There are two types of brine: seasoning and curing. Each will be discussed in turn.
Part One: Seasoning Brine
Seasoning brine typically contains three ingredients: water, salt, and sugar. But why do we season-brine meat to begin with? There are at least three reasons:
Flavour. The first reason we season-brine meat is to evenly distribute flavour-enhancing salt throughout its mass, instead of simply on the outer surface. We can also impart the flavour of herbs and spices to the meat.
Increased Tenderness. As Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking, “salt disrupts the structure of the muscle filaments [and] dissolves parts of the the protein structure that supports the contracting filaments.” A strong enough brine will also start to dissolve the filaments themselves. During cooking, these partially dissolved filaments can’t coagulate in their usual way, so the meat seems more tender to the diner.
Increased Moisture. Interactions between salt and protein increase the water-holding capacity of the muscle cells, which then absorb water from the brine. McGee says that a brine with 5.5% salinity is required to start dissolving the meat filaments. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that many brine recipes, including the basic seasoning brine in Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, call for 5.6% salt by weight of water.
The Role of Sugar in Brine. In seasoning brine, sugar is added strictly for flavour. Sweet things taste good, and sweetness also helps to round out the salinity of the brine. The sugar content can certainly be tailored to individual taste, but most recipes call for about 3% of the weight of the water.
Why we don’t season-brine beef and game. Seasoning brine is usually applied to pork and poultry. Beef steaks and roasts are usually cooked rare or medium, whereas pork and poultry are cooked medium-well and well, respectively. Beef therefore doesn’t loose as much moisture during cooking, and isn’t in need of a brine the same way pork and poultry are. A couple people have told me that brining beef yields a mushy texture.
Basic Seasoning Brine
Percentages, by weight
- 100% – water
- 5.6% – kosher salt
- 3.1% – sugar
- 4 L water
- 225 g kosher salt
- 130 g sugar
Part Two: Curing Brine
Curing brine contains water, salt, sugar, and curing salt. Curing brine performs all of the functions of a seasoning brine, as listed above, but they also cure the meat. For a complete description of why we cure meat and what exactly curing salt is, see On Curing Salts (and Fearmongering).
Brine-Curing v. Rub-Curing. Some meats are traditionally cured with brine, others with dry rub. The later is often called “dry curing,” but this terminology is confusing, as air-dried charcuterie like salami and bresaola are also called dry-cured. For this reason I refer to the process as rub-curing.
Some examples of what I’m talking about: the hams at the grocery store down the street are always brined, but proscuitto is always rub-cured. Some charcuterie items can go either way: Ruhlman’s recipe for back bacon calls for a brine, but the the Irvings cure their pork loins with a dry rub. Based on internet chat forums, it seems that belly bacon can also go either way.
So, my question: Why are some charcuterie items cured with brine, and others with rub? This question has bothered me for some time. Preparing brine can be a bit of a hassle, because you have to heat the water to dissolve all the salt and sugar, then chill the liquid thoroughly before the meat can be submerged. It would be easier if I could just sprinkle a dry rub directly onto the meat and be done with it.
After a review of the relevant literature, here is my best answer to the above question. Whether we’re brine-curing or rub-curing, salt is distributed through the meat, which:
- cures the meat;
- increases the tenderness of the meat by disrupting filament structure, partly dissolving some filaments, and preventing those partially-dissolved filaments from coagulating during cooking; and
- improves mouthfeel by increasing the moisture-holding capacity of the muscle cells.
The only difference between the two processes is that, when brined, meat takes in water. The meat’s mass actually increases by 10%, sometimes more. Again, McGee: “When cooked, the meat still loses around 20% of its weight in moisture, but this loss in counter-balanced by the brine absorbed, so that moisture loss is effectively cut in half.” In other words, we increase the yield on the meat, and increase the amount of moisture in the cooked meat. Obviously there can be no water absorption when a rub-cure is used.
With this in mind, we can say that curing-brine can only be advantageous for meat that will be cooked, like hams and corned beef. Meat that is going to be air-dried, like proscuitto or bresaola, should clearly not be brined, as the air-drying is intended to drive moisture out of the meat.
What about our belly and back bacon, then? Why is it that some are brined and others rubbed? I would argue that back bacon should always be brined. Being made from the loin, it is prone to dryness. Belly bacon, however, is about half fat, and is not prone to dryness in the least.
So as a general rule:
- meat that will be air-dried should be rub-cured
- lean meat that will be cooked (eg. loin, hock, leg) should be brine-cured
- fatty meat that will be cooked (eg. belly, jowl) can be rub-cured
Now that we have established which cuts should be brine-cured, we need to consider the recipe.
Salt Content. Most curing brine has a salinity of 8-9%. In older sources (eg. Fritz Sonnenschmidt’s Charcuterie), different cuts of meat all have unique brine recipes with varying salinity. Very broadly, it seems that the tougher the cut of meat, the stronger the brine. For instance, beef brisket that will become corned beef calls for a strong brine, while pork loin for Kassler Ripchen a weak brine.
You can certainly tweak brine in this way. I just stick to 8.5%.
Sugar Content. As mentioned above, sugar is added to cures chiefly for its flavour. Since curing brine has a much higher concentration of salt that seasoning brine, and sugar softens the aggressive taste of the salt, our curing brine will have a lot of sugar in them.
Again, surveying a set of brine recipes, we can see that sugar content varies widely, much more widely than salt content, in fact. If I could discern one trend, I would say that large, festive roasts that are often accompanied by sweet glazes or sauces have the most sugar in them. Holiday ham is probably the best example, so often served with honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar.
Basic Curing Brine
Percentages, by weight
- 100% – water
- 8.5% – kosher
- 1.2% – curing salt
- 3-10%- sugar
Example Recipe: Sweet Brine for Ham or Back Bacon
- 4 L water
- 340 g kosher
- 48 g curing salt
- 400 g sugar
Part Three: General Brine Notes
Brine Volumes. The only rule is that the meat must be completely submerged. Given a nice round roast and an appropriately sized container, 4 L of brine should work for everything from a 1 lb trotter to a 15 lb ham.
Cooling Brine. Generally a brine must be heated in order to dissolve all the salts and sugars. The brine must be completely chilled to fridge temperatures before the meat is added. It takes a bucket of warm water a long time to cool in the fridge, and submerging meat in that water would have the meat exposed to microbe-friendly temperatures for several hours.
Basically this means you need to plan ahead. If I know I’m going to be brining my Thanksgiving turkey on Saturday, I make a brine on Friday night. There are lots of ways to speed up the cooling process. The most effective is to make your brine with the full amount of salts and sugars, but only half the amount of water. Heat on the stove, and once the salts are dissolved, add the remaining weight of water in ice. If you don’t have enough ice, the same can be done with cold water.
Brine Times. Season-brining is a much quicker process than cure-brining. Seasoning-brines typically take a matter of hours. In fact, there are quite often tables in charcuterie books, stating this many hours for a pork chop, this many hours for a chicken, and so on. If the meat is already portioned into steaks or chops, I leave them for 12 hours. If it is a roast that will be cut later, I leave it for 24 hours.
Curing brine usually takes days to fully penetrate a piece of meat. I leave most items in for four or five days. This includes tongues, hocks, and medium-sized roasts. For larger roasts, like say a 10-15 lb ham, I inject brine and leave the meat submerged in for one week. It’s a fairly forgiving process: leaving the meat in for an extra day does not, in my experience, make the meat too salty.
Don’t Re-Use Brine! When you brine meat, salt and sugar are taken in, right? That means that afterwards the concentrations of salt and sugar in your brine are no longer correct! Discard brine after a single use!