Soaking meats or poultry in a brine is a great way to add flavor and juiciness. Meat loses a lot of juices while cooking, so when you start by brining your meats or poultry before cooking, you essentially start with more juice. Therefore when you lose the juices to cooking, you still have more than you would if you did not brine!
That is the simple explanation for why a brine is a good thing, but if you would like a more scientific explanation, try this article from Fine Cooking by noted food scientist Shirley Corriher.
Brining is not an exact science, as the amount of salt you use can vary. I generally like to use 1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of water. From there you can add just about any flavorings you would like. Herbs, spices, fruit zest, fruit juice, sugar, maple syrup, molasses, hot sauce, chili peppers, whatever!
Larger items, such as whole turkeys, whole chickens and pork roasts can and should stay in a brining solution longer than smaller items. When I brine a whole bird I give it at least 8 hours to 24 hours in the brine. Shrimp, chicken pieces, and pork chops should stay in brine for a much shorter time. Shrimp only need to brine about an hour, chicken parts and pork chops for 2-4 hours.
Some will tell you that brines must be brought to a boil, then cooled down before use. I say just throw all your ingredients into a big pot or bowl, stir until the salt has dissolved, stick your meat or bird in and refrigerate! But do make sure to use a non-reactive container, such as a resealable plastic bag or a stainless steel pot or bowl.
When you are ready to cook, be sure to pat the meat or poultry dry. Your meat should be fully flavored at this point, but if I am making chicken or turkey I will rub the dried skin with butter or olive oil for browning. Do Not Add Any More Salt If You Are Adding Other Seasoning!
Here are a few brine flavor suggestions to try. Don’t be afraid to try your own favorite flavors!
- Apple juice, maple syrup and thyme
- Ancho and/or chipotle chili powder, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and sliced jalapeno chili
- Fresh herbs such as thyme, oregano, basil, parsley and tarragon
- Garlic, honey, soy sauce and five spice powder
- Rosemary, Garlic, and lemon
- Wine, garlic, onions, and herbs
Basic Brine for Meat and Poultry
1 gallon of water
1 cup of kosher salt
1/4 cup raw cane sugar
6 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp fennel seeds (this is optional, but since that is what was in my brine when I took the picture, I included it)
Place all the ingredients into a non-reactive container, stir to dissolve the salt and sugar, then add the meat or poultry of choice. Be sure the brine completely covers the meat or poultry.