A food scientist explains how a soak in a salt solution makes lean meat, like turkey, juicier and more flavorful.
Roasted turkey breast, sautéed pork chops, and stir-fried shrimp all tend to suffer a common fate when they’re cooked even a few minutes longer than necessary: they get dry and tough. Actually, any kind of meat or fish will taste like shoe leather if it’s severely overcooked, but turkey, pork, and shrimp are particularly vulnerable because they’re so lean. Luckily, there’s a simple solution (literally) for this problem. Soaking these types of leaner meats in a brine—a solution of salt and water—will help ensure moister, juicier results.
HOW A BRINE WORKS
Moisture loss is inevitable when you cook any type of muscle fiber. Heat causes raw individual coiled proteins in the fibers to unwind — the technical term is denature — and then join together with one another, resulting in some shrinkage and moisture loss. By the way, acids, salt, and even air can have the same denaturing effect on proteins as heat. Normally, meat loses about 30 percent of its weight during cooking, but if you soak the meat in a brine first you can reduce this moisture loss during cooking to as little as 15 percent, according to Dr. Estes Reynolds, a brining expert at the University of Georgia.
Of all the processes at work during brining, the most significant is salt’s ability to denature proteins. The dissolved salt causes some of the proteins in muscle fibers to unwind and swell. As they unwind, the bonds that had held the protein unit together as a bundle break. Water from the brine binds directly to these proteins, but even more important, water gets trapped between these proteins when the meat cooks and the proteins bind together. Some of this would happen anyway just during cooking, but the brine unwinds more proteins and exposes more bonding sites. As long as you don’t overcook the meat, which would cause protein bonds to tighten and squeeze out a lot of the trapped liquid, these natural juices will be retained.
How long to brine depends on the size and type of meat you’ve got. Larger meats like a whole turkey require much more time for the brine to do its thing. Small pieces of seafood like shrimp shouldn’t sit in a brine for more than half an hour. In fact, any meat that’s brined for too long will dry out and start to taste salty as the salt ends up pulling liquid out of the muscle fibers. Be sure not to brine meats that have already been brined before you buy them, such as “extra-tender” pork, which has been treated with sodium phosphate and water to make it juicier.
EXAMPLES FOR BRINING TIMES
Kosher salt works better than table salt as it has larger crystals and dissolves quicker in water.
Turkey: 12 to 24 hours with 1 cup of table salt or 9.6 ounces of kosher salt to 1 gallon of cold water
Thick Cut Pork Chops: ( 4 ) – 2 to 4 hours with ½ cup of kosher salt to 1 quart of cold water, add a few peppercorns, 2 crushed garlic cloves ,1 juiced orange and 2 tablespoons olive oil and ½ teaspoon of freshly chopped rosemary leaves
Shrimp or Thin Fish Filets: ½ hour with ½ cup of kosher salt to 1 pint of cold water.