To Brine Or Not To Brine? (illustration)
To Brine Or Not To Brine?
Being turkey season, the internet is seriously abuzz at this time of year
with folks who are investigating the notion of brining their holiday bird. It
seems people are on a seemingly never-ending quest for a better bird. The
common refrain from people I talk to is, "So, what's the deal with this
brining thing? Does it really make that big of a difference?"
In this post I hope to help explain why brining really is a very good thing
Let's face it, most of us probably grew up eating holiday turkey that was
dry and generally lacking in the flavor department. I think this is why my
grandfather always shunned the balsa-wood-like white meat for the far
more moist and flavorful dark stuff. To this day I am firmly in the dark meat
camp, but I digress.
Brining is all about pure science, but it's certainly not rocket surgery. Let's
break it down and, as a favorite preacher of mine often said, put the
cookies on the shelf where the kiddies can get to them.
The entire process of brining can be described by the scientific axiom that
nature abhors a vacuum. When you submerge meat in a solution of water,
salt and sugar, you have created a vacuum that nature simply must
remedy. See, nature likes to have things in a nice balance called
equilibrium. She doesn't like you gumming up the works. You've created an
imbalance where the concentration of the water, salt and sugar outside
the meat is much higher than that inside the meat.
Given this situation, nature goes to work trying to reestablish its required
equilibrium. The cells inside the meat are surrounded by a semi-permeable
membrane. Small molecules like water, salt, and sugar can pass through
this membrane, but larger molecules like proteins cannot.
Through a process of osmosis by diffusion, the cell moves water, salt and
sugar in and out of the cells trying to get things back into balance with the
surrounding liquid. Also, since most brines contain flavorings in the solution,
the cell unwittingly seasons itself as it allows the brine into the cells.
But wait, there's more.
As the salt in the cell increases, it causes some of the tightly-wound
proteins to unravel, or denature, and relax a bit. This allows the cell to
take on even more of the solution. Some proteins in the cell actually
denature completely and are liquefied.
Here's a crude illustration that I've drawn to show what I've described.
The magic of brining continues during cooking. When the meat is heated,
the proteins bind with one another and squeeze out moisture. However,
brining adds 10% or more moisture weight to the meat. So, even though
the cooking will cause a 20% weight loss in moisture, we started 10% or
more ahead of the game, so the actual moisture loss is cut in half,
resulting in more moist meat.
Also, remember those proteins that were completely denatured? Well,
those proteins are no longer available to do the protein-binding mambo, so
the meat is more tender.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of how brining works, and why
it's a wonderful way to let nature help you cook a much better bird.
Thanks John, I'm trying your brine this year for the bird I'm smoking. Good post by the way.
thanks!! nice explanation - reminds me of Alton Brown's approach of things
Thank You! Count me in as another first time briner this year.
In the words of Chef....chilren..looks like a bunch a voodoo hoocha-ma-fudge... :-D
BTW, nice explanation.
OK- Here's a question:
If you are using an enhanced bird, why cut the salt content in half?
Afterall, you are just seeking an equilibrium. In fact, cutting the salt content in half may just drive the equilibrium in the other direction (i.e. salt and water in the cells flow outside).
This year we happen to have a bird that is enhanced with an 8% solution, so I'm not sure whether I should brine or not. Lots of conflicting info out there.
I agree with your equilibrium hypothesis, but if that is the case, it shouldn't matter if your bird is enhanced or not. All it would mean is that less salt/water would get into the bird since equilibrium would be acheived earler.
What do you think?
From a long time briner, or brinist... or one that brines..... Great information in this thread, and the linked one discussing brining an enhanced bird.
Thanks for the post. You explain it MUCH better than I do (and.....err........probably more technically correct too).
I started brining & smoking our Holiday turkeys a few years back......will never do it another way again. Gonna dunk 2 late tonight!!
Mine should be thawed when i get home this afternoon and in the brine it goes :thumb:
Brine 1: 1 cup of salt/gallon
Brine 2: 1/2 cup of salt/gallon
In this example, regardless of the amount of salt in the turkey (with the assumption that the turkey contains less salt concentration than the brine solution), Brine 1 will produce a turkey that has more water (and salt) than Brine 2, because the equilibrium will occur at a higher salt concentration.
If the salt concentration in the turkey is higher than the concentration in either Brine 1 or 2, then you would still get an equilibrium, but this time, the salt/water movement would go from turkey to brine. At this equilibrium, you would actually increase the salt content of the brine.
I'm going to make up some numbers here to make an example:
Unbrined Turkey 0.16% Salt
Brine Solution: 0.30% Salt
Brined turkey (at equilibrium): 0.23% Salt
Enhanced Turkey: 0.27% Salt
Brine Solution: 0.30% Salt
Brined turkey (at equilibrium): 0.285% Salt
Unbrined Turkey: 0.15% Salt
Brine Solution: 0.15% Salt
Brined turkey (at equilibrium): 0.15% Salt
Enhanced Turkey: 0.27% Salt
Brine Solution: 0.15% Salt
Brined turkey (at equilibrium): 0.21 % Salt
So, depending on what the real numbers are, you might increase the saltiness of an enhanced bird, or you might not.
It appears that in the real world, reducing the amount of brine by half is still enough to maintain a higher concentration in the bird, without overbrining.
But, the more I think about it, the more I am thinking that you do not achieve a true equilibrium. I basically pulled these numbers out of my a$$, but used as a starting point the approx amount of sodium based on the cooks illustrated article you referenced in your other thread (roughly 0.2%). If salt weights about 10 oz/cup, then adding 10oz in 1 gallon (128 oz) is almost 8% salt solution, not the 0.3% that I used in my example to make the numbers work out.
Therefore, while equilibrium helps explain why you are brining, I think it doesn't provide a full explanation for what is going on.
However, I've tried a few of your recipe's with great success (especially your tri-tip recipe), so I am definately willing to take your advice on brining.
Anyway, I hope this helps.
Thanks for the post! I will also be using your brine this turkey-day for the first time. I can't wait! :thumb:
I usually get a 12 lb enhanced bird and brine 9 hours, which is 45 minutes per lb as you suggest.
The more I read about brining the more I see people brining for 24 hours or more.
Yesterday I picked up an 18 lb fresh, non-enhanced bird. I know they say not to smoke a bird larger than 12-14 lbs, but since I ramp it up to 325-350 I figured a bigger bird wouldn't be a problem. Especially in the UDS.
My question is, do you think it will be okay to brine this bird for a full 24 hrs with a base of 1 cup salt, 1 cup sugar per gallon without it becoming too salty? And how long ideally should I let it air dry in the fridge once rinsed? Thanks in advance.
Do you think the pilgrams new all this? Mabey they brined in the ocean.
Thanks for the post, I will be starting my brine tomorrow!
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