There’s nothing worse than cutting into a dry, flavorless pork chop or a rubbery chicken breast. Luckily, there’s an easy fix to ensure that lean meats don’t dry out as they cook: brine.
Meats like poultry, shrimp and pork are notoriously easy to overcook because they don’t have much fat and marbling to protect them. Infusing that meat with salt works food-science magic, increasing the amount of moisture inside and amping up the flavor. Brining builds in a lot of forgiveness in case you accidentally overcook things, all but guaranteeing you won’t end up with a chewy piece of dry meat!
What Is Brining?
Brining is the process of submerging a cut of meat into a solution of salt and water. Brines not only add flavor to your food, seasoning it with salt from the inside out, but they also infuse the meat with extra liquid. That protects your poultry, pork, or seafood as it cooks, and using one is our go-to secret for getting super tender meat every time you grill.
You’ll hear a lot about brines around Thanksgiving time, but brining is an excellent strategy for keeping all kinds of meats juicy and moist. It’s not necessary to brine red meats (like beef or lamb) or fattier cuts of meat (like chicken thighs or pork shoulder), although it certainly doesn’t hurt.
How Does a Brine Work?
Brines change the physical nature of your meat, infusing them with extra moisture. The salt in the brine tenderizes tough muscle fibers. It also allows the cells to retain more moisture, trapping so much liquid inside that it can’t all evaporate during the cooking process. It all comes together to create a moister, juicier piece of meat. Isn’t science great?
Can You Over-Brine?
It’s definitely possible to over-brine your meat. If you really let it go too long—as in, brining for days instead of hours—it may be beyond repair. Doing so can make your meat mushy, and there’s no way to fix that! But most over-brining simply makes everything a little too salty. Soaking the meat in cold water can draw out that excess salt.
You may not need to brine for as long as you think—thin fish fillets only take 10 minutes, and seafood like shrimp is done after 15 to 30 minutes. Thinner cuts of pork or poultry work well at around the 30-minute mark, although you can brine larger cuts like whole chickens or pork tenderloins for 12 hours (or, overnight). Very large turkeys can sit as long as 48 hours.
How Do You Make a Brine Solution?
You have two options when it comes to brine, but we’re going to talk about the traditional brine first: a wet brine. All you need is water, salt, and a little time—that’s it; you barely even need a recipe! I like using one tablespoon of kosher salt for every cup of water. For most meats, 4 cups of water (and, 1/4 cup of salt) will be sufficient to cover the meat completely. Beware: Some kosher salts are saltier than others.
You’ll find some brine recipes that call for additional ingredients, from sugar and honey to herbs and other aromatics like onion and garlic. While these additions do make the brine smell good and add flavor to the outside of the meat, they don’t penetrate the meat. Since they don’t add to the overall juiciness of the meat, they’re entirely optional. I prefer to use these ingredients post-brine, as a spice rub, a compound butter or sauce that tops the meat.
What About a Dry Brine?
Dry brines work in the same way as wet brines but they don’t use any water at all. By rubbing your meat with pure salt, you won’t add any excess moisture that could dilute the meat’s natural flavors. Instead, the salt infuses with the meat’s juices, creating super-concentrated flavors. Try this salted pork to see what I mean.
This method has become especially popular for Thanksgiving turkeys because it’s physically easier to do. You don’t have to worry about finding a container large enough to hold all that brining liquid!
You might be surprised to learn how little salt you need for this method, too: For each pound of meat, you only need 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt (or, a tablespoon for every two pounds). Rub the salt into the meat until it’s covered (but not caked on) and let it sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator for the same amount of time as a wet brine.
How Do You Brine a Chicken?
Brining is an easy cheat for creating the juiciest chicken on the block!
What You’ll Need:
- 4 cups of water
- 1/2 cup of salt
- Your favorite cut of chicken
Step 1: Mix the Brine
In a large container, mix together the water and salt. Stir with a whisk until the salt has completely dissolved into the water.
Step 2: Add the Chicken
Carefully lower the chicken into the brine, taking care not to splash water everywhere. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes for breasts and as long as 12 hours (or overnight) for a whole chicken.
Test Kitchen Tip: If you’re brining a whole chicken, you may need to double the brine recipe to make sure the meat is fully submerged into the water. You can weigh it down with a small bowl or piece of parchment paper, if necessary.
Step 3: Dry and Cook
Once the chicken is sufficiently brined, remove it from the liquid and pat it dry with a paper towel. You want the surface to be as dry as possible to get a good sear. Since the chicken absorbs salt from the brine, there’s no need to add additional salt, but you can rub the chicken with oil and dried spices if you like. Then, follow your favorite roasting, grilling or skillet recipe!
Try out your new brining skills by cooking up one of our most popular boneless skinless chicken breast recipes.