Photo by Donna T. Ruhlman
Brine: A brine is salt in solution. Brining is a powerful technique for seasoning meat and fish and can also cure it and introduce complementary flavors. Fresh vegetables can be brined at room temperature for a natural pickle, one in which the acid is generated by bacteria. Brine strength, the ratio of salt to water, can vary but a good working ratio is a cup of kosher salt (between 6 and 8 ounces) per gallon which, depending on the type of salt you use will result in a 5% to 6% brine. For an exact brine, it’s easiest to use metric measurements—50 grams of salt per liter of water results in a 5% brine. Always use kosher or sea salt, and it’s best to weigh the salt rather than measure it by volume. A 5% brine is also an excellent liquid in which to cook green vegetables and the ideal strength for natural pickles. A small amount of sugar is often added to a brine to counteract the harshness of salt. Aromats can be added to the brine to complement the flavor of the meat or vegetables (tarragon and citrus for chicken for instance, garlic and sage for pork chops, garlic and chillis for pickled vegetables). Aromats should be simmered in the brine while the salt dissolves to infuse the water. Brines should be completely chilled before the meat or vegetable is added and should be discarded after they’ve been used (never reuse a brine). The brined item should rest after being removed from the brine to allow the salt concentration to equalize within the meat. A brined piece of meat, which has absorbed water, will result in a ten to fifteen percent greater yield and often juicier finished meat.
The above image is from the corned beef soon to simmer in a spicy liquid. I used a five percent brine along with chilli flakes, mustard seed, coriander, ginger, peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, garlic and importantly, pink salt (which gives the meat its distinctive piquant flavor and rosy color). Home-cured beef is fantastic, easy, and enormously satisfying (there’s a complete recipe in Charcuterie). I now find it difficult to enjoy a store-bought corned beef, not because there’s anything wrong really with buying a brisket that’s been brined, only that having enjoyed so thoroughly curing my own I’m acutely conscious of the pleasure I’ve deprived myself of by not doing it myself. And it doesn’t taste as good.
One of the many extraordinary uses we can put a brine to. If all you have available is crummy factory pork loin, second in it’s lack of taste only to the factory chicken breast, brining it is a good way to make it more moist and flavorful. But again, I want to stress that a brine is a multi-faceted tool: it’s a perfect medium for cooking green vegetables, pickling vegetables (now, when it’s cool, is a good time to pickle vegetables—keep cut root vegetables and aromatics submerged in a 5% brine for a week and you’ll have a nice clean sour pickle), curing meat such as beef or pork loin (for Canadian bacon) or shoulder or leg (for ham), and enhancing the flavor and juiciness of meats we roast.