Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Brining - It's all about salt and water!

This time of year I get a lot of questions about brining, especially as it relates to turkeys. Whole turkeys, because they are large and require a long cook time, and because they are pretty low in fat, can easily turn dry if you overcook them. The turkey industry is aware of this and to try and make it easier for the home chef to turn out a moist turkey every time, they often pre-brine their turkeys. Traditionally this would be done by submerging the turkey in salt water, but on a large scale it is more likely done by injecting salt water directly into the meat. Turkeys that have been treated this way tend to be sold as "enhanced", "pre-brined", "basted", or some other wording that is not "natural" or "no added ingredients". While pre-brined turkeys are easier, they may not be a better deal, that salt water might add an extra 12 - 14% in weight which you pay turkey prices for*. We handle both kinds of turkeys and try and let our customers know what they are getting in advance, but sometimes we don't know until we open up the cases.

Now let's say you've gotten your hands on a bird that has not been pre-brined. You don't have to brine it, brining just makes it a little more juicy and also gives you a bit more wiggle room if you overcook the turkey. Most of our smaller sized birds are not pre-brined, but the smaller birds don't dry out as much anyway so it's not such a bid deal. However, if you brine it, then when people compliment you on how great the turkey tastes, you can say something like, "Well, that's because of my great-great-grandma Bambi's secret brine recipe that I slaved over for the last couple of days." Then people will be amazed that you have a stripper in your lineage, you won't be able to get this amazement without brining your bird.

Meat loves salt, it's the perfect ingredient and the perfect condiment rolled into one. When meat is brined, or even when it dry-rubbed with a salty mix, the brine seeks to form an equilibrium. Since the water inside the cells of the meat has less salt than the brine, the brine water is absorbed (osmosis anyone?). Many meat proteins are soluble in salt, so the brine relaxes these proteins allowing space for even more water to be absorbed. The net effect is an uptake in water, salt, and any other flavors that you add to your brine. Note, this only works for water soluble flavors, so sugar works great but many spices are not water soluble. However, by briefly warming crushed spices in oil, which they are soluble in, and then mixing them into your brine, you can increase your chances that they will be drawn into the meat.

The difference between brining and salt curing are a little hazy. In both instances salt is used to help the meat pick up flavor, but in curing salt's antibacterial properties are at the forefront, whereas in brining it's more about the water. However, at higher concentrations brining is an excellent way to cure all kinds of things. Bacon is brined pork belly, Corned Beef is brined beef brisket, Ham is brined pork leg meat, and Pickles are the brined penises of the common garden gnome.

How to Brine a Turkey
The Meat Guy Method

1. Get yourself a food-safe container big enough for the bird, plastic is best, stay away from anything metal because it will react and make things taste metaly. I wouldn't recommend wood either, oven bags work great and you can then re-use it to cook your turkey in.

2. Weigh the empty container and write down the weight, approximate is fine, you can even use a bathroom scale.

3. Put the unwrapped turkey in the container, fill the container with water, then take out the turkey.

4. Weight the container which is now partially full of water. Subtract the weight of the container that you had written down. Now you've got the weight of the water, which, becauase of the joys of the metric system, is also the volume! (1 kg = 1 Lt.) If you are working with pounds you should basically give up at this point because you can't convert pounds to gallons, but if you want to try you can use 8 pounds per gallon.

5. Add salt, it's best to use sea salt--we sell two kinds, Fino and Grosso, both work just fine. Don't use iodized salt, it will make it taste iodiney. You want to use 50-60 grams of salt per liter of water and 20 grams of sugar. It's easier to dissolve the salt and sugar if you take a portion of the water, heat it on the stove, and dissolve the salt in the hot water, then return the mixture to the rest of the water in the container. An old wive's tale says that you've got enough salt in your brine if a potato floats, I try not to mess around with old wives.

6. Add other stuff, throw in some garlic, spices, maybe some bourbon (bourbon makes anything better). As the turkey sucks up the brine solution, it will also suck up any other flavors that you want to add. Be creative!

7. Put the turkey in the brine, it will float so you want the container cover to be able to hold it under a little bit, you can also pick up one of those weights that they use to make Japanese pickles, they work really well.

8. Put the whole mixture in the refridgerator. If your fridge is too small, you can put it in a cooler box with ice, add more ice as it melts.

9. Wait, at least 12 hours, 24 is better, 48 is a bit too long.

10. Remove the turkey, rinse it well, cook it! Don't re-use the brine!

Best of luck and Happy Brining!

*This is not exclusively the realm of the turkey industry, many types of meat, especially those that are sold in large discount chains, tend to be "enhanced". We have very few items like this and we always try and let our customers know what they are getting.

No comments: