Curing meats, poultry, and fish in a salt and water solution is known as brining or wet curing.
Brining provides depth in flavor, tenderness, and a moister final product. The base of a brine is salt and water, and sometimes sugar. Kosher salt is preferred because it doesn’t have any additives, such as potassium iodine, dextrose, and calcium silicate, an anti-caking ingredient found in table salt. Frequently, other seasonings are included in a brine as well. Soaking in this basic solution works just fine, but often other ingredients such as fruit juices, herbs, spices, or garlic are also added for flavor. You can tailor the flavor added by a brine by the ingredients and seasonings you use.
For example, you could brine a duck breast in orange juice with orange zest, brown sugar, soy sauce, and ginger; all of these flavors match well with duck. Salt also denatures protein and makes meat tenderer. A flank steak, which is a thin cut of beef, can be chewy even if it is cut thinly against the grain after cooking. If it is allowed to cure overnight in a dry cure or brine, it will be much tenderer after being cooked. In addition, brining causes the meat to absorb moisture, so when the product is cooked, it will be juicy and moist. Pork, “the other white meat,” has been bred to be very lean. Brining leaner cuts of pork make it juicer and more flavorful after being cooked.
To prepare the brine: Bring 25 percent of the quantity of liquid to a boil with the salt, sugar, spices, and other seasonings and simmer for a few minutes to dissolve the salt and sugar and extract the flavors from the seasonings. Strain the liquid and add the remaining 75 percent of the cold liquid. The brine must be chilled to 40°F or below before adding the meat. Then the product must be completely submerged in the brine and refrigerated.
If you cannot fit the product into your refrigerator, try placing the container into an ice chest and surrounding it with ice. Tall 5-gallon water-coolers, like you see at construction sites or ball games, also work well. When you make the brine, add ice to bring the total volume up to 5 gallons. There will be some ice cubes remaining that will keep the item in the safe temperature range. In cooler months you may be able to store it outside if the temperature is right. It should be held between 25° and 40°F because the salt and sugar in the brine will allow for a lower freezing temperature.
Another way to apply brine solutions is to pump or inject them into the meat. Brining needles or flavor injectors are readily available in many stores. The cold brining solution is sucked up through a brining needle into a reservoir. The needle has several holes so that when it is inserted into the meat, the brine is pumped into all areas and depths of the meat. This can also be done in conjunction with submerged brining to speed up the process, especially in larger products. Pumping a 3-pound chicken with 1 cup of brine and then soaking it overnight in a brine solution will result in a very flavorful, moist, tender roast chicken.
When choosing ingredients for brines, purchase fresh, high-quality ingredients. Dried herbs and ground spices also work well, but their flavors deteriorate fairly rapidly if not stored properly or replaced regularly. So discard that bottle of granulated garlic that’s been hiding in the back of your spice cabinet since you purchased the house. Purchase in small quantities and replace frequently, at least once a year. It makes a big difference in the flavor of your end product. Whole spices have a better flavor and will last longer than ground spices. Making a small investment in a mortar and pestle or small spice grinder may be worth it if you need to grind a lot of whole spices. Nowhere does freshness matter more than when using citrus juices. The content of that yellow, lemon-shaped container in your refrigerator doesn’t contain a flavor remotely close to that of fresh lemon juice. Fresh citrus juices are frequently found in brines and marinades; freshly squeezed juice is the best and has an incredible impact on flavor.
Do not brine “kosher” or “enhanced” chickens. Both of these chicken products are already injected with a sodium solution. This changes the texture and flavor of the meat. It also allows the chicken to meet kosher guidelines. Placing these chickens in brine would be redundant and the final product would be too salty.
The length of time the product is in the brine depends on the size and density of the product along with the amount of brine flavor you desire. Practice will lead to fine-tuning the time to your taste. Smaller items may be brined for a couple of hours while a larger product can be brined overnight or for days. When the product is removed from the brine it needs to be rinsed, wiped dry, and allowed to air-dry before cooking. Never reuse the brine.