Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Cooking Questions - To Brine Or Not To Brine

Should I brine these? (image via South Park Studios)
Around Christmastime, home cooks find themselves cooking larger cuts of meat, whole animals and the like, because we're generally feeding larger groups of people. No-one likes dry meat, and one of the eternal questions about cooking meat is brining.

Harold McGee, everyone's favourite food scientist, says that brining takes away the meat's own juices and flavours (because osmosis), and/but the salt breaks down some of the proteins so the meat will end up more tender (or mushy, if it was already very tender, or it it's been brined too long).

Breaking it down, the pros of brining are:
- Super duper juiciness
- Tender meat
- Meat flavoured with salt (which I suppose can also be a con)

And the cons:
- Meat juices (and thus flavour) lost and replaced with salty plain water
- Potential meat mushiness
- No brown pan juices from roasting

McGee recommends rubbing meat with salt and leaving it for a day or two ("dry brining") instead. With this method, however, it appears that dryness in the meat is a given, as is suggested in his article for the New York Times (he talks about serving turkey like pulled pork, with a ladle of sauce over the top). Question is, is compensating with a good sauce good enough?

Given the horror stories of dry meats at parties (I've sure eaten my fair share), I'm personally still a fan of brining. Your timing has to be right - over-brining can lead to awfully tasteless results, and I've found that lean, white meat in particular do benefit from brining, and when its dry, meat can be horrible to eat, no matter how flavoursome it might be. With calculated, minimal brining time, I've found that a balance of flavour and moisture can be attained*. I guess like most things in life, brining is a delicate balancing act.

Basic brine recipe: 1 litre of water to 4 tablespoons salt.

*Although I did learn from Harold that adding aromatics into the brine (herbs, veggies) etc. is pretty useless as those flavour molecules are mostly too big to penetrate the meat (see point 6 here). I've been using salt, water, onions, leeks, bay leaves and black peppercorns for lean pork chops, and Pioneer Woman's turkey brine for poultry. I'll try just using salt next time to test that theory out.

Happy Holidays!


  1. Another option is to inject the brine - chicken stock in a chicken, etc, helps retain the bird's flavour.

  2. A bit late to this post, but this article does an experiment into the science of wet/dry brining! Dry brining actually gives a very moist product in the end without sacrificing flavour.