Ah, the enticing aroma of moist, freshly smoked meat. Nothing can excite the senses quite like this olfactorial treasure. It appeals to the soul on a very primitive level. It hearkens us to the days our profession was hunting, and dinner was a freshly-killed mammoth.
But it is not always so. How many us us have gone to cook-outs and been treated to dried out lumps of carboniferous materials that were once recognizable food items? Why is it that some people are veritable wizards with a smoker, and others are plagued by culinary gremlins? One of the main ‘secrets‘ to success in smoking is brining. The difference brining makes in cooking is astounding.
First of All: Defining Brining
If you have ever eaten a ham, corned beef or pastrami, them you have experienced the magic of a type of brining. Brining is what makes ham, and other delicious repasts possible. But it is a very special type of cold-brining, involving the use of nitrates as a preservative. For normal brining, all you need is salt and water. That’s it.
Brining forces water, and flavoring agents, if added, into the spaces between cells in the meat through a chemical process known as osmosis. Without getting too technical, osmosis is a chemical process by which areas of high concentrations of solutions spontaneously move to areas of low solution concentrations until a state of equilibrium exists. The cells in meat are permeable, meaning that small molecules can pass through the membranes, while larger molecules, such as, glucose, etc…are retained. So, when meat cells are submerged and bathed in a solution with a higher salt content, the salt will move to the area of lower salt content within the cells, using the water as a transport mechanism.
This means the water, and also any liquid flavoring agents, will also be drawn into the cells. Once the cells become saturated, they will remain that way until conditions change. What this means is that your meat will not dry out during long, slow cooking processes.
Brining is very easy. All you need is a suitable food service-grade container, such as a plastic food bucket with a lid, salt, water, flavorings, and enough space in the refrigerator to allow the container to be stored for a day or two. You should start your brine a day or two before you plan to smoke your meat.
Here is a step-by-step guide:
- Start by placing your meat in the container you pan to use. Now, fill it with water, being sure all the meat is completely covered.
- Remove the meat. Measure the amount of water remaining in the container. Discard the water (never use water that raw meat has been in…), clean and rinse the container, and refill it with the same amount of fresh water that you discarded.
- Pour salt into the container, and stir until all the salt has dissolved. You want a concentration of at least 1-cup of salt per gallon of water. Avoid using iodized salt, because it can impart off-flavors to the meat, and discolor it. The best to use is Kosher Salt. When using Kosher Salt, increase the concentration to 1-1/4 cups per gallon of water.
- Allow the water to site for a few hours, then stir it once again to be sure all the salt has dissolved.
- The night before you plan to smoke (or maybe 4-6 hours for something small, like a single chicken…), add you flavorings to the brine. Fruit juices such as apple work great. Just remember to subtract the amount of your juices from the total water volume before you brine it, so as not to effect the concentration levels. You can also add solids that will dissolve, such as garlic and onion powder, spices, rub mixes, etc…. You can even add Liquid Smoke, to give the meat more smoke-flavor (although many, myself included, consider that cheating….)
- Now, add your meat to the container, seal it with the lid and place it in the refrigerator. Allow the meat to brine 1 hour for every pound of meat. I almost always allow my meat to brine at least overnight, no matter what size it is. In theory, it is possible to over-brine, but I have brined meat for as long as 3 days with no adverse effects whatsoever. Longer is better.
- When you have your smoker fired up, and at the correct temperature, remove the meat from the brine and rinse it off well, inside and out. It is not necessary to pat it dry, although many do. Discard the remaining brine. Never, never, never re-use brine, or use it in sauces or mixes. It can cause a health risk.
- Throw your meat in the smoker, and get ready for the best meal you’ve ever had. Your food will be super-moist and have a wonderful delicate texture.
All you really need is salt and water, but you can certainly enhance the taste of your meat with custom brine solutions. Feel free to experiment. Here is one of my favorite brine recipes, especially for poultry and pork. Every bite is a little piece of Heaven…:
Check out this recipe: Maple Brine
- 1 gallon water
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1 cup Soy Sauce
- 1 cup Maple Syrup (imitation is fine, or Maplene, or Maple Extract…)
- ¾ cup Kosher salt (because the Soy Sauce has a lot of salt in it, so I reduce the salt a bit to maintain the proper concentration…)
- 10 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
- 8 whole Bay Leaves
- 3 sprigs of thyme
- 1 Tbsp whole peppercorns, or whole Pepper Medley
Boil half of the water and dissolve the sugar, syrup and salt in it. Remove from heat and add the remaining water. Allow to cool completely before using.