If you are blissfully oblivious of dry brining then one thing is for certain. After reading this thorough guide to salt brining, you will never look at these humble crystals in the same way – let this be crystal clear.
The seasoning is capable of moving entire civilizations. In fact, this is how civilization came into existence. Solnitsata in Bulgaria is believed to be the first town in Europe. Its name means ‘salt works’ since it was built over a salt mine.
Salt is more than just a basic flavor enhancer. It is essential to life. Salt is necessary for nerve function, muscle function, regulating blood pressure and producing stomach acid among other vital functions. In other word, we cannot live without it. The flavor of dry brined meat is something to live for.
Besides being added to virtually every single food recipe, salt also has another important culinary use. It is necessary for dry brining. Dry brining is nothing more than applying salt to the meat surface to tenderize it and to improve its flavor substantially.
Dry Brining vs. Wet Brining. Which Is Better?
Although wet brining is also another way of attaining the same goals, dry brining has several advantages over the former. Besides requiring less salt for the same amount of meat, dry brining is also less messy than the wet brining technique, since it requires no water.
One major advantage of dry brining is that there is no risk of the meat becoming soggy. This is a potential problem with wet brining. The risk is more pronounced with thinner cuts of meat, such as pork chops and steaks.
Dry brining also consumes less salt than wet brining.
However, one drawback of dry brining is that it takes longer to complete than wet brining.
What is Dry Brining?
Here are the granular details on dry brining.
To begin with, dry brining may sound like an oxymoron to the uninitiated. Brine is, after all, associated with saltwater and seawater. One of the first things that come to mind at the mention of brining is big barrels with food preserved in large quantities of salt solution. This, of course, is the method of wet brining – an age-old tradition for preserving food back in the days when there were no refrigerators.
Dry brining is done simply by rubbing salt on the surface of meat. There is no need for any water contrary to what many people might think. It is very simple to perform. However, the chemistry behind dry brining is a little involved and very fascinating.
Dry brining is technically a salt rub. You apply salt on the surface of meat just like you apply other seasonings. Salt is after all, the number one seasoning that you simply cannot do without. Dry brining is a variant of BBQ rubs – the seasonings and condiments that you apply for flavoring.
Will Food Taste Too Salty with Dry Brining?
Applying the recommended amount of salt to your meat (as explained below) will not make your meat taste too salty.
Should I Dry Brine the Meat Before Barbecuing It?
It is undoubtedly a good idea to dry brine meat before smoking or grilling it. Dry brining tenderizes the meat and ameliorates its natural flavor.
After you apply salt to the surface of meat cuts and let it rest, an intriguing process takes place. The salt seeps its way into the meat through its surface through osmosis.
Salt has the ability to draw water. So when it sits on the surface of the meat, it attracts the moisture from the meat towards itself. When the moisture comes in contact with salt, it dissolves to form a concentrated salt solution on the surface. The resultant salt solution is then gradually absorbed by the meat. In this sense, dry brining is a covert wet brining process – although it is not immediately obvious on inspection, dry brining works via a salt solution just like wet brining.
Once inside the meat, the salt begins to work its magic. The meat becomes more tender and tastier as a result. It acts both as a seasoning and a tenderizer. The good news is that this tenderness and taste is not just limited to the surface of the meat. If you let the meat sit, then the salt can penetrate deeper into the cut beyond the visible exterior.
Another advantage of dry brining is that the meat cooks more quickly. Since the cut of dry brined meat is now more tender, it will be ready in less time compared to unsalted meat. You will, therefore, have to carefully monitor the dry brined meat. Since it will cook more quickly and there is a higher chance of overcooking it. With experience, you will come to know how long it takes for dry brined meat to cook thoroughly. So this should not be too much of an issue once you gain some experience with dry brining.
What Meats Are Best to Dry Brine?
For dry brining, you can get the best results with turkey. However, dry brining can also work well for all kinds of meats. With turkey, the tenderness and taste that results from dry brining are at the highest level.
You will also be mesmerized by other meats subjected to dry brining. You can try out dry brining on all kinds of meats including fish, seafood and mutton.
You can also get fantastic dry brining results with beef. Just go for it and feel the delicious difference yourself.
Keep in mind though that dry brining will not work with pre-salted meat. Since it already has a high level of salt, adding more salt with dry brining will ruin the taste of your expensive meat. And that would be adding salt to your injury.
So you should dry brine raw unsalted meat only.
Another exception to dry brining is kosher meat since it already has a high level of salt.
What Are the Ingredients for Dry Brining?
Here are the ingredients and items that you need for dry brining.
- Salt – this can be either sea salt or kosher salt. Table salt is not the best choice since the grains are very fine.
- Any other seasoning of your choosing
- Container – this can be a roasting pan (with or without a lid), a plastic container or a resealable bag.
- Refrigerator with enough space to accommodate the dry brined meat
- Time – dry brining can take a few hours at the very least for good results
- A pestle and mortar – these are helpful but not essential
How Much Salt Is Enough to Dry Brine Meat?
According to conventional wisdom, you need to use half a teaspoon of kosher or sea salt for every pound of meat.
You can use a bit more salt if you prefer. However, it is better not to go below the baseline. Otherwise, the results will not be as good.
More Than Just Salt: Adding a Touch of Taste to Brine
While salt on its own is pretty impressive for its tenderizing and flavor-enhancing effects, there is no harm in adding further condiments, spices and seasonings for an even richer taste.
You can improve the flavor with other ingredients. What you can add is just limited to your imagination – and the list of spices in existence.
Here are some terrific additions for your dry brine procedure.
- Herbs de Provence
- Brown sugar
And the list goes on. You can try out a traditional style of herbs and spices or go for an exotic taste if you are feeling more adventurous.
