight seal. It is great for large items like turkeys.
- Restaurant supply stores can be a good source for food safe plastic buckets, tubs and containers of all shapes and sizes from small to large. The one I have is made by Cambro and is a clear plastic tub measuring 18” x 12” x 9” (45.75 x 30.5 x 22.75 cm) and it has a 4.75 Gallon (18 L) capacity. This sized container just fits in my fridge and is the perfect size for the 13-14 pound (6-6.33 Kg) turkey I make every year. The tub has a snap-on lid which is tight fitting but not air-tight. More on this aspect in a minute. Rubbermade and Cambro are two brands you will often see, with the smaller Rubbermade sizes also being available in Kitchen stores and retail stores.
- The longer you are brining for, the more important an air-tight lid is. The Cambro tub I use has a tight fitting lid, but it is not air-tight. For a 24 hour brine like a turkey this is fine. For a 3 week brine you want a totally air-tight lid. The key is keeping the food under the surface of the brine. During a 3 week brine for pastrami I would loose too much liquid if I didn’t take steps to make the lid air-tight. So when I use the Cambro tub for pastrami I cover the lid completely with a plastic wrap and tape the seams to make the lid airtight.
- VERY IMPORTANT-IF USING A FIXED SHAPE PLASTIC CONTAINER/ COOLER/PAN: The first time making a recipe you may want to test out two things. First is your container actually big enough to hold the food item you want to brine. Next you should probably test out the amount of brine you will need to make. For turkey in my Cambro tub, I found I needed to make 1.5 batches of the brine. To test this out: Add up the amount of liquid ingredients in the brine recipe and add that amount of cold water to your brining container. Then add your food item to the water to see if the water will cover it. The first time I brined a turkey, I put my turkey in a double plastic bag and twisted the top closed. I was able to submerge it to just below the top of the plastic bag to determine if I needed more brine. This first time I found I needed 1/2”or so more brine. I decided to use another 1/2 batch because the plastic bag kept the water out of the cavities of the turkey and I wanted to also allow for the turkey absorbing some of the brine over time.
- PLASTIC BAGS OR BRINING BAGS: Many brining bags will tell you how much brine to make, or you will know the capacity or the bag. Food storage bags will show their sizes. You can’t put more than a gallon of brine in a one gallon freezer bag, the real world amount will be less with the food in it.
- If you are doing several small items, you can use multiple smaller bags and distribute the brine evenly between them.
- Not too long ago, I used to think salt was salt, at least in terms of how much you used on a given recipe. This is not necessarily true and in brining you are shooting for a fairly precise balance between salt and water.
- Some people avoid Iodized table salt for brines because they feel it can give the food an iodine taste. There have been taste tests that show otherwise.
- Different brands of salt have different shaped crystals, which cause them to pack together differently. This means you can’t measure out the table salt using the same volume and expect to get the same level of saltiness. You must measure it by weight.
- Table salt weighs 10 oz. (283 gm) per cup, while Morton Kosher salt weighs 7.7 oz. (218 gm) per cup and Diamond Crystal Kosher salt weighs 5 oz. (142 gm) per cup. As you can see this is up to a 2:1 difference. By volume this means 1 cup (0.25 L) of table salt = 1.25 cups (0.33 L) of Morton Kosher salt = 2 cups (0.5 L) of Diamond Crystal kosher salt.
- Good brining recipes will often give you a chart for the most commonly used salts showing both the weight and volume of salt needed for that recipe.
- Measuring salts by weight for brines is what got me to finally buy a Kitchen scale, which I use all the time now for baking and other things.
- Read the directions for other ingredients carefully so you don’t waste time doing more prep work than is required.
- The other ingredients are typically added after the liquid/salt mixture for the brine has cooled.
- I don’t add these other ingredients until just before I add the food. This way they are at their freshest.
- These other ingredients are often added in a coarser fashion. Herbs go in whole, fruit is quartered and squeezed, and garlic gets crushed and then you remove the skin.
The liquids and salt are brought to a boil.
BOILING THE LIQUID/SALT MIXTURE
- Place the liquid ingredients for the brine and the salt in a large pan. If you don’t have a large enough pan use two. Be sure to leave some room in the pan for the mixture to rise up when it begins to boil. Do not fill the pan almost to the top.
- Think of this process in terms of a large freight train. It takes a long time to get the train under way and up to speed and once under speed they can take miles to stop.
- Or think of it another way: Everyone has boiled water for pasta. It takes a long time to get the water to the boiling point, but once you do it is easy to have a boil over. Now when this happens with a little of the pasta water, it is no big deal. You lose some pasta water and you have some light cleanup at the stove. With a brine, you are wasting the brine and the cleanup is far from easy.
- For this reason always be standing and watching the brine and be prepared to pull it off the heat at once if it starts to boil.
