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.
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.