Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Why Brine?

The secret to producing a moist and tender bird is brining. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to barbeque it, grill it, or even roast or broil it in your oven. In fact, this method works with any cut of lean meat, such as pork tenderloin, chops, poultry, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be much agreement among the “experts” as to why brining works, except that it does. If you’ll recall your introductory high school chemistry, you may remember diffusion (where dissolved substances will move from a region of higher concentration to lower concentration because of agitation, usually from heating) and an kind of diffusion called osmosis (the movement of a solvent across a semi-permeable membrane to equalize the concentrations on both sides).

Diffusion is pretty easy to understand. Just stir up some garlic and onions in olive oil on your stove and pretty soon the entire house has that wonderful smell. That’s diffusion – the gases given off from the cooking are equalizing throughout the area. Osmosis is a little more difficult. Remember the experiment you did in high school where you put a balloon full of salt water into a bucket of fresh water? After a while the water in the balloon had a different weight than when it started. That’s because the balloon is a semi-permeable membrane – it lets some things pass through it, but not others. The salt water and the fresh water are equalizing, so we get a different weight.

So how does this translate to submerging a chicken in brine for several hours? Again, the experts disagree on the mechanism, but my personal favorite is that the meat has a lower concentration of water and salt inside its cells than the brine solution. This situation creates osmotic pressure to pull the liquid into the cells, but more importantly, into the areas between the cells. The flavors in the brine come along for the ride. You end up with meat that’s bursting with water. I suppose I could prove it by doing a complicated set of experiments, but in reality the barbeque just gets eaten too fast to be spending time measuring it….

The end result is that the meat has much higher water content than usual. That translates into moist bird. It’s really amazing to sea a turkey burst with water and steam when you cut into the breast with the carving knife. But there’s another mechanism at work. The extra water inside and around the cells will reach the boiling point during cooking. This not only translates into shorter cooking times, but also serves to rupture the cell walls – thus creating a much more tender bird. Think of how much more tender meat is after you beat on it with a tenderizing hammer. The boiling from the inside does the same thing, on a much more uniform scale.

If you haven't gotten into brining, then you're missing out on Nirvana. Watching a crowd of people dig into a feast of perfect, succulent chicken is a very satisfying feeling.

It's poultry in motion...

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