Meat contains three layers of water. There’s free water, which is the stuff running out of the raw meat. There’s intermediate water, loosely bound to the tissue. Lastly, there’s bound moisture which is essentially the water chemically bound tightly to the cell walls of the muscle. This water is unable to exit the meat during cooking. By brining, it is possible to build a salt bridge via a positively charged sodium molecule between the water in the intermediate layer and the water in the bound layer since water has a net negative charge. The end result is the retention of the intermediate layer of moisture within the meat and a nice juicy meal. The salt also adds flavor. I could go on about how the difference in osmolarity between the salt water (high) and the bird (low) causes a migration of salt molecules (and whatever other flavorings you might add) into the meat, but that would just be nerdy of me.
This weekend we smoked a chicken I had brined with the solution below. I’ll grant that it was a tad salty because of the additional salt from the pickle juice, but the flavor was fantastic, and this was maybe the juiciest bird I’ve ever made over dry heat. We smoked it on the trusty Big Green Egg, sitting up on a half empty beer can. Before cooking I coated the bird lightly in olive oil, salt, and pepper. I’ve cut the salt back a little in the recipe, so this should be a sure fire brine. It’s what I’ll be using next Thanksgiving…. and I take my Thanksgiving turkey very seriously.
¾ cup kosher salt
¾ cup pickle juice (I had Valasic kosher dill)
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tsp red pepper flakes
5-10 black peppercorns
2 quarts warm water
4 quarts (aprox) cold water
Mix dry ingredients in a large stock pot. Add warm water and stir to dissolve. Add cold water. Submerse cleaned bird. Add more water as needed to cover the bird. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
Note: When brining a turkey, I usually use about 2 cups of kosher salt, dissolve it in a small amount of warm water, then dilute with half cool water, half ice in an ice chest. Then I sink the turkey and add more water to cover. As long as the lid is tight on the cooler, the ice will easily last over night, so I don’t have to find room in the packed fridge.