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How to make a brine

A brine is essentially just salted water, but for such a simple solution it can do many things. Brines are used to salt cheeses such as feta and halloumi, not only for flavour, but to inhibit the growth of a variety of moulds, to preserve it and in some cases to draw out moisture, helping it to develop a rind. Brining vegetables is a common way of lacto-fermenting (as demonstrated by Dean Parker in his Fermented fennel recipe). But the brines we are looking at here are for the purpose of seasoning, flavouring and retaining moisture in meat and fish. They often contain additional herbs, spices and aromatics, which infuse the submerged protein with extra flavour.

Leaner meats such as turkey and smaller, drier birds such as pheasant or partridge really benefit from brining, as does a non-fatty cut of pork like the tenderloin. It’s also a good idea to brine meats like chicken and pork before smoking on the barbecue, as they can end up dry after being exposed to so much smoke. But brining can be used to impart flavours and season pretty much any meat, poultry, fish and seafood.

So what exactly happens when meat is submerged in a brine? Typically around thirty percent of a protein’s moisture is lost during cooking – the brining process helps prevent this. When submerged in a brine, the salt in the solution means the meat not only absorbs some of the extra water but also retains it whilst cooking, resulting in a juicier texture. The salt also begins to dissolve proteins in the muscle, resulting in more tender meat. Of course another benefit of this is that as the salt penetrates the meat, it gets seasoned from the inside out, giving you a nice even seasoning throughout and not just on the exterior. Just be sure not to undo this hard work by instinctively seasoning it again before or after cooking, or you’ll end up with over-seasoned meat.

One would brine fish for the same reasons as above (retaining moisture and even seasoning), but there are a few other reasons too. A quick brine can firm up a flaky fish such as haddock or cod, helping it retain its shape – particularly when subject to high-temperature cooking methods such as barbecuing or smoking. It will also abolish the formation of albumin, that unpleasant white stuff which sometimes seeps out of fish (especially salmon) whilst cooking.

How to make a brine

Brine at its most basic is just salt and water, so let’s start there. You will often see brines described as a percentage (e.g. ‘make a seven percent brine’), which refers to the ratio of salt to water. To determine how much brine you need, place the meat or fish in the container it will be brined in and cover it with water – it must be fully submerged. Weigh the amount of water then work out the percentage from there. For example, if you’re using 1 litre of water, a seven percent brine would mean adding 70g of salt.

Most brines range from five to ten percent. A lower concentrate brine might be used for larger cuts such as a whole turkey, as this could take a couple of days to brine. If you are brining to firm up fish, a higher ten percent (or even fifteen percent) brine can be used – just don’t brine for longer than twenty minutes or it will taste too salty.

When it comes to choosing what sort of salt to use, it doesn’t matter what shape or size the grains are as they’re going to be dissolved anyway. It doesn’t make sense to be using an expensive finishing salt such as fleur de sel, as the delicate flavour wouldn’t come through in the final flavour. The only thing to note is that a tablespoon of coarse salt will probably weigh half the amount of a tablespoon of table salt, so if you’re following a recipe which provides the measurement of salt by volume (e.g. spoons or cups), make sure it does indicate the type of salt to use. You can use table salt if you can find a brand that doesn’t have added iodine or anti-caking agents (which is pretty tricky), so we recommend using sea salt. As a rule, it’s always safer to simply weigh the salt you’re using and make sure it’s exactly right.

As the meat will be retaining the brining liquid, it’s a good idea to make that liquid as flavourful as possible. Water with some other flavourings added (such as spices and woody herbs) is perfectly fine, but some like to switch out some of the water for things like stock, apple juice or beer. If using a stock which already contains salt, you might want to reduce the amount of salt added. Be careful with acidic liquids such as orange juice, vinegar or wine, as this will effectively start ‘cooking’ the meat. Whilst good for tenderizing meat, you would need to reduce brining time or mix with water to prevent a mushy finish.

Many brines also contain sugar. This is mostly just for flavour, but also helps with getting a nice caramelisation on the meat when it comes to cooking. Try experimenting here; a brown sugar will give a nice rich caramelised flavour, but you could also use honey, treacle or maple syrup. Making a brine gives you ample opportunity to get creative – all sorts of herbs and spices, fruit zests, vegetables such as onion, garlic and chilli or even seaweed and tea leaves can flavour brines in incredible ways.

The brine recipe below will create a brine suitable for all cuts of meat (you could use it for fish too but remember to only submerge it for twenty minutes), but it’s when you start tailoring the brine to a specific recipe that things get really interesting. Take a look at our brine recipe collection for some of our favourite standalone brine recipes, as well as dishes which include brining in the method.

1
Add the dry spices to a hot dry pan and lightly toast until fragrant
2
Add the salt and sugar to the pan along with the thyme, bay leaves, citrus zests and 1 litre of the water and bring to the boil
3
Heat and stir until the salt and sugar have completely dissolved, then remove from the heat
4
Add the remaining 2 litres of water, which will cool the brine down, but be sure to place the brine in the fridge until completely chilled before using. If you’re in a hurry you can add 2kg of ice instead
5
Submerge the meat in the brine and leave in the fridge for the recommended time
6
When the meat has finished brining, give it a quick rinse in cold water and pat dry. If you're cooking poultry, it’s a good idea to leave it uncovered in the fridge for a few hours to really dry out the skin, as this will help it crisp up when cooking

How to make a brine with a chamber vacuum sealer

If you are in a hurry (and have a chamber sealer to hand) you can vacuum-pack the meat in a brine. This reduces the amount of brine you need (weigh the meat, divide the number by half and use this much brine), saves on fridge space and reduces the brining time. Use a five or six percent brine to prevent over-salting when vacuum-packing.

How to use a brine in cooking

The size of the meat or fish depends on how long you need to brine it for. Single portions such as chicken breasts or pork chops only need a couple of hours. A whole chicken will usually take around twelve to twenty-four hours, a turkey up to forty-eight hours and a whole brisket for pastrami can take up to five days! When it comes to fish, fillets only need around twenty minutes, whereas whole sides don't really need longer than half an hour.

Using a syringe to directly inject the brine into meat will also speed up the process and is effective if distributed evenly enough. This is particularly useful when brining poultry as it means the skin remains dry, making it easier to achieve perfectly crisp skin.

Temperature has an impact on the speed of the brining process, too. Obviously raw meat and fish must be kept in the fridge, however if you are in a rush, brining at room temperature for a couple of hours before cooking will speed the process up a little. If you don’t have room in your fridge overnight for something large like a turkey, a cool box with ice packs can be used. Alternatively, if it is below 5°C outside, you can leave large pieces of meat in the garden – just make sure it is in an animal-proof container.

For more ideas on how to use brines in your cooking, be sure to check out our collection of brining recipes.

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How to make a brine

 
 

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