Chefs brine meats to add moisture

Solutions keep grilled, barbecued meats from becoming too dry

Summertime is the season for barbecuing and grilling — two processes that lend food a celebratory feel and imbue it with smoky flavors that many Americans enjoy. But both cooking methods tend to dry out meat, too, so that means summertime also is the season for brining.


Meat is brined by soaking it in a salty liquid, almost always with sugar added and often with other flavors, too. It allows the process of osmosis to draw salt into the meat, said Bill Briwa, chef-instructor at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif., during a discussion of brining at the recent Pork Summit, an event presented by the National Pork Board.


The salt enhances the meat’s ability to retain water and inhibits its tendency to shrink and bind when cooked, resulting in juicier, more tender meat, he said. Any other flavorings in the brine are drawn into the meat along with the salt, allowing chefs to penetrate the meat with almost any flavor they like.


“The reaction of salt and sugar on protein creates a penetrating marinade that also ensures a perfectly moist piece of meat,” said Clint Wangsnes, chef de cuisine of Zengo, a Latin-Asian accented restaurant in Denver. 


To prepare his lemon grass chicken, Wangsnes brines the bird in a mixture of lemon grass, fish sauce, sugar, black pepper, water, kaffir lime leaves, scallions and ginger.  


He brines the meat overnight and then charbroils it. 


“The sugars allow the chicken skin to caramelize, and the meat turns out with a delicious balance of salty and sweet, with just the right touch of aromatics,” he said.  


“Brine helps penetrate to the center of the meat,” said Seadon Shouse, executive chef at Glenmere Mansion in Glenmere, N.Y., who brines meat to make his own pastrami. 


Shouse brines brisket in a refrigerated mixture of about 1 gallon of water to 1 1/2 cups of salt, 1 cup each of brown sugar and regular sugar, and one-quarter cup of honey, along with pickling spice and chile flake. The process takes about three days.


He then creates a crust of peppercorns and coriander seed and smokes the brisket in a 275-degree oven for four to five hours until it’s tender.


Shouse said while his pastrami brine contains 1 1/2 cups of salt per gallon of water, most of his brines contain 1 cup of salt, such as his pork chop brine, which also is flavored with pink peppercorns and garlic. He brines the 8-ounce to 10-ounce chops overnight.


He uses a similar brine for his chicken, but flavors it with thyme, garlic and chile flake. He brines the chicken whole, breaks it down and then pats it dry. It is seasoned with salt and pepper, brushed with olive oil and then smoked at around 325 degrees. 


Shouse warns against smoking brined meat at too high a temperature because the added sugar can darken the skin too much.


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Most chefs use considerably less sugar in their brine than Shouse, however. Briwa recommends 3 percent of the water’s weight in salt and 2 percent of its weight in sugar as a good starting point for what he calls an “equilibrium brine.” 


Although many brines can corn or pickle meat that is left in the liquid too long, he said, an equilibrium brine is intended to add exactly as much sugar and salt as the chef requires.


Calculating the amount of salt and sugar to add is slightly more tricky than just weighing the water and adding 3 percent salt and 2 percent sugar, because the meat itself is about 65 percent water, Briwa said. So the weight of the meat must be multiplied by 0.65 and then added to the weight of the water.


Briwa said an equilibrium brine penetrates meat at the rate of about 1 inch per day — one-half an inch on all sides — but the process goes twice as quickly if the brine is injected.


Briwa recommended injecting the equivalent of about 10 percent of the meat’s weight with brine. 


Injecting is what Brian Jupiter does for his “Whole Animal Service” at Frontier restaurant in Chicago. He combines about 2 quarts of apple cider vinegar with 1 quart of water, 1 cup of maple syrup, one-half a cup of Cajun spice, 1 cup of salt and a few tablespoons of garlic powder and thyme.


“We make large batches because we do 15 to 20 animals a week,” he said.


Jupiter uses a large injector that he describes as a combination giant syringe and pump. A tube from the injector goes straight into his bucket of brine, which lets him inject each joint and the loin with about one-half a cup each of brine — a total of about 1 quart — in about five minutes per animal. 


He hangs the animals in the walk-in for between 24 hours and 48 hours, depending on their size. He then smokes them and sells whole pigs for $500 each, and boars, goats and lambs for $575 each.


Steve Waxman, the chef at Trax Restaurant & Café in Ambler, Pa., brines pork bellies for a week before air-drying them and then smoking them to use in a variety of bacon-like applications.


He adds classic French mirepoix — carrots, celery and onion — to a 5-gallon bucket, along with water, thyme, juniper, vinegar, white wine, brown sugar and salt. 


Waxman brines the bellies for a couple of days, air-dries them and then smokes them at 200 degrees for between five and six hours. He then cuts the bacon into thick pieces for lardons in salad and other dishes, and more thinly for bacon.


Brining and smoking also keep the meat from going bad, he points out.


“Once we cure it, it’ll last. ... We’ve never had a problem, and we’ve kept it for four to six weeks,” he said.


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