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What is Brining?

By Anna B. Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Brining is a food preparation technique that involves soaking meat in a salt and water solution before cooking it, usually as a way to improve the meat’s tenderness and flavor. There are many different ways to brine meat, and a number of different recipes and techniques that promise good results. The most basic solution is usually no more than salt and water, though most cooks also add a bit of sugar to aid with absorption; other flavoring elements, like spices, juices, and peppercorns, are common, too. The process is usually highly adaptable, both in terms of specific flavorings and things like timing. Sometimes soaks only last for an hour or two, but sometimes they last for a day or more. People can also use the technique for more than just meats. Some cheeses are brined, for instance, as are vegetables, though in most cases the process is known as “pickling” where plant products are concerned.

Essential Elements

The basic idea is to completely submerge raw meat in a flavored salt solution, and as such the main requirements are salt, water, and a container large enough to hold everything together. Some marinades work if meats simply rest in them, but brines are often an exception. A true soak is usually the best bet, and covering all surfaces of the meat ensures a greater likelihood of success.

Variations

To make a basic solution, a cook can combine 1 cup (292 g) of table salt for every gallon (3.78 l) of water. Either iodized or kosher salt may be used. Any combination of spices, such as cloves, garlic, cinnamon, and nutmeg, may also be added. Apple juice and vinegar are other common ingredients. Cooks often look to add flavors that will complement the eventual meal.

There are a wide variety of recipes for this type of marinade, and many are easily adaptable to any cooking needs. People who are comfortable in the kitchen often have good luck simply making up the solution as they go along, adding pinches and scoops of ingredients without much careful measuring. There is usually a lot of room for experimentation.

Why it Works

Salt enhances the natural flavor of meat, which is one of the main reasons why salt soaks and baths are such popular methods of meat preparation. Through the biological process of diffusion, the salt moves from a high concentration in the marinade to an area of low concentration in the meat or whatever else is placed in the mixture. Any other spices or flavors that have been added usually also transfer with the salt during this process.

The result, in most cases, is more tender meat. This happens because salt allows the cells of the meat to absorb the marinade via osmosis. As the meat cooks later, it releases this stored liquid slowly and does not dry out as easily. It may also reduce the overall cooking time of the prepared dish.

Timing

The soaking process can take up to 24 hours for certain types of meat. A turkey, for example, should be completely thawed and placed in a cold brine solution the day before it’s going to be cooked. This allows all parts of the bird to thoroughly absorb the liquid, including the skin. Other meats that cook well when marinated in this way are chicken and pork. Small cuts of meat, like individual breasts or ribs, can often marinate for a shorter time, sometimes as little as an hour. A lot depends on the cook’s preferences and how tender and dense the meat is to begin with.

Considerations for Cheese

Cheeses can be brined as well. They are typically washed periodically in a salty solution during the aging process, which adds flavor, both from the brine itself and through the addition of bacteria. Limburger and camembert are both made this way. These kinds of cheese are typically identified by a rind that builds up on the exterior due to the additional bacteria.

Differences from Pickling

The process is sometimes also referred to as pickling, particularly where vegetables are concerned. Rather than being cooked after the soaking process is over, these foods — cucumbers, carrots, corn and the like — are usually stored in vinegar and preserved. For this reason, pickling tends to give foods a sour, salty taste.

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Discussion Comments
By John57 — On Sep 07, 2012

@Belted-- I am not exactly sure what you mean by using a dry brine, but I will cover both sides of a roast with salt and wrap it overnight before I cook it the next day.

This makes for a very tender roast and it sounds like it might have the same effect as brining without the liquid.

By Mykol — On Sep 06, 2012

@ZsaZsa56-- I am glad you had such good results with your turkey. I have always wanted to brine a turkey for Thanksgiving too, but have not tried it yet. You see this done on a lot of the cooking shows during the month of November.

I have always heard how tender and juicy the turkey is after you have done this. I guess I am always hesitant to try something new when I am having so many guests over. I stick with what I know has worked for me in the past.

I just need to brine a turkey for our family some other time of the year and see how it goes before I do it for a big holiday meal.

By backdraft — On Aug 22, 2012

Lots of people do not think to brine pork but it is one of the best uses of a good brine. Pork has such a mild flavor and it often gets dried out from lack of fat. Brine is a great way to give the meat flavor and juice.

Plus, brining lets you take a really mediocre piece of pork and give it some amazing flavor. You can cover up a lack of quality by suing a good brine.

By Belted — On Aug 21, 2012

Has anyone tried using a dry brine? I just recently heard about this and I am really curious. If someone has experience I would love to hear about the flavor you used and your experiences using it with various kinds of meats.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Aug 20, 2012

For years we have had the whole big Thanksgiving meal at my home. About thirty guests every November. Over the years I have been able to refine my recipes so that they are perfect but I always struggled to make a really great turkey.

Then one year I saw a program about brining and I tried it and we had the most amazing turkey. The meat was juicy like no turkey you have ever had and it was infused with a herby, salty flavor that complimented it perfectly. It was so easy to do and the results were amazing. I will never cook another turkey without brining it first.

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