- If you are not right at the stove and if the brine liquid goes from not boiling to a rolling boil you will not be able to get back fast enough to prevent the rising liquid from overflowing the pan. Don’t ask me how I know this, And did I mention that the apple juice, water, sugar & salt mixture of my Thanksgiving brine is the worst thing I have ever had to clean off my glass cooktop? You may think you are saving time putting things away while the brine is heating. But how does that 5 minutes saved compare to an hour or more of hard cleaning if the mixture boils over on you.
- You can use the pan lid to help the brine liquid heat faster, but I usually keep it on for the first half of the heating. Once again think runaway freight train. If it is a solid lid I keep it ajar so it is not tightly sealed and I can peek in on things without removing the lid. I find I have to leave the glass lids ajar as well, because so much condensation forms on the lid I can’t see what is going on in the pan.
- Depending on your stove, your pans and the amount of liquid you are boiling this process could take 15, 20 or 30 minutes. As mentioned above always be within reach of the pan.
- When you think the brine is getting close to boiling you can start reducing the heat in steps. But once again do not leave the stove. Boiling can happen all at once and turning the burners down more may not stop the liquid from boiling over. Be ready to quickly but gently slide the pan to an unlit burner.
COOLING OFF PERIOD
- I usually make the brine in a two-step process, starting 24 hours or more before I want to add the turkey to the brine.
- You DO NOT want to put the food into a hot or room temperature brine. You also don’t want to put that much hot liquid into the refrigerator to cool. It can raise the temperature of the fridge, which is never a good thing.
- Once the brine has boiled for a minute, I move the uncovered pan to an unlit burner to cool.
- If you have an unheated basement or porch you can move the pan there to help speed up the cooling process. I am not that lucky.
- You need to leave plenty of time for what is a two step cooling process. First let the boiling liquid cool down to room temperature, which I’ve found can take 4-6 hours. Then put the room temperature liquid in the refrigerator to cool down to below 40 degrees. I’ve never timed this step, but the way I do it the brine is cooled overnight plus most of the day.
- My turkey gets brined for 24 hours and then is removed from the brine and is allowed to sit in the fridge overnight. This lets the surface of the skin dry off and helps you get a crispier skin. So working this backwards I need the turkey to come out of the brine Wednesday night. This means it needs to go into the brine Tuesday night. For that to happen I boil the liquid part of the brine Monday.
- I used to have to boil the liquid when I got home from work. If I got home at 7:30 PM and I had the brine boiled and cooling by 8:00 PM, this meant I’d be up to 12:00 AM to 2:00 AM waiting for the brine to cool to room temperature. Now that I work from home I can start late afternoon say 4:00 or 5:00 PM and the brine liquid is cooled off by 11:00 PM.
- Once the brine has cooled to room temperature, I put the cover back on the pan and put the pan in the fridge.
For this turkey brine the other ingredients are chopped up, measured out etc. just before the turkey is to be added to the brine liquid. The brine liquid goes from the refrigerator to the brine pan, next comes the other ingredients and lastly the turkey. Most brines follow this pattern.
- 24 hours plus an hour or so before I want the turkey to come out of the brine, I begin the final prep for the brine.
- I do all of the prep for the other brine ingredients before removing the brine liquid or the food from the fridge.
- As mentioned before: Read the recipe directions carefully because you are often doing coarse chopping of herbs or just adding them whole. Fruit is cut in half or in quarters then the liquid is squeezed out into the brine. Then the pieces of fruit are added in too.
- Once all the prep is done I get the refrigerated brine liquid out of the fridge and add it to my clean brining tub.
- I always wash my plastic brining tub in the dishwasher the day before I need it. I use the No-Heat drying method so I don’t melt it.
- Once the brine liquid is in the brining tub, I add the halved or quartered fruit. I squeeze the fruit out over the liquid and the drop the fruit into the brine.
- Next I drop in all of the remaining ingredients and give the mixture a good stir with a large whisk.
- I remove the food from the fridge, unwrap it and add it to the brine.
- If you are brining a turkey be sure to remove the neck and gizzards from the two body cavities before adding the turkey to the brine.
- Make sure the food item is submerged in your container. Most food items will try to float and will need to be weighed down.
- If you are using a plastic bag, you can use a slightly larger container like a pan to hold the bag and give it shape. It will also act as a containment if the bag should break.
This is one way of holding the food down while brining. I used two stacked glass bowls to press down the turkey when the lid is on the brining tub.
- Many recipes mention using a plate. I find I need more than that and a plate can cover part of the food, preventing the brine from going in through the skin in that area. For the turkey which takes only one day, I will use one or more of the glass bowls that I normally measure ingredients into to hold the bird down. I invert the bowl, making sure to trap some brine under it to take care of the part of the turkey under the bowl. Then I snap the lid down. You must get this just right if the bowl(s) stick up too much the lid won’t snap down tight or will pop off later.
A Cool-Whip container was used to make this shim. The bottom was cut off to leave a piece the right height to hold the brisket down when the lid was placed on the container. The container was place with the lid face down on the meat. This spread the contact area out vs. the cut side. I also cut one side of the container to allow the brine to flow inside the Cool-Whip container.
