When it comes to keeping foods moist on a smoker or grill, few techniques rival brining. A soak in a saline solution (which is what brine is) makes turkeys tender and succulent and pork chops plump and moist. Add a curing salt (like sodium nitrite) and brine gives pastrami its pinkish color and poultry or ham its umami richness.
So, how does brining work?
Muscles consist of long, bundled fibers. Moisture loss is inevitable when you hot-smoke or grill meat. The heat causes the muscle fibers to contract, wringing out the moisture—up to 30 percent of the meat’s original weight.
The goal of brining is to get more water into the meat, but it’s actually the salt that does the work by a process called denaturing. (Meat soaked in plain water will absorb moisture, but will not retain it during cooking.) Add salt to that water and the liquid enters and stays in the meat.
As anyone who has taken high school chemistry will remember, salt is comprised of two elements: sodium and chloride. When you dissolve salt in water, it breaks down into positive-charged sodium ions and negative-charged chloride ions. The sodium gives the meat its agreeable salty flavor.
When the chloride diffuses through the proteins in the meat, the negative ions repel each other, much like opposing magnets, pushing the meat fibers apart, creating gaps that are filled by water. It’s this—not osmosis—that causes the water to enter the meat and stay there.
So what’s the ideal ratio of salt to water for brine? Food scientists recommend 7 ounces of salt (roughly ¾ cup) per gallon of water. That gives you a salt concentration of 6 to 7 percent.
But there’s more to making brine than simply dumping salt in a bowl of water. First the salt: I like sea salt, which contains minute traces of magnesium, calcium halides, algae, and other compounds. Others prefer the purity of kosher salt. Salt dissolves slowly in cold water, so I like to bring part of the water to a boil before whisking in the salt. Then I add the remaining water (it should be ice cold) to bring the brine back to room temperature. Never add food to warm brine.
To make basic brine, you need only salt and water. You can also add curing salts and other seasonings, including sweeteners like sugar, honey, or maple syrup; aromatics like onion or garlic; and herbs and spices like bay leaves, juniper berries, and/or black peppercorns.
This brings us to a technique called equilibrium brining—advocated by food scientist and Modernist Cuisine visionary Nathan Myhrvold. The ultimate goal of brining is to give the food a salinity (salt content) of 0.5 to 1 percent. In traditional brining, you use a much saltier brine to achieve that salinity, then remove the excess salt by soaking and rinsing the meat with fresh water after brining. In equilibrium brining, you make the brine with the total amount of salt you want in the meat at the end. The advantage of equilibrium brining: more even brine dispersal and you never oversalt the meat. The disadvantage: The process involves elaborate calculations and measurements and takes considerably longer.
Excerpted from Project Smoke.
Use these recipes and tools to make the best brined meats: