Basics of brining
With Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, our thoughts have turned to turkey and the best way to cook the holiday poultry. It seems everyone has a preferred approach, from my brother’s dangerous deep-frying to our daughter-in-law’s traditional oven roasting. No matter the method, one piece of advice that regularly surfaces is whether or not to brine the bird.
Many cooks extol the virtues of brining as an easy way to ensure moist and tender results. Through a simple soak in salty water, you can change the structure of the muscle tissue, allowing it to swell and better retain moisture and absorb flavorings. This means there’s less chance of stringy or dried-out meat and higher likelihood of tasty, juicy turkey.
Having never brined before, we didn’t want to risk a large turkey, so we conducted an experiment with Cornish game hens. In the past, we’ve roasted one-pound hens and found the results disappointing: cooking them until the juices ran clear caused the breast meat to dry out. Brining should solve that problem.
To make the brine, measure salt into a pot of water and bring to a boil. Once the salt is dissolved, turn off the heat and cool the brine to room temperature. But, before you get started, you need to consider what type of salt you’ll use. The two most cost-effective choices are table salt (without iodine) or kosher salt. Because the crystals of kosher salt are larger and table salt is denser, you’ll use twice as much kosher salt as you will table salt. For example, one gallon of water requires one cup of kosher salt or one-half cup of table salt.
The next ingredient is a sweetener to offset any potential saltiness; choose from honey, brown sugar or molasses. Often, recipes will call for herbs and other seasonings (e.g., garlic, peppercorns, juniper berries, etc.) be added to the brining liquid. Since this was our first venture, we kept things simple. You can find turkey brining kits for sale that include a selected set of herbs as flavor enhancers.
Once the brine is cool enough to handle, select a container that will hold the bird and enough liquid to cover it. Before assembling anything, make sure this will fit in your refrigerator. Since brining doesn’t preserve the food, it must be kept at a temperature below 40 F. Fortunately, stores have begun stocking turkey brining bags large enough to hold the turkey and liquid, while still compact enough to fit on a refrigerator shelf.
For our hens, we used sea salt, honey and a zip-top bag that easily held both birds and brine enough to keep them submerged. Timing of the soak will vary, based on the thickness of the muscle and the strength of the brine. The ratios described here are for a moderately strong brine and the times in the table (see sidebar) assume this strength.
When you reach the time limit for the brining period, discard the liquid and thoroughly rinse the meat to remove any excess salt. Pat dry with paper towels and proceed with your standard cooking process, whether that be roasting, frying or grilling. Our Cornish hens were placed in a baking pan, stuffed with onion and lemon quarters, then sprinkled with pepper and thyme.
After about an hour in the oven, the hens were pretty as a picture (see photo). As we sliced off our first bites, we agreed the brining experiment was successful, yielding moist and tender white meat, delicately flavored dark meat and crisp, tasty skin. Looks like we’re ready for turkey day.
1 gallon water
1 C kosher salt (or 1/2 C table salt)
1/2 C honey or brown sugar
Bring the water to boil in a large pot. Add salt and sweetener; stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Place meat in large zip-top bag or other large enough sealable container. Add brining liquid until meat is covered. Seal and place in the refrigerator for the recommended time. After brining is complete, discard liquid; rinse meat thoroughly and pat dry.
Roasted Brined Cornish Hens
12 C water
3/4 C sea salt
3/4 C honey
2 Cornish hens
1 onion, quartered
1 lemon, quartered
1 t thyme
Bring the water to a boil in a large pot. Add salt and honey; stir until combined. Remove from heat and cool liquid to room temperature. Rinse and pat dry hens with paper towels. Place hens in a one-gallon zip-top bag and add brine until covered.
Seal bag and keep in the refrigerator for 2 hours. Preheat oven to 375 F. Remove hens from brine; discard liquid. Rinse hens thoroughly and pat dry. Stuff each cavity with 2 onion quarters and 2 lemon quarters. Place hens in a roasting pan, breast side up, and sprinkle with pepper and thyme. Cook until juices run clear, about 1 hour. Rest for 10 minutes out of the oven before serving.
Marinated Brined Shrimp
1 qt water
1/4 C kosher salt
1/4 C brown sugar
1 lb peeled, deveined jumbo shrimp
1/4 C olive oil
1/3 C dry white wine
1 t honey
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 t red pepper flakes
2 t fresh rosemary
Combine water, salt and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Place shrimp in zip-top bag and pour in enough brine to cover. Seal bag and keep in the refrigerator for about 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together remaining ingredients and pour into a zip-top bag; set aside. Remove shrimp from brine, rinse and pat dry; discard liquid. Place shrimp in bag with marinade; seal and refrigerate for 30 minutes. To cook, thread shrimp onto skewers and grill over high heat until cooked or toss in a skillet and sauté over medium high until cooked through.