Ask Peter: Brine
I have plenty of ideas for tasty brine solutions but my stumbling block is how long to brine for. Is there a general rule of thumb to follow? Thanks, your thoughts will be appreciated. Wayne Robinson
It’s interesting that the thought of brining is relatively new to New Zealand cooks, and yet it’s been going on forever in America. If only Alice, housekeeper in The Brady Bunch, had brined all those years ago, we’d no doubt have been on to it much earlier. I remember visiting Shirley Hopkins, my father’s cousin, in Arkansas in 1989 and talking to her about brined birds, while she was making the most delicious okra and cornmeal fritters at their house in the country. Even then it seemed slightly odd — the thought of sitting poultry in a tub of water, especially a Thanksgiving turkey — I mean how big a tub would you need, and would it fit in the fridge? I’d always associated the idea of soaking meat in water as a terrible thing, rather like the soaked scallops some unscrupulous fisherman would do, in order to get more dollars per kg.
However, having eaten many a delicious fried chicken from Mississippi through Louisiana and here in Hackney (!!), I’ve since brined whole chickens and guinea fowl, chicken legs and thighs, and I always brine a pork belly before roasting it.
There are two ways to brine: a wet brine, and a dry one — which would seem to be self-explanatory. However, it’s worthnoting the theory of brining. A brine will always contain salt, and that’s where it is different from a marinade. The aim of the latter is to impart flavour to a foodstuff, and sometimes to tenderise it. The purpose of a brine is either as a preservative (think of barrels of heavily salted mutton birds being transported in the days before refrigerated vacuum packs), or as a process to add moisture to animal protein. The science of it is that some muscle proteins are dissolved by salt, so when meat is immersed in brine some moisture is sucked into the flesh. However, when the meat is cooked, and with some of these muscles no longer working as efficiently (because there is less of them), they don’t contract as much as normal. Because they contract less, they don’t "squeeze" out the moisture in the meat, which makes for a more juicy roast.
For a dry brine, it’s simply a matter of rubbing salt on to and into the meat. The skin will prevent too muchbeing absorbed, and so it’s quite tricky to over-salt if skin is present. However, if you were to rub a lot of salt on to the flesh (of a breast) then you need to go easy, and just make sure it has just an even sprinkling. I’ve read recently that if you add 2 teaspoons of baking powder to . cup salt, you’ll get a crisper, more golden skin. I haven’t tried it myself but I’d like to get your feedback.
For a wet brine, and this is preferable when doing a whole bird as it’s hard to rub salt in the cavity, the rule of thumb is 6 per cent salt by weight to water. So, that’s 60g salt (just over 2 Tbsp) per litre of water. Dissolve the salt in a cup of boiling water, then add the rest of the water as cold as possible and you’re ready to soak your bird. A breast would need 90 minutes, chicken legs and thighs up to 2 hours, a whole chicken 8 hours, and a turkey 1-2 days. I must stress that they need to be in the fridge all the time.
As to whether a flavoursome brine adds flavour, I’m in two minds. When I brine a pork belly, I mix ground star anise into the salt and rub this on the belly and leave for 2 hours. Then I put it in a dish and pour on just enough cold water to cover. When it’s drained and roasted I can definitely taste the star anise. However, I’ve had a brined chicken that came out of a chilli and ginger-infused brine and I couldn’t taste anything. I’d suggest you try a plain brine and a flavoured one, and see if you really can tell the difference.
And lastly — re which salt to use: all salts are pretty much equal, but don’t use flaky sea salt as it’s really a waste of your money. Use a basic fine table salt and you’ll be happy.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.