The Secrets to Fine Brining

A guide to getting tender, flavorful meats


Brining meat has become very popular as of late, but the truth is that it’s not all that new, though in the past we have only referred to the process as marinating meat!

Brining refers specifically to marinating with a liquid that contains salt. Traditional marinades tended to be acid-based, which can help tenderize meats as well as introduce flavors to a rather shallow depth.

Brining, on the other hand, relies on the laws of nature to actually force a specific fluid into meat by introducing a higher concentration of salt in the brining liquid.
When you combine two fluids with different characteristics -- such as temperature, color or salinity -- they eventually reach a point where each fluid loses its own character and you are left with a single, uniform fluid.

While a cut of meat may not be a fluid, it is made up of mostly water. By placing it in a salty solution, you allow osmosis to attempt to equalize the salinity between the brine and the meat. The only way to do this is for the meat to first expel some of its juices, trying to dilute the solution while drawing in some salt.

The salt not only adds to the flavor of any finished dish, but also helps to break down certain muscle fibers in the meat, allowing it to absorb more fluid than it originally held. This simple fact is the science behind the effects of brining: flavorful, juicy meats.

Brining is generally most successful with pork and poultry, though the science behind it means it will work, more or less effectively, with any type of meat. In addition to absorbing the salt from the brine, meats will also absorb any dissolved compounds in your brining solution, so flavorings and sweeteners are also typically featured in brining solution.

While brining meats can make them more tender and flavorful, over-brining will inevitably results in tough, salty meat. The thicker the cut of meat, the longer it needs to be brined for effective results, and thus the lower salinity needed to achieve perfect results.

An easy rule of thumb guide to brining

A brining solution is based on salty water. The amount of salt added depends on the thickness of the cut, and thus the length of time it needs to be brined.

Cut of meat               Brining time                Brining solution recipe
Whole turkey             12-24 hours                  ½ cup of table salt per gallon of water
Turkey breast             4-6 hours                     ½ cup of table salt per gallon of water
Pork loin                    6-12 hours                   ½ cup of table salt per gallon of water
Whole chicken           2-4 hours                     ¾ cup of table salt per gallon of water
Pork chops                 2-4 hours                    ¾ cup of table salt per gallon of water
Cut-up chicken           1-2 hours                    ¾ cup of table salt per gallon of water
Chicken breast           1 hour                        ¾ cup of table salt per gallon of water

A basic brining solution consists of liquid, salt, sugar and flavorings, though only salted water is needed.

To make your brining solution, always heat your water to aid in dissolving both the salt and sugar, but always allow your solution to fully cool before use.

Simple Brine
1 gallon water
½ cup table salt
½ cup white sugar
¼ cup cracked black pepper
3 bay leaves
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced

Do not brine kosher meats, as they have already been brined.

Brined meats will generally cook somewhat faster than their unbrined counterparts, as the higher fluid content of the meat aids in conducting heat within the meat and the salt has already done some of the work of breaking down the tissues.

It’s not just water; any liquid will work as a brining solution base as long as it’s not too acidic. Acidic liquids break down meat proteins and will result in mushy dishes. Some acid is fine, so additions of beer, wine, and fruit juices are common in brining solutions. Stocks -- chicken, beef, vegetable -- are ideal for brining.

Make sure to keep your meat to be brined fully submerged in the brining liquid. Use an inverted plate with weights on top to help keep the meat submerged.

You can create brining concentrate by boiling all your ingredients with a portion of the liquid needed. Once it has cooled -- a quart will cool much more quickly than a gallon -- simply add the concentrate to the remainder of your liquid.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: TomG
    40947 44

    While it's important, as you say, to heat the water so the salt and sugar dissolve completely, I think you can heat much less than all the water, and thus save yourself a lot of time heating cooling down the rest. For instance, if you're making a gallon of brine, heat a quart of water and dissolve all the salt and sugar, and even add your aromatics. Once that's done, you can add the other 3 quarts of (cool or even cold) water. It's ready to go.

    Dec 15, 2010 at 11:58 AM

  • I like it, thanks for the information.

    Dec 15, 2010 at 7:38 PM

  • Snooth User: Mandyhicks
    533282 19

    What tempeature should the meat be kept while it is in the brine? It would be very difficult to keep the turkey submerged in brine and in the refrigerator at the same time!! Is it safe to have a whole turkey in a cool room in the brine for 24 hours?

    Dec 15, 2010 at 11:12 PM

  • No, it's not a good idea to leave the turkey at room temp for that long a period. The day before Thanksgiving I was fortunate that the outside temp was in the 30s, so I left the pot outside and out of the sun. Of course I did have to watch out for neighborhood dogs, coyotes, raccoons, etc. If you've got a garage that's cold enough, that's probably ideal. Otherwise, take some stuff out of the fridge and make room!

    Dec 16, 2010 at 10:35 AM

  • Snooth User: angldst
    323291 13

    @Mandyhicks: We brine our turkey each thanksgiving starting the night before. We bring up a large cooler for this purpose, and place the turkey & brine (in a brining bag) in the cooler, together with enough ice to keep it cold but not too much so. It's worked fine for us every time we've used this method. Frees up fridge space for pies & sides!


    Dec 16, 2010 at 11:45 AM

  • Snooth User: 58jaz
    355213 24

    Hi there. With regards to brining a turkey, I saw a chef use a picnic cooler to do the job. He made about three gallons of brine. He put the turkey in the cooler, added the brine and then put in three refreezable ice packs. This ensured the turkey would be kept at a cool temperature. It seemed to do the trick.

    Dec 21, 2010 at 10:51 AM

  • Snooth User: cooksy
    687298 2

    Hi - I'm using a readymade brine that is absolutely fantastic. I bought it during the summer at Academy and then found one specifically for Turkey that I used at Thanksgiving. Great results! My friend used one of the brines for shrimp and salmon...I never knew that brine would improve the food so much.

    Dec 21, 2010 at 3:35 PM

  • I did my turkey in a large paint bucket and covered it with ice, the ice being apart of the original amount of water required. The next day the liquid was still very cold.

    Jan 04, 2011 at 8:10 PM

  • I've been brining turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving for several years now. I wouldn't do it any other way! So moist and tender, and takes a lot less time to cook. I also now have no fear of letting the turkey 'rest' under loose foil for up to an hour - the heat is retained in the turkey - which gives me plenty of time to get everything else organized to be served at the same time, which was always the challenge.
    I want to try whole salmon and a pork loin too!
    BB_Q in Canada

    Jan 12, 2011 at 9:42 PM

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