- A second method that works well is to take a Cool-Whip container and remove the bottom, leaving just enough height in the top half to push the food down. I also cut the side open and remove a piece so that the brine will go to the area under the lid. I invert the remaining piece of the top half, so the the top lip is touching the top of the food and close the lid. You don’t want the cut edge you’ve created in the top half of the container cutting into the food. That is why you put the top lid against the food. I find I have more precise height control this way, than with the stacked glass bowls. You can cut anywhere along the side of the Cool-Whip container to get the exact height you need.
- If it is a long term brine and I am using my Cambro container I need to seal the lid. The Cambro’s lid is tight fitting and good for a day or so’s use, but it is not airtight. So once the lid is snapped in place, I cover it with Glad press and seal food wrap and then seal the seams & edges with 2” (5 cm) wide fiber lined packing tape.
The brining container is in the fridge. Check on it occasionally to make sure the food is completely under the brine and that it hasn’t shifted.
- The brining container is placed in the fridge, which should be below 40 degrees.
- Be careful picking up the container for the transfer to the fridge, The container will now be quite heavy. For example when brining a turkey I have a 14 pound turkey plus just over 2 gallons of brine which weighs about 18 pounds. This is 32 pounds total and it is in a bulky container that can be difficult to maneuver.
- If you can, place the container on the bottom floor of the refrigerator. This is the coldest part of the fridge and in theory it can support more weight than a shelf.
- If you have an unheated area of the house where the temperature will never go above 40 (4 C) or below 30 (-1 C) you can use this area instead of the fridge. But be sure to have a Plan B. It is going to be in the 50’s (10 C) to near 60’s 16 C) here the days leading up to my cooking the bird. I’d be S.O.L on trying to store it outside the fridge.
SHORT TERM BRINES
- For a short term 24 hour brine, like a turkey, once the brine container and food a back in the fridge that is about it. I check the container every so often to make sure the bird hasn’t shifted and remains under the liquid. Just take a peek when you go into the fridge for something else.
LONG TERM BRINES
- For longer term brines lasting 2-3 weeks, like brisket, I look in on it every morning and every evening. Once again I am checking to make sure the meat is under the surface of the brine and hasn’t shifted or floated to the surface.
- Every 2-3 days, or as directed by the recipe, I will flip the meat over. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly both before and after handling the meat.
- Take careful notice of the level of the brine. You are trying to use a completely airtight container for a long term brine like this. But even if you don’t lose brine to evaporation in the fridge, you are still opening the container every couple of days. Also the meat will absorb some of the brine which will lower the level of the brine.
- Try to anticipate level drops so that you can make up a new smaller batch of brine at least 24 hours before you will need it. This way you can let the brine cool to room temperature and then cool overnight in the fridge, before adding it to the brine tub.
A turkey is air brined overnight after being removed from the brine. It is sitting on a wire rack in a sheet pan.
- When it is time to remove the brine from the fridge, remember how heavy it is.
- The recipe will often give you instructions on what to do next.
- Turkeys are often brined for 24-48 hours and get removed from the brine about 12 hours early. You towel it off and return the uncovered bird back in the fridge. This allows the surface of the skin to dry out and results in a crisper skin when the bird is cooked.
- The recipes for items the have been brined for a few days will often call for them to be rinsed off with cold water and patted dry before using.
- The recipes for long term brines will often call for the items to be removed from the brine and then be soaked for 1-2 days in water. You can re-use the brine container for this, just be sure to rinse it out thoroughly. Make sure the final rinse is with cold water and use cold water to refill the container.
- Food safe plastic containers can be cleaned and reused many times.
- Plastic bags are used once and thrown out.
- Do not re-use the brine once the food has been removed.
- Brined foods cook faster. At least this is the conventional wisdom. While I have found it to be true sometimes, it is not always true. Of course I smoke my turkey(s) in the colder months of the year, so they may have cooked faster but colder air temps and wind may have negated that.
- You can overcook your brined food to some extent and it will not dry out. This is definitely the case. I’ve had a couple dishes go a bit over their doneness temp and everything was fine. This was usually a case because I was trying to extend the cooking time a bit to allow other items to finish.
So there you have it: my 22 cents on brining. I was always a little afraid of brining, but with a little common sense it is actually quite easy. The main things you have to take special care of are listed below:
1) Make sure to have clean hands and work areas
2) Don’t let the brine liquids boil over. Watch them carefully.
3) Allow plenty of time for the brine liquids to cool to room temp and then to cool to below 40 degrees (4C) in the fridge.
4) Make sure to make enough brine. Too much is better than too little.
I would never make a turkey without first brining it. The homemade pastrami I’ve made has been the best pastrami I’ve ever had. Try out a brined turkey some time before next Thanksgiving, I’ll bet you’ll then want to brine your next Thanksgiving turkey.