How do a Brine work truly?
Recently we talked together about injections introducing the fascinating world of seasoning, the set of tools available to the griller to correct or to some extent emphasize the characteristics of the raw material. We have already approached on these pages the Rub and Slather themes but it is useless to deny that the seasoning tools that are most interesting in the classes are those also used traditionally in our kitchens since the times of our grandmas and beyond: we are talking about marinade and brine.
Particularly about this latter I see much confusion. Many think it is a tool to salt or to smudge the “wild” character of the meat, but the true purpose of a brine is to increase its moisture, that is its water retention in order to make it more juicy, especially on cuts that are critical by this point of view, that is the leanest cuts. The brine bases its action on the principle of osmosis:
The membrane is obviously made up of the same fibers of the meat and the two environments with different sodium concentration in the water are the interior of the foods and the same brine. The doctrine states that if the brine has a lower sodium concentration than the meat, the liquid (water) will tend to compensate it by penetrating the fibers and that the perfect ratio for this to make I work best is fixed at a 5% solution (950 ml. of water, 50 g. of salt).
At this point, after the initial amazement, the classical consequent question that students ask is “How long do I have to leave the meat in brine?” I admit that I always make a lot of effort to answer, simply because there is no answer. It depends. From the type of meat, the thickness, the mass as well as a tide of variables related to the aging or the sex of the animal. We know that the fish is particularly sensitive and one hour can be enough and that the game is particularly cumbersome, requiring up to 24 hours, but on everything in between, we are stuck with empirical application. “All right,” they say, “but how much, about?” The classic answer is “you make it nightmare and you won’t get wrong”. But is it true?
I wanted to play an experiment: I got two cuts, one of red meat and one of white meat, divided into two twin portions, I prepared two brines, one at 5% and one at 10%, I got a kitchen digital balance, measuring the weight of each one at regular intervals of one hour. The rest will occur at a controlled temperature of 1.5° C. I chose the chicken for white meats of course: I took a breast, took off bones and cartilages and divided it into two exact half. Paradoxically one weighed 236 grams and the other 244. Strange moments of nature. No problem, I carefully trim the bigger breast half to keep thickness and mass until weighing 235 grams. For the beef, I choose to not to go on too hard cuts, playing more on the thickness: I choose an Argentine NY strip from which I cut two slices two fingers. thick. In this case absurdly, we reach a surgical precision: 193 grams exactly each!
I create two separate environments with different concentration. The doctrine would say that 5% brine would be the ideal, but I want to test it, adding a 10% solution in which to rest the twin cuts. To do this experiment we will overcome the common principles in sanitary hygiene and we will dip both chicken and beef in the same brine. At the end of each hour, we will pat the cuts with absorbent paper and we will weigh them.
- The brine has a much steadier action on the beef than the chicken and the curve in this case is virtually a straight line. Instead, the chicken has a slow start to have a phase in which the absorption literally explodes, then collapses: useful to determine the maximum effective time.
- All 4 cuts have a phase after which the action not only stops but, albeit in part, regresses. Going beyond this stage would seem to be counterproductive. The two types of meat behave in this sense each in the same way, regardless of the degree of concentration of the brine: the chicken has started its descending phase after 6 hours, the beef after 5. This outbreak a little myth: by definition white meats should be more receptive than red ones and we usually expose them to shorter brine times. Instead, it would appear that, considering the mass difference, there are no big differences.
- The beef seems be totally insensitive to the brine concentration: both strips grew by a total weight of 5% at the same time. In contrast, chicken has benefited much more from brine by 5%, increasing by more than twice the weight: 5.5% in the 10% solution and 11.5% in the 5%. This is what the classical doctrine suggests. It is true, however, only on white meat, whereas on red ones it seems not being a decisive factor. We should try to understand to what limit and how much. It should be noted, finally, how brine worked with millimeter efficiency in all other cases: exactly + 5.5%, which we could extend to a sort of “guaranteed minimum”.
It’s a matter that deserves much more experimentation and a lot more diversification but in my next class I will have some more information to say. And what experiences you had with the brine?