Brining holds in meat's moisture

By Dennis Patillo
Feb. 13, 2018 at 5:45 p.m.
Updated Feb. 14, 2018 at 6 a.m.

Louise's Favorite Lemon Chicken.

Louise's Favorite Lemon Chicken.   Contributed Photo for The Victoria Advocate

Who likes rubbery chicken or dried-out pork? I know of no one.

Water, salt, sugar and a little time are all that are needed to turn out wonderfully moist, succulent fowl and pork.

Today let's discuss brining: why do it, what to do it to, how it works, how to do it and how it differs from marinating.

Before the days of refrigeration, brining was used to preserve meat. Think corned beef. Today, as many of us are eating leaner cuts of meat, we brine to retain moisture and add flavor.

Lean meats such as chicken, turkey, pork chops and pork loin can dry out very easily during cooking and always benefit from brining.

Almost anything can be brined, including vegetables, but for today's column, I will focus on pork and chicken.

Basic brine is just three ingredients: water, salt and sugar - and if you want, you can leave out the sugar.

My brine is one gallon of water, one cup of salt and half a cup of sugar. Most often, I use brown sugar. The little bit of molasses in brown sugar really picks up the flavor.

Start with a quart of water in a saucepan; add the salt and sugar and heat the ingredients until the salt and the sugar dissolve. Add the warm mixture to the balance of the water, and you're done. While you are dissolving the salt and the sugar, you might want to add some extra flavoring such as peppercorns, onions and fresh herbs.

Cool the brine completely before adding the meat. If you add chicken or pork to warm brine, you run the very real risk of food poisoning. That will ruin your day.

Completely submerge the meat in the brine. Weight it down with something if it wants to float. A good rule of thumb is to brine meat for one hour for every pound of meat.

Your timing does not have to be exact for this. That said, brining does change the structure of the proteins somewhat. Brining something for too long can make meat have a funky, mushy mouth feel.

If you stick pretty close to one hour per pound, you won't have any trouble.

Once brined, the meat should be removed, rinsed and dried. If you have ever tasted meat that was too salty after it was brined, I bet the cook omitted this step.

Brining also adds moisture to the skin of chicken. This isn't a good thing if you want crispy skin. You can fix this problem simply by putting the dried off chicken uncovered in the refrigerator for an hour or two. This step removes the moisture from the skin while leaving all the moisture in the meat.

If you are the inquisitive type, you may be asking, "How does all this work?" It works by osmosis. Remember your high school biology class, where you learned that "osmosis is the spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a semipermeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration in the direction that tends to equalize the solute concentrations on the two sides"?

Well, I didn't exactly remember that either. I looked it up. In a chef's world, the brine is saltier than the meat, and so the meat sucks in the salty, sweet, savory mixture. The same amount of water is lost during the cooking process, but because the meat is moister to begin with, it retains more moisture when it is served.

Many people are confused about the difference between brining and marinating. We brine food to keep it moist. We marinate food to add flavor.

Traditionally, a marinade is a little salty, a little sweet, a little acidic and a little savory. It is more like a surface coating because unlike brine, which penetrates the entire piece of meat, a marinade only penetrates a quarter of an inch or so.

Some think a marinade tenderizes the meat, but this is mainly an old wives' tale. The acid in a marinade will, however, slightly change the protein structure, which can make the meat seem a little more tender.

The acid can come from vinegar, citrus juice, tomatoes or wine.

A simple marinade is equal parts soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and olive oil; a tablespoon or two of freshly grated ginger; a couple of cloves of grated garlic; and a couple of grinds of black pepper. This is good for chicken, pork and beef.

For those old enough to remember Steak and Ale, if you replaced the balsamic vinegar with pineapple juice, you would have the marinade for the Hawaiian Chicken and the Kensington Club.

A marinade can also be dry, such as your favorite rub. Depending on how long the rub stays on the meat before cooking, we could be getting into curing meat, which is a whole other column I will be presenting soon.

Today's recipe is one of Louise's favorites. It is easy, and once the chicken has been brined, it is prepared quickly. Serve it with some crusty bread and a green salad. A little orzo pilaf would be good, too.

Dennis Patillo is a committed foodie and chef. He has spent a lifetime studying foods from around the world as well as regional cuisines. His passion is introducing people to ingredients and techniques that can be used in their home kitchens. He and his wife, Louise, own two restaurants: The PumpHouse Riverside Restaurant and Bar and The Sendera.


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