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To Brine or not to Brine…?

… that is the question and the key to transforming meat & fish cookery.


Tender, juicy and succulent… the holy grail of cooking meat, a meaningful pursuit undertaken by chefs and cooks alike. Maximising flavour and retaining moisture while tenderising protein are the key strengths that a brine solution has.

 

A brine is very simply a mild salt solution, the applications of which are almost endless. From controlling the lacto-fermentation process to cheese making and, in extreme cases, preserving. A brine is also the secret weapon when cooking meat. The key to a brine’s power is the concentration of salt, a low percentage changes the structure of the meat, to a degree.

 

A brine flavoured with fresh thyme, pink peppercorns and fennel seeds
A simple brine with fresh thyme, pink peppercorns & fennel seeds. 5% for 2 hours with pork steaks.

A salt solution in these low percentages allows the natural gradient within the muscle fibres to equalise, reducing the contraction of fibres when exposed to heat that would ordinarily squeeze out moisture. A mild salt solution allows more water to be absorbed by the protein than if the salt was not present. Together this means that more moisture is retained within the protein strands when exposed to heat. This absorption is made possible by a denaturing of the protein fibres, an unfolding and unravelling of the strands allowing water to penetrate. Solubility is also increased because of this which is ideal when dealing with connective or gelatinous fibres.

 

The result is an increase in the perceived tenderness and juiciness of the meat when you come to eat it.

 

A brine is not limited to lean tougher cuts of meat by any means! Fatty joints benefit in the same way if not more so as it is far easier for the fat to render down during cooking if it has been brined. Flaky fish also benefit, their texture firming up and holding their shape during cooking as well as all the benefits enjoyed by meat.

 


Cod portions in a 3% brine for 2 hours. Fresh bay, fennel seeds, yellow mustard seeds, pink peppercorns & saffron.
Cod portions in a 3% brine for 2 hours. Fresh bay, fennel seeds, yellow mustard seeds, pink peppercorns & saffron.

A brine is especially useful when considering long cooks in a dry environment such as a BBQ or smoker, this is where they truly come into their own!

 

There is no particular recipe for a brine, it’s the ratio that is key which is why brines are described as a percentage. Typically, a brine for this application lies within the 5% - 10% range which is relatively easy to work out. Weigh the water rather than measuring its volume making a percentage far easier to work out. 



For example; 1.6 kg of water will need 160g salt for a 10% brine or 96g salt for a 6% brine.

1% of 1600 is 16 then multiply by the desired percentage.

 

Begin with a container large enough to allow the piece of meat to be fully submerged, then place it on a set of scales with the meat in and zero it. Pour enough water in to cover and make a note of the weight. Drain off around a sixth of the water to dissolve the salt in which is far easier with a little heat, but make sure the brine is cool before adding the meat.


A joint of pork on brine overnight at 7%. Flavoured with mixed peppercorns, fresh bay, cardamom, star anise and clementine.
A joint of pork on brine overnight at 7%. Flavoured with mixed peppercorns, fresh bay, cardamom, star anise and clementine.

Time is also a factor. Larger pieces of meat will need longer in the brine for it to work its magic and by contrast a smaller piece far shorter. As a rough guide a minimum of 4 hours is a good place to start for an individual steak or portion sized cut. Whole joints or birds will need overnight or up to 24 hours.

 

The strength and time depend on taste or application. As a guide pastrami favours a 10% brine for 24 hours where as a chicken for roasting is delicious with 6% for 12 hours.

 

As if being tender juicy wasn’t enough, a brine is the perfect way to season a piece of meat, long slow absorption deep into the fibres rather than a crust of flavour. A brine is the perfect carrier for aromatics, the only limitation being creativity. Introducing herbs, fresh or dried spices and sugars can all be considered when brining food as well as substituting a limited proportion of the water for other liquids such as vinegar, beer, cider, wine or juice, anything that imparts the desired flavour.

 

Experiment and let your imagination flow!



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