How Much Seasoning Is Enough for Dry Brining?
While you can try out a myriad combinations of herbs and spices, be careful that you don’t add too much. Excessive seasoning will lead to overpowering taste and may even interfere with the dry brining process.
It is heartening to know that you don’t need a lot of seasoning for good taste. Even a relatively small amount can make a big difference in the flavor intensity.
For each pound of meat, you can add a quarter teaspoon of each spice. For small cuts such as steaks and chops, you will be better off with half the amount for each pound.
How to Dry Brine Turkey
Provided below are step by step instructions for turkey since this meat is the best choice for salt brining.
Even if you don’t cook turkey too often, you should note down this procedure. You don’t want a tough and bland turkey to ruin the joy of the holiday season.
· Thaw Your Turkey
There is a good chance that you will be starting out with a cold turkey. It is a better idea to thaw the bird first before dry brining it.
Although you can start with frozen turkey if you are short of time, the results will be better with thawing.
· Thoroughly Mix All Ingredients
Grinding the seasoning to a fine powder will work really well since the surface of the turkey absorbs these fine grains more rapidly. This is where the mortar and pestle will come into use. If you don’t want to grind, you can buy powdered spices.
Put all ground spices and salt into a bowl and mix it completely.
· Unpack Your Turkey
Throw away all packaging that the turkey came in. You will also want to remove unwanted parts like giblets and the neck.
· Prepare the Turkey
Using paper towels, pat the turkey dry. Next, you should separate the skin from meaty parts such as the legs and the chest. You don’t have to throw the skin away.
· Season the cavity
Rub the salt and seasoning blend into the turkey’s cavity.
· Season the Exterior
The exterior matters more than the cavity. So this is where you need to pay more attention. Loosen up the skin because you will need to apply salt under it. You should rub the mixture into the space between the skin and the meat. Apply most of the pressure on the meat. Rub the blend so that it adheres firmly to the meat’s surface.
Apply more pressure on the parts with the most meat like the legs and chest. This is where the bulk of the brine will be absorbed.
If you are lucky to have a bag big enough to hold the turkey, then go for it. In case you don’t, you can always allow the salted turkey to rest on the roasting of your fridge.
To get the best results, you should let the salted turkey rest for up to 3 days.
· Roast-Ready Turkey
At the end of 3 days, your salted turkey will finally be all set for roasting. You don’t need to apply any extra seasoning. Also, you do not need to pat it dry.
One thing you will notice at this point is that the salt will have vanished. As you can guess, the meat has done a good job at absorbing it.
A word of caution about stuffing is necessary. Although you can stuff a plain turkey, you cannot do so with a heavily seasoned and salted turkey. That would just ruin the flavor and make it overwhelmingly strong.
Is Dry Brining Good for Other Meats Besides Poultry?
Absolutely. Dry brining is a versatile process that lends itself to all kinds of meats. The effect is most dramatic with poultry. But you will also get truly amazing results with other meats as well including seafood, beef and mutton.
How to Dry Brine Chops, Steaks and Other Cuts of Meat
The dry brining steps for whole chicken are almost the same for turkey. Of course, you will need less salt and seasoning for whole chickens as compared to whole turkeys.
Dry salted whole chicken will be ready after 36 hours have elapsed. The salting time for chicken is less than that for turkey.
It might seem rather bizarre to salt something that has literally been soaked in salt water for a long time. However, there is still room for improvement in the flavor of seafood with dry brining.
Shrimp will take on an amazing flavor and tenderness with just 60 minutes of dry brining. You will need one teaspoon of kosher or sea salt for a pound of shrimp.
Dry salting fish has to be one of the easiest things you can do in your kitchen. Apply a layer of salt to just about any fish and it is ready for smoking in just half an hour. The beauty of fish is that its flesh is highly permeable to salt and it can hence soak up a lot of salt quickly. You can rinse off the extra salt after half an hour with cold water.
Chops and Steaks
For smaller cuts of beef and pork like chops and steaks for instance, half a teaspoon of salt per pound is sufficient. A 24 hour resting period is enough to bring out the best flavor and tenderness in these cuts from dry brining.
For heavier cuts of meat like ribs, briskets and prime ribs, you will need to let the dry brined meat rest for 3 days for the salt to work its magic to the fullest.
At the end of the dry salting procedure, you will notice that the surface of the meat is free of salt. That’s a good sign because the meat has soaked up the salt and is now ready for an absolutely amazing roast.
The Chemistry of Dry Brining
How dry salt infiltrates meat has already been explained above.
When in solution, salt crystals break up into constituent sodium ions and chloride ions. Since these ions carry charges, they are capable of attacking protein molecules in the meat. As a result, the proteins begin to unwind. This process is known as denaturing. Now you know why salted meat is so tender.
Another fact to consider is that the altered proteins are better at holding on to water molecules. Hence dry brined meat will be more moist, tender and juicy when it comes out of your pellet grill at the end of the smoking process.
Although salt absorbs most of the water from the meat, it also absorbs some of it from the air. That’s because salt is said to be hygroscopic. This simply means that salt can attract water.
Water molecules have a weak electric field since they are v-shaped. The oxygen atom is at the ‘bottom’ point of the V, while hydrogen atoms are at the ‘upper’ two tips of the V-shaped molecule. The negative charge of the oxygen atom is therefore separate from the positive charges of the hydrogen atoms. Due to this separation, water has a weak electric field. Salt crystals are attracted to the weak electric field of the water molecules. This is how salt crystals attract water molecules from the air.
After seeing the incredible magic of salt with dry brining, you will never look at the humble everyday seasoning in the same way ever again.
No grill chef worth his salt can miss out on the benefits of dry brining.