To brine or not to brine?
Our favorite fried chicken recipe – Thomas Keller’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken – begins with a brine. So what is brining all about?
What is Brining?
At its most basic, brining is submerging meat in a solution of salt and water for many hours before cooking, enhancing the meat’s ability to retain moisture and tenderness, while also seasoning it.
The brining process changes the structure of meat on a cellular level. Brined meat absorbs salty water, then the salt reacts with the proteins, creating little pockets which trap moisture, and resulting in meat that’s ultra-juicy, tender and flavorful.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Here are a few simple brining rules of thumb.
Always use a non-reactive food-safe vessel that is large enough to hold your meat while being surrounded and fully submerged in brine, yet small enough to fit inside your refrigerator.
Use a basic stainless steel stockpot, hotel pan or large, plastic food service tub. If you’re brining a large bird, like a turkey, you may need to remove or adjust a shelf in your refrigerator to accommodate it. When brining whole birds, you may want to weigh them down to keep them fully submerged. A heavy lid or plate that fits inside your container under its own lid works well.
Meat to Brine
Lean, mildly flavored meats that are usually cooked to a high internal temperature are great candidates for brining, such as turkey, chicken, capon, poussin, veal and pork. Our recipe for Simple Brined and Grilled Poussin is a good place to start – the smaller birds are easy to handle, and incredibly tasty.
For all-purpose brine, a good rule of thumb is: ¼ cup of kosher salt and ¼ cup of sugar for every quart of water. You can also add aromatics or other flavorings to intensify the seasoning, like whole peppercorns, garlic cloves, dried herbs, whole spices, citrus or other fruit, mirepoix or fruit juices.
Time it Right
In general, allow for about an hour per pound of meat. When brining birds, you may also want to allow time for air-drying the skin after brining. The downside of the meat absorbing all of that water is that the skin is much harder to crisp.
After the Brine
Always remember to rinse meat after the brine, to remove excess surface salt and any herbs or sugars that could potentially burn. Don’t worry – it won’t “wash away” all of your hard brine work.
Pat dry and lay your meat on a sheet pan, uncovered in the refrigerator for several hours, or even overnight. Exposure to the refrigerator’s cold air is enough to dry out the skin for crisping. In the case of birds, this is particularly important.
When cooking brined meats, the meat juices are often too salty to make a pan-sauce. It’s a good idea to have some demi-glace on hand to make a rich sauce.