To brine or not to brine, that is the question. Robert L. Wolke, in his book "What Einstein Told His Cook," says, "Brining seems to be all the rage these days, as if the world's chefs and food writers have suddenly discovered salt water, like Balboa discovering the Pacific Ocean."
Preserving food in salt water has been around for centuries, but nowadays, it has become a trendy new way to add juiciness and flavor to drier meats.
Why and how does brining work? To put it simply, salt and water will flow from the greater concentration of salt (the brine) to the lesser concentration (the cells of the meat) by the law of diffusion.
Let's just clear up the difference between brining, marinating and rubbing. Technically, when you rub salt into meats, some of the salt dissolves in the surface moisture and creates a film that causes moisture to be extracted, the exact opposite of brining. Marinating is soaking meat in a liquid mixture of many ingredients.
Brining is best for lean meats that tend to dry out when cooked, such as turkey or fatless pork loin. Beef, lamb, duck and other meats with high fat content and bold flavors do not benefit from brining. They are naturally moist and flavorful and tend to be cooked at lower internal temperatures and thus don't lose as much of their natural moisture.
Brining is simple, but you have to allow one to 24 hours, depending on the protein, before it is ready for the next step. Brine meat in the refrigerator for one hour per pound. If you want crispy skin on whole poultry, remove it from the brine and refrigerate it for 12 hours or overnight. This will produce a crispy brown skin when cooked.
A simple rule of thumb is one cup of salt for each gallon of water. Determine how much water you will need for the pot you are using. Then, you can just dissolve the salt in water or start by boiling two cups of water for each cup of salt you will need, then add the salt and stir until dissolved. Add remaining cold water. Avoid putting meat to brine in hot water. Let mixture cool first. Put the meat in a pot that will be big enough so that it can be covered with brine but not too much bigger. Brine meat for about an hour per pound. Rinse and pat dry or let it dry in refrigerator for several hours.
A lot of people add one cup of sugar to their brine, and many people add spices. Here is a recipe you might enjoy:
Asian Style Roast Chicken
1 whole chicken (approx. 3 1/2 lbs.)
4 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons cooking oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
3 slices ginger, minced
1. Put water in a stockpot, add salt and sugar and stir until dissolved.
2. Add chicken, breast side down. It should be completely submerged. Refrigerate for 3 1/2 hours.
3. Remove from brine. Refrigerate for several hours more.
4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
5. Mix soy sauce, oil and garlic in a bowl. Put ginger in a garlic press and squeeze into soy mixture. Whisk until blended.
6. Place chicken, breast side down in a rack in a roasting pan.
7. Roast bird for 30 minutes, basting with soy mixture after 10 and 20 minutes. Stir sauce each time before brushing. If drippings start to smoke, add 1/2 cup water to pan. Turn bird breast side up and roast for another hour, basting every 10 minutes.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.