Brining is the process of treating meat with salt, either through a salt solution (wet brine) or a salt rub (dry brine). It’s a way to help lean meat (such as chicken and some cuts of pork) retain moisture during cooking. Unlike marinating, brining is not a step that’s meant to introduce flavor into the meat. It acts more as a buffer that prevents you from overcooking your meat. So you’re not left with tough, grainy, dry pieces. This is especially effective for meat that requires long cooking processes, such as a Thanksgiving-style turkey or crispy pata. That said, it does bring flavor to some degree. Think of it as a step up from seasoning your meat prior to cooking.
How Does Brining Work?
The science behind brining lies in the ability of salt to dissolve certain muscle proteins in the meat. These proteins contract when the meat is cooked and the contraction essentially squeezes out the juices from the meat. But when the meat is brined, the salt breaks down the proteins. This disables some of their ability to contract—less contraction, fewer juices lost. By brining meat, you decrease the amount of moisture lost by more than 30% percent, leaving you with plumper, juicier meat.
A wet brine involves submerging your meat in a salt solution in a ratio that’s five to eight percent salt to water weight. (Note: The salt to water weight ratio is much more important than the ratio between the salt and the size of your meat.) You leave it in the fridge overnight. This gives the salt solution enough time to break down the muscle proteins of your meat.
Wet brining is the more traditional brining method. And although it is effective in giving you juicier meat, the moisture that this brings is largely just plain water. So imagine biting into a luscious piece of meat, then just tasting bland liquid. This process also takes up so much more space since you’ll need a large enough container to fit both your salt solution and your meat. And all of this has to fit inside your fridge.
A dry brine is similar to a dry rub, except the rub only contains salt. To do it, pat your meat dry, then sprinkle the salt all over. Make sure that every part is covered and that the salt is evenly distributed. That said, you won’t want to encrust it with salt; that’d be a waste since you’ll still brush off any excess before cooking anyway.
Similar to the wet brine process, a dry brine needs time in the fridge (overnight for up to a day) for the salt to do its magic. Unlike a wet brine though, it doesn’t take as much space. Plus, a dry brine doesn’t give you the problem of the watered-down meat. Instead, it retains the meat’s natural moisture. And without the additional liquid that dilutes the salt, you end up with more flavorful meat.
So Which Brining Method is Better?
Out of practicality and results, a dry brine works better for most cuts of lean meat. It’s faster, doesn’t take up as much space, and leaves you with moist and flavorful meat. That said, a wet brine isn’t that bad either, and can work for certain situations, as well.