Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brining, A Nuanced View

I know that writing about brining in the hours before Thanksgiving has become as clichéd as posting about aphrodisiac foods before St. "Won't you please let me jump your bones?" Day. However, I was recently inspired to write about it after reading something attributed to Harold McGee on the blog The Culinary Butler

 Brining Is a Trade-off 
Brining a turkey by soaking it in a tub of salty water (our basic brine is a cup and a half of kosher salt per gallon of water) will definitely get you moister results—up to 20% moister, says Harold—but it comes at the expense of flavor. "You've got a nice turkey with lots of turkey flavor. When you brine it, you're basically diluting that flavor with salty tap water," says Harold. A better route may be salting the bird for a couple nights. It gets some of moisture retention qualities of brining, without diluting flavor.
I assume that the basic brine recipe in the quote is not Harold's and that he would not advocate brining a turkey in a 12% brine ( approx 495g salt/4000g water). A 4- 6% brine is more like it, for example this brine recipe by Alton Brown  ( approx 330g salt/ 8000 g water and stock).  But I digress.

Harold hits the nail on the head when he says that brining is a trade-off that gives you a moister turkey (And any meat that you brine) at the expense of flavor. He is also right to say that when you add water to the meat you are diluting the flavor.  The flavor of the turkey is "diluted" by adding water to the meat, but also it is diluted because brining "washes" flavor out of the meat. Adding water to the meat will increase the ratio of water to protein to fat, so compared to the same mass of a turkey that was not brined there will be less flavor per unit mass. However, what is also true is that as the turkey sits in the brine it loses flavor to the brine. Here's why:

Think of the turkey as a balloon filled with approximately 70% water and 30% protein and other molecules dissolved in that water. The skin of the turkey balloon allows water, other small molecules and ions to pass into it and out of it.  When you put the turkey in a brine that is 95% water (a 5% brine), the water inside the turkey and in the brine will move back and forth until the concentration of water in and outside of the turkey is the same ( approx 82%) and while that is happening - specifically, while water is moving from the turkey to the brine- those water soluble proteins and other, small molecules and ions are leaving the bird along with the water.

Sure, some of those water soluble proteins (like myoglobin), move back into the turkey from the brine. But they do not all go back in, some stay in the brine.  This is why brines become cloudy over time (this is especially obvious in simple clear water and salt brines.) and the other half of the reason why turkey (and all meat) loses flavor when you brine it. Those water soluble molecules that are clouding the brine have flavor that is going to be dumped.

There are far better ways to take advantage of the properties of brine and its active ingredients than drowning a turkey in a pail of salt water. A brine pump allows you to inject your brine directly into the bird with no significant loss of water soluble flavorants. It's not as easy to use as a bucket of salt water, but it's faster and gives much better results.

You can also, as Harold points out, dry rub the turkey.

I rarely brine anymore, and I almost never brine poultry unless I'm going to cook the living daylights out of it on a BBQ or in the smoker. Mostly I rub with salt sometimes salt and sugar.

Dry rubbing results in very little loss of flavor, especially if you use fine salt which, unlike coarse Kosher salt, spends very little time on the surface of the meat (because is dissolves quickly) drawing out less water and flavorful water soluble molecules.  I recommend a rate of 14g salt per 1000 g meat for dry rubs. If I want to add sugar to enhance browning and  moisture retention during cooking and to help keep the meat tender by inhibiting coagulation of the muscle proteins, I add half the mass of the sugar to the mix so the rub becomes 7g Sugar/14g Salt/1000g meat.

I'll anticipate objections to my suggestion to use fine salt in the dry rub by saying that, even though you will lose less moisture and flavor by using it, you may want to use coarse salt anyway, especially if you are cooking poultry with skin and you like the skin to be crisp. This is because coarse salt spends more time on the surface pulling water out of the skin than fine salt and less water in the skin, means crispier skin.

See, I told you this was going to be a nuanced discussion. ;-)

that's only if you eat a smaller serving of turkey than you would have eaten had you not brined.


Tish Boyle said...

excellent info, as always, and it makes perfect sense...thanks!

Chris said...

Bob - How long do you allow the dry rub? a few hours? 8-10? I also assume you do a full rinse off the bird so you don't get a bite of straight salt off the bird. Please a few more details for those of us who are more obtuse...

Bob del Grosso said...

Tish, Thanks!
At least 72 hours for a 20 pound turkey and, yes, rinse it off. Also make sure to rub the inside as well as the outside.

Steven said...

Hey Bob- Been brining my birds for years. Will try the rub this time around. Thanks for the expert advice.

Tags said...

I told you people he has an omphalos on his hands.

For the scientifically curious culinarian.

Carrie said...

Since my grandma passed away this year I'm in charge of Thanksgiving. I'm looking forward to it but am also pretty intimidated, so I'll be leaning on my internet gurus pretty hard this year. So thank you very much for the info, cliched timing or not! :)

I simply don't have the space for a wet brine, so I am planning on a dry rub this year. I found an old Russ Parsons description on ChowHound that called for 96 hours in the rub before rinsing off - do you think that's too long?

Bob del Grosso said...

I don't know Russ' recipe but if you use 14g of salt per 1000g of turkey, 96 hours will be fine!

