In this week’s installation of The Grown-Up Kitchen, we’re diving into the open waters of seasoning meat. Whether you’re firing up the grill for the first time this year (or ever), or already anxious about hosting Thanksgiving dinner in the fall, knowing how to deliver flavor is all a part of cooking like a grown-up. Here’s a cryptic nugget of cooking philosophy to get the juices flowing: Flavoring begins before cooking. Let’s look at the differences between marinades, brines, and dry brines.
This is part of The Grown-Up Kitchen, Skillet’s series designed to answer your most basic culinary questions and fill in any gaps that may be missing in your home chef education.
Let it marinate
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At their simplest, marinades are salty, fatty flavor baths that can work their magic in as little as 15 minutes. Marinades can coat and tenderize fish, meats, and veggies, while spreading around complementary, aromatic flavors. Some can even help with browning, and build an excellent crust during cooking.
Start out with a simple marinade of salt and a base, like oil, mayonnaise, or yogurt. Salt is not only the simplest way to flavor food, but it will denature the proteins in the outer layers of a piece of meat, tenderizing it and flavoring it, while the fatty base helps disperse the salt and brown the meat during cooking. Many marinades will include an acidic ingredient, like vinegar, wine, or citrus juice, which can balance the flavors with a tangy, acidic bite, and aid in tenderizing the meat.
Acids, however, can impede browning, so keep the amount light if you want to develop color or a crust. Once you have a salt, base, and acid, think about adding sugar or other flavorings, like spices or herbs. Sugars can also help with browning, and of course add balancing flavor notes. For a simple starter marinade, try a half cup of olive oil, two teaspoons of salt, one teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, and one teaspoon of white or brown sugar.
After building your marinade of choice, drop the raw meat in it for two to 24 hours. For seafood, 15-30 minutes will be plenty, depending on the thickness of your fish or size of your shellfish. (Be careful with acid here, as it can effectively “cook” the seafood, which is how you make ceviche.) Veggies can marinate for as little as 15 minutes or up to overnight for hardy root vegetables.
Bring on the brine
Speaking of flavor baths, let’s talk about wet brining. Brining is a flavoring process where meat or vegetables sit in a solution of salted water. Other flavorings can be included, but they aren’t necessary. Vegetable brines might also include an acid, like vinegar. Depending on the vegetable and how long you leave them in the brine, the salt and vinegar will flavor and soften the veggies by breaking down some of their cellular walls, leaving you with a tender, punchy flavored veg you may know as a “pickle.” Make pickles out of almost any plant with this ratio.
When it comes to brining meat and fish, the main player is the salt. The idea is to impregnate the tissue with salt, without losing moisture. Turkey has a reputation for being dry, which is why wet brining was, and continues to be, such a popular method for pre-treating the bird. The salt in the solution breaks down some of the outer proteins, and the salty water can then travel further into the meat through osmosis.
Turkey wins the award for “Most Brined,” but you can wet brine any meat. In fact, if brining a whole turkey is your first experience, you’ll likely never do it again. Try a smaller, more manageable cut of meat, you know, something that’s not 22 pounds. Whip up your brine mixture and pour it into any container or bag that’ll hold your cut of meat.
Add the meat and let it sit in the fridge, rotating it if you have to. Boneless chicken breast takes roughly 30 minutes to brine, while fish and shellfish take 15-20 minutes. Bone-in cuts, loins, or cuts that weigh four pounds or more can stay in the brine for four to twelve hours in the fridge. Before cooking, take the meat out of the liquid and allow it to dry on a wire rack in the fridge, or pat it dry with a paper towel. A wet surface will steam instead of sear, so drying it off thoroughly will help with browning. For a starter brine, dissolve a quarter cup of kosher salt into four cups of water. Add your meat and let it soak.
Dry brine for the win
It turns out that a good sear on meat is not only visually appealing, but adds a great deal of flavor through the Maillard reaction. Sadly, if the meat’s surface is wet, like with a wet brine or marinade, the water must evaporate first before browning will occur, and this extra time on heat can cause the meat to overcook. Dry brines elliminate this danger.
Dry brining—sometimes referred to as “curing” or “salting”—is the act of coating a raw cut of meat with dry salt or sugar, and maybe some herbs (though you should really save those for the dry rub, as they don’t do much at the salting stage). The salt will draw out the meat’s natural moisture, which will dissolve the salt and/or sugar crystals sitting on the surface. The salty solution will make its way back into the meat, no added moisture needed. Dry brining is an open-air activity; the meat sits uncovered while it brines in the fridge, which allows the surface to dry out. No need to pat it dry before cooking, and you’ll be rewarded with a nice sear, or crispy skin.
You can dry brine meat and fish (sorry, vegetables, this one isn’t really for you). Simply rub a couple tablespoons of kosher salt on all sides of the raw meat to get good coverage. For large cuts of meat, poultry or fish, use more salt. Set the meat up on a wire rack over a sheet pan in the fridge and let it sit there, uncovered. For small cuts, or delicate fish, it will take 45 minutes to an hour.
Check periodically, the surface should look dry. If it looks wet, give it a little more time. Once the surface is dry, then proceed to your cook. There’s no need to rinse the salt off, that’s more for a salt cure. In this case, it would rehydrate the skin you worked so hard to dry out. If you’re disturbed by clumps of salt, just brush them off before cooking. Any of these three methods will help add flavor to your dishes, so try whichever one seems to vibe with your cooking style, and let it rip.