Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Never Go Back Again: Brining

I always knew my mother was a great cook; I just never realized how good until I went to college.

Seriously--love you guys. 
I do cherish my time at Penn State, and I was eventually able to make my peace with the commons cafeteria food, but not until after my first summer there in 2000. I'd never thought of myself as a picky eater, but somehow nothing that they offered looked remotely appealing. I had hardly anything there for days, though ultimately was able to find certain key edibles to let me make it through the summer (in the fall, I moved to dorms in North Halls, where the cafeteria was far superior to what I initially encountered over the summer). My cousin, John Anthony, recalls a similar experience upon returning home from Cornell and almost throttling his brother for complaining about being served one of his mother's typical weeknight meals (which was, of course, orders of magnitude better than anything he had suffered through in the fall at Ithaca).

These guys... I have no feelings about one way or another. 
All that being said, I'm still amazed at how often I find myself blindsided by techniques, even especially on foods that I've been cooking and eating for years. Many of these realizations come from viewings of Good Eats, where Alton Brown actually shows the unmitigated gall to explain why he's using a particular technique or specific ingredient.

Once you know the proper way to do something, you swear: I'll never go back to the old way again.

The real joy is how many of these little tricks really are that--just small, simple, and (best of all) cheap tricks that nevertheless bring your cooking to a whole new level. So, starting this tradition is perhaps the most recent one that I've embraced: brining.

The first time I brined anything was the turkey for Thanksgiving two years ago. We managed to fit the bird into my larger stock pot and set it outside in the freezing cold overnight On the phone the next day, m brother-in-law Joe asked me what it tasted like.

"Turkey--it tasted more like turkey."

Ultimately, a brine is just a liquid salt, and when you properly salt food, what does it taste like? Right--itself. Salt does a lot of things in cooking, but one of the major ways it affects food is by supercharging our taste buds (except for those that detect bitterness--those are actually muted by the presence of salt). The beauty of the brine is that it carries that salt (along with other flavors you've added) deep into the flesh of the meat or poultry, not just the surface. It also helps them stay juicier--definitely a plus when you're looking at white meat (whether poultry or pork).

In his excellent book (seriously--know someone who likes to cook a bit? Is trying to cook more? Maybe even cooks a lot but enjoys reading on the fundamentals? This is the book for them), "Ruhlman's Twenty," Michael Ruhlman outlines 20 essential ideas of cooking. In his signature style, each topic gets several pages of prose, followed by a few excellent recipes that exemplify the idea he's trying to convey. Specifics are always nice, but if you enjoy high-level concepts and ideas the way I do, you'll devour this one.

Lesson #1 is "Think". What's the second most pressing idea for the cook to understand?

Abby calls this "The Number Book"
So, how do you unlock all this magic that I keep babbling on about? In my experience, there are three levels that you can take your brine to.

The simplest brine is pretty simple: just a 5% salt solution in water. How do you do that? Add 3 1/2 tablespoons of salt to 4 1/2 cups of water (alternatively, if you have a fancy digital scale like some of us do, you can just weigh out 50g of salt and add 950g of water to it). The kind of salt is important--kosher salt is great stuff for lots of applications, but the great big crystals make it a little more difficult to dissolve in cold water. You might have better luck with table salt, but pickling salt is your best bet for cold water. Otherwise, you're going to have to warm up the water until the salt dissolves, then cool it before you use it. If you want to try and get creative, you can boil a small amount of water and get the salt to dissolve there before pouring in the remaining cold water--it'll make for a faster cool-down, which is really the point if you're going for simple.

Once you start getting into the habit of things, you can try something just a little fancier--making your own brining salt. I keep a jar of pickling salt mixed with some pulverized dry herbs--rosemary and thyme. When it comes time to make a brine, I scoop some out from here into cold water and mix it up. Takes just a little bit of pre-planning, but is a good step up over just plain salt.

The third option is where you get a little more committed to your brining (not that there's anything wrong with that). Ruhlman's own recipe for Fried Chicken (another excellent one, also included in Ruhlman's 20 with some very helpful pictures) gives a good breakdown, but essentially it involves sweating some onions and garlic before adding the salt, rosemary, and lemon before finally the water and bringing the whole thing to a simmer. You can play around with it as you like, but essentially you'd adding even more flavors to the brine, which will increase the flavor of the actual meat.

If at all possible, I highly recommend getting free range/naturally raised/organic poultry and meat when possible, for both health and flavor reasons. If you're stuck with something less, though, brining is going to absolutely save your taste buds.

Once you have your brine, put your meat in a ziplock bag with more than enough brine to cover, then draw out as much air as you can. Move it around to make sure the brine covers everything, and then stick it in the fridge. Ideally, you'll give the brine a full day to work its magic, but I've honestly noticed results after only an hour or so in the fridge if I'm really pressed for time. Having the cut prepared a day in advance also gets you in the right mindset--you're thinking and planning ahead, and when it comes time to make dinner, if your chicken or pork is already trimmed, you're really going to feel like you've got your act together.

Just remove the meat from the bag, pat dry, and pour out the brine. I can't believe I have to say this, but I will anyway--no, you can't reuse the brine. You can't really do anything with it at this point except pour it down the drain. It's way too salty to be good for making a sauce or anything else, and even if you poured it out onto the driveway to melt the snow, you'd just end up with meat juice on your driveway. Toss it and the bag and focus on the newly-deliciousized (no, it's not a word; no, I'm not going to remove it) meat that you're about to cook.

Trust me, once you start brining, you'll never go back again.

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