Michael Pardus said...

It does not make sense that the water absorbed during brining "dilutes" the flavor of the meat.
Here's why:

If you start with a natural bird and roast it, it losses about 15% of it's weight through evaporation in the dry heat of roasting. When you brine a bird, it gains about 15% moisture. The water gained evaporates, leaving you with no net loss - that's why a brined bird is more moist, it has the same amount of moisture at the end as it started out with.

Now flavor: is the flavor of poultry so pronounced? Especially when you put sugar, salt, and herb infusion into the brine, can you really tell?

If I'm wrong, I'm sure you'll tell me why...can't wait!

Bob del Grosso said...

I'm not going to tell you that you are wrong because I'm not sure that you are absolutely wrong. Your reasoning is certainly sound and so is the data. However,if you consider that an unbrined bird that loses 15% of it's water weight during roasting is also going to contain more protein, fat, free amino acids, glucose (sh-t that has flavor) per unit mass or volume than another that has 15% more water, then I think it is right to say that the flavor of the brined bird is "diluted."

Michael Pardus said...

Bob - I'd don't think the term "dilute" applies to something that is simply not "concentrated". Furthermore, I'd assert that the seasoning in the brine would be drawn in with the water and salt and help augment the flavor of the bird, thus giving you an end product that is more moist and not bland in any detectable way way.

I've had the Dry Cured Chicken Method - and the result is quite good. I just don't know that it's BETTER or that Brined birds suck. To me, either is preferable to a bird not "cured".

Bob del Grosso said...

I'm not going to get involved in an argument over semantics. However, I will argue over fact and the fact is that if you add a simple brine of salt and water to any meat such that the water content of the meat increases, there will be less of the what makes the meat taste like meat in a given amount of that meat. In other words given two 10 gram samples of chicken where one sample has a water to meat ratio of 30:70 and another 40:60 there is less meat (and meat flavor) in the second sample. Now, whether or not anyone can detect that is another question altogether and, I think, probably dependent on the kind of meat involved. For example, I suspect that a really gamy turkey will taste less gamy (lose flavor) than the same mass of unbrined gamy turky if you increase the water content. On the other hand you may not notice any difference between samples of a brined and not brined bland turkey. (Remember, I'm not talking about seasoned brine, but simple salt brine.
Frankly, the only way to settle this is with a blind tasting that asks the participants to evaluate aroma and taste alone and not mouthfeel or "juiciness." Suffice it to say that this would not be any easy thing to pull off.

Now, this in indisputable as far as I'm concerned: When you submerge meat in a brine, it LOSES meat flavor. This is very pronounced in red meats but happens in poultry too. The physical proof of the loss of meat flavor can be seen in the brine, which turns cloudy as the soluble proteins and other flavor molecules come out of the meat.
Next time you brine something, after the meat is finished brining,stir up the brine and put some of it in a pot and heat it. Depending on how much meat you brined you might get a fraking thick raft of protein. I brined like, 30 pounds of brisket (for pastrami) and heated some of that brine afterwards and I was amazed by how much serum protein came to the surface. It was shocking.

So whether you call what happens dilution, displacement or douching, what happens happens.

Heavily seasoned and cooked brines are another story. There is still a loss of meat flavor but you don't miss it because you have replaced it with aromatics etc. Also, if you use stock (as in the Alton Brown recipe) you will lose less flavor because there is less "room" in the brine for the serum proteins to dissolve, so more of them stay in the meat. Also, some of the proteins, aminos etc from the stock enter the meat and make up for some of the loss.

Bob del Grosso said...


To be clear, I'm not saying that submerged brines suck. All I am doing is laying out the science.

I will say that I think that injected brines are superior because they do not result in a significant loss of meat flavor.

Also, while dry rub result in less loss of flavor, since they do not add water they do not give a result that is as "juicy" as submerged and injected brines.

Michael Pardus said...

I agree on all counts, especially the injected brine. When the end results in the addition of flavor with no net loss of succulence, I'm all for it.

Jon in Albany said...

I've got follow up questions for you:

When pumping, do you use the same brine you would if you were soaking?

Isthere a rule of thumb for a ratio of weight of injected brine to weight of meat? Or are you just trying to get 14 grams of salt per 1000 grams of turkey with some added water inside the meat?

How much time do you give the brine to disperse in the meat? I imagine it would take at least 18 to 24 hours.

Thanks. Very interesting discussion.

Bob del Grosso said...

Currently I am just learning the ins and outs of injected brine so anything I tell you is tentative.

Right now I am pumping between 3 and 5% brines. I use a brine meter to determine the salt concentration (including the nitrate salts) and I pump enough to increase the weight by about 10%. So for 1000 g meat, I'm pumping about 100g of brine.
How long to brine is all over the map but on average it seems to cut the time in half.

BTW, to hedge my bets I also pour a bit of brine in with the injected meats.

How to inject is a function of the kind of meat you are pumping. For muscle cuts inject perpendicular to the muscle fibers which should allow the brine to follow the fibers to the antipodes. For whole hams I inject into the big artery and let venous circulation deliver the brine. I've yet to inject whole chickens or turkeys but I suspect that the best approach would be to pump in under the breast bone, between the thigh and pelvis and down along the drumstick beginning at the foot.