Saturday, March 6, 2010

Be Brave and Brine!

Go to any restaurant and order a chicken Caesar salad. Most of the time (not all, mind you), the slices of grilled chicken that accompanies the salad will be well-seasoned and moist. Have you ever wondered how these restaurants are able to consistently not overcook the chicken breast? It is not just because they have skilled chefs cooking the chicken. Yes, it does take some amount of skill and experience not to overcook meat but it has more to do with widening the cooking window just a tad wider so that the margin of error is bigger, which helps tremendously especially when it is a busy restaurant. Anyone who has experienced grilling or roasting chicken breast before will know that it is just as easy to produce a dried-out piece of meat (essentially a hockey puck!) as it is to break the yolk in a sunny-side-up egg preparation.

The secret, I learned, is to place the meat in a brining liquid for a period of time before cooking. Brining, a process similar to marination, is an oft-overlooked step in the cooking process that really helps to keep the meat that you are cooking not only moist but seasoned as well. Brining, of course, takes some time--usually about 30 minutes or more--and this may be why many of us busy home cooks do not do it. When you have to juggle kids, work and getting dinner ready, who has time to brine their meats, right? I totally empathize with the notion of hurried parents struggling to put a nutritious meal on the table. I too go through it every day! However, just a little effort in brining goes a long way in improving the flavor of your dishes. Trust me.

As many of you already know, brining is an essential step when preparing the Thanksgiving roast turkey and is most typically used for chicken and pork as well. Other meats like beef and lamb are not usually brined because they are almost always cooked to a medium-rare to medium temperature (thus losing less moisture) and do not gain much benefit from brining.

So how does brining work? First, let's talk about what goes into a brining liquid. The universal formula is a combination of 2 parts salt and 1 part sugar. In addition, you can (but not necessary) add pickling spices which typically consists of cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, cloves, allspice, juniper berries, mustard seeds, bay leaves, dill seeds, coriander seeds, whole mace and dried red pepper. McCormick sells good pickling spice and should be widely available in most local supermarkets. To every quart of water (cold), you add 1 cup of salt (preferably a combination of 3/4 kosher and 1/4 table salt) and 1/2 cup of sugar. One quart is sufficient for one pound of food, just make sure that the meat is submerged in the liquid. Brining time should be no less than 30 minutes and not more than 8 hours.

To explain how brining works, I have to get a little scientific and explain the process of osmosis and diffusion. In nature, things tend to want to keep to a state of equilibrium. The law of diffusion states that molecules like to flow from areas of greater concentration to areas of lower concentration, thus evening out the concentration and achieving equilibrium. When submerging a piece of raw meat in a brining liquid, which has a much higher concentration of salt and sugar, those molecules will flow into the meat, whose cells contain lesser concentration.

Next is the process of osmosis. It is the turn of the water molecules to flow from the outside (the brining liquid contains more water) and into the meat (the cells have less water concentration), helping to start the meat out with more moisture. The salt and sugar also interacts with the meat proteins to form an invisible barrier that captures and holds moisture better. So brining helps in two ways by keeping the meat moist and also well-seasoned during cooking. When removed from the brining liquid, the meat should be washed thoroughly under cold running water. Pat it dry with paper towels and let it air-dry for a few minutes. This step is essential for poultry if you are looking to get crispy skins during cooking.

Now that we know the benefits of brining, meals could and should be planned a little ahead of time. I understand that this is not always possible due to time constraints but as I mentioned earlier, a little effort does go a long way in improving the flavor and quality of your dishes.

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