Psst … want to know a secret? Want to know a secret that all chefs know that you may not? It’s called brining.
I’m sure you’ve heard of it. But, of course you probably figured it was too complicated and time consuming, right? Yeah, that’s what I used to think too. But today, I’m going to crack the code on brining for the everyday cook and/or griller and show you how this “magic” technique can fit in your lifestyle.
First of all, let’s talk about the whys of brining. Why should you do it? Well, it makes pork, poultry, fish and lamb not only taste great, but the meat winds-up moist and tender without hardly any extra work. How would you like knowing that every time you cooked pork or chicken that it’s going to turn out tender, moist, juicy and flavorful? Sounds like a good deal doesn’t it? Well it is.
Now let’s talk about why brining works. Without getting into to my “Mr. Science” mode, what brining does is change the molecular structure of the internal cells of the protein. What happens is the moisture in the meat starts exchanging water with the brine mixture — which contains the salt or seasoning — therefore driving flavor into the meat. An extra added advantage of brining is that more moisture than what was originally present in the meat is driven into the protein.
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That extra moisture is not lost during the cooking process, hence the juicy aspect of brined meat. The bottom line is that you are driving flavor and moisture directly into the protein. This method works on almost every type of protein, with the exception of beef. Brining can make beef a bit mushy. For beef, we use a salting technique, which I loosely describe in the Perfect Steak post.
Why don’t more people brine? Probably because most recipes start out with the culinary school version of “Boil one gallon of water, stir in one cup of kosher salt … and end with telling you to brine for 18 to 24 hours. Which is fine when you’re preparing Turkey or other large proteins. However, when I get home from work and want to grill up some chicken or pork, I just don’t have the time or sometimes the planning skills, to wait for a 24 hour brine. I’m sure you’re probably in the same boat, right?
That’s why for weekday meals I like to do a simple quick brine. A quick brine is just what it sounds like. A hyper concentrated brine that will get most of the work done in a fraction of the time of a normal brine. In fact, in most cases, you can have your food brined and ready to cook in as little as 30 minutes to one hour. Certainly a huge time saver for the home cook.
So without further ado, here’s the quick brine.
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup table salt or 1/2 cup kosher salt
4 cups of water (I prefer filtered)
Whisk or stir the water, salt and sugar until thoroughly combined. Add the chicken, fish or pork to a one gallon plastic bag and place the bag in a bowl to catch any over-spill or leakage. Pour the brine into the bag with the meat, press out all of the excess air and seal it. Refrigerate and let the protein sit in the brine for 30 minutes to one hour. Do not go longer than one hour.
That’s it. Pretty simple, huh? Now, if you want to get a bit creative, you can add some other herbs and spices to the brine. Rosemary, thyme, tarragon, granulated onion, granulated garlic, crushed garlic, chili powder and chili flakes are just a few examples of what you could add if you wanted. But I’ll leave that up to you. The main point is that the brine is going to make all of the difference in the world.
Here are some finer points of the quick brine.
Let’s say you wanted to add a rub to your brined meat before you cooked it. If you are following a standard recipe, here are my recommendations:
▪ Rinse the meat off and thoroughly dry after the brining process. Follow the recipe as written.
▪ The other choice is the not rinse the meat off — still pat dry though — and half the amount of salt in a recipe. The protein will still retain some of the salt from the brine.
Here’s a quick recipe to try with boneless, skinless chicken breasts:
Grilled Brined Chicken
4 to 6 boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
Fresh ground pepper
Brine the chicken breasts as described above. Set up the grill to a two zone grill (see tip two on this blog post if you are not familiar with the set up). Take the chicken out of the brine, pat dry and evenly spread on the olive oil. Brush the cooking grates of the grill clean. Add a wood chunk to the charcoal or chips to the smoker box of a gas grill, following manufacturer’s instructions, and close the lid.
Place the chicken on the cooler side of the grill with the thicker end of the chicken breasts directed towards the hotter side of the grill. Replace the lid, with the vents over the cooler side of the grill (if using a charcoal grill). Cook for 16 minutes turning once (8 minutes per side), until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees. Place the chicken directly over the hot side of the grill (direct) and cook for 4 minutes (turning once), until the internal temperature reaches 160°.
Remove the chicken from the grill and lightly tent with aluminum foil while the chicken rests for 5 minutes. Season with freshly ground pepper to taste before serving.
So I hope the next time you are compelled to do some weeknight grilling, you remember the quick brine technique and let it do its magic for you. You can now say “goodbye” to dried out chicken and pork and say “hello” to moistness and flavor.
Enjoy and keep on cooking outdoors. Like I always say “cooking outside tastes better and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.” Get out there and enjoy.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.