Brining Adds Zip to Smoked Meat

Times Staff Writer

Question: I have a charcoal smoker and have been using it for about 18 months for a variety of meat, fish and fowl. Recently I ran across a recipe that called for soaking the meat, fish or fowl in a "brine" before smoking. What is the purpose of brining? How does it affect the taste?

Answer: "The brining of meat and fish before smoking provides the salty flavor characteristic of many smoked foods," according to "Barbecuing, Grilling & Smoking" (Ortho Books, 1988: $7.95) by the California Culinary Academy. "Brine, also called wet cure or pickle, is a solution of salt, water, sugar, and--often--sodium nitrite.

Meat placed in a brine solution cures by having its moisture content reduced and the moisture replaced with salt. The addition of sodium nitrite to the brine not only gives the meat the traditional pink color but retards the growth of botulism.

"Nitrite need be present in cures only if the meat will be subject to prolonged cold smoking (longer than three to four hours). During cold smoking, the temperature is ideal for bacterial growth. Nitrite does not need to be used for meat that will be smoke cooked since the temperature is high enough to cook the food before bacterial growth can occur. Spices and other flavoring can be added to the brine for additional flavor."

Q: A friend was listening to a radio program giving a recipe for salmon. One of the ingredients was fennel feathers. What are they--we're both curious?

A: In "Fresh Produce A to Z" (Lane Publishing: 1987), the editors of Sunset books and magazine explain: "A fennel plant looks like a flattened bunch of celery with a large, white, bulbous base and feathery green leaves. The raw bulb is crunchy and celery-like in texture; both bulb and leaves have a slightly sweet, licorice-like taste."

The radio announcer was undoubtedly referring to the plant's leaves.

Q: Can you tell me how to make strawberry vinegar? With the berries in good supply, I thought this would be a good time to make up a batch.

A: Good thinking. The following recipe comes from "Fancy Pantry" (Workman Publishing: 1986). Author Helen Witty suggests that beside using the vinegar in sauces and fruit salad dressings, "try sprinkling a little over lightly sweetened strawberries sliced for dessert; it intensifies their flavor remarkably.

"Strawberry Vinegar can also be used to add delicate acidity to fruit preserves in place of lemon juice; add it toward the end of cooking to preserve its fragile flavor.

"This vinegar may be prepared without sweetening if you prefer; in that case, simmer it without the sugar. Unsweetened fruit vinegars are more versatile than sweetened versions; it's simple enough to add a little sugar to any dish that requires it."

STRAWBERRY INEGAR

1 1/2 quarts strawberries

3 cups white wine vinegar or Oriental rice vinegar

6 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Sort and discard any overripe berries. Rinse berries and drain well, then remove hulls. Crush or chop berries and combine with vinegar in sterilized, dry 2-quart jar or crock. Cover container and let mixture stand 1 month, shaking or stirring occasionally.

Empty mixture into fine-meshed sieve lined with fine nylon net or 2 layers dampened cheesecloth and set over bowl. Let vinegar drain, finally pressing lightly on debris to obtain last of juice. Discard pulp.

Combine vinegar and sugar in stainless steel or enameled saucepan and heat just to simmering. Simmer, uncovered, 3 minutes. Let cool completely.

Skim off any foam and strain vinegar into 1 or more sterilized, dry bottles. Cap or cork bottles and stir in cool spot away from light. If sediment appears over time, decant vinegar carefully or filter through dampened filter paper placed in coffee cone or funnel. Makes about 1 quart.

Address questions on food preparation to You Asked About . . ., Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. Personal replies cannot be given.

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