Believe it or not, brining is a hotly debated topic. (Does the barbecue world ever agree on anything?) Some people swear by it, while others scoff at the effort and time it can take (as little as 15 minutes or as long as several weeks).
But nobody can dispute this: Brining makes meat juicier.
Lean meats, like chicken breasts, pork chops, shrimp, or fish fillets, trip up many grillers. Turn your back for a few seconds or get caught up in something else, and your once-glorious piece of meat becomes a dry, tough wreck of a dinner. To keep lean meats moist when exposed to the high dry heat of the fire, many people and grill cultures choose to brine it first, which means soaking it in salt water—before grilling.
Here are some points to keep in mind when brining:
- First, there's the salt. Here at BarbecueBible.com we're partial to sea salt. Why? It contains a variety of minerals, like calcium and magnesium, which we believe add a subtle but detectably flavor.
- Another salt popular with grill masters and chefs is kosher salt. The large grain size makes it easy to handle and distribute evenly on meat. It's popularity makes it the go-to salt for brines.
- We don't generally use iodized table salt for brining. If you're measuring your brine ingredients by volume, then salts are not interchangeable. A cup of table salt will be twice as salty as a cup of kosher salt, because table salt has a much small grain size.
- Many people add sugar to brine (up to the same proportion of salt). On the plus side, the sugar adds a sweet flavor and helps offset and balance the saltiness of the salt. On the negative side, sugar has a tendency to burn at higher temperatures, so sweet brines are better suited to food smoked low and slow than direct grilled over a high heat. Smoked salmon and turkey are two proteins that benefit from a touch of sweetness.
- Spices and flavorings can give brine a distinct ethnic character. Soak beef brisket in a brine flavored with pickling spices (such as bay leaf, allspice, mustard seed, coriander, and other spices) and you wind up with corned beef. (And if you think it tastes good boiled, wait until you try it smoked.)
- Brining can be used in conjunction with other barbecue flavoring techniques, such as spice rubs. To make pastrami, you brine brisket with garlic and onions for up to two weeks, then smoke it crusted with a rub made from coriander, black pepper, mustard seed, and other spices.
- So what's the appropriate length of time for brining? It depends on the size of the piece of meat being brined and desired intensity of the salt flavor. The Gudhjem Smokehouse in Bornholm, Denmark, brines its smoked shrimp for 15 minutes. Brooklyn's popular barbecue restaurant, Fette Sau, brines its pastrami for 2 weeks. In general, the smaller the piece of protein, the shorter the brining time.
- In barbecue, as in life, there are exceptions that prove the rules. Five to six percent may be the target salt concentration for brine, but Danish smoke-masters, like Soeren Hensen of the Hesle Smokehouse, brines uses a 30 percent brine for his smoked salmon (but only for 90 minutes).
How does that meat get so juicy? Find out about the science behind brining.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is www.barbecuebible.com.