Brining 101 - A complete guide

For ultimately tender and flavorful meat, brining is an excellent choice. The simple process of soaking it in salt water, herbs & citrus makes the toughest cuts fork-tender and infuses them with a phenomenal taste that your family will enjoy. Let me show you how easy it is to brine beef brisket to create succulent corned beef!

At some point in prehistoric times, early humans discovered a tasty substance dissolved in sea water and crystalized in caves. The unmistakable flavor of the crunchy mineral pleasantly resonated with their taste buds. When combined with their primitive meals, they discovered that salt boosted flavor. Probably by mistake, our ancestors found that salt and salt water (brine) effectively cured meats and other food for later use. Soon, mining salt and harvesting it from the sea became an integral part of the human diet and food preservation. In Roman times, salt was often used to pay soldiers. Our word “salary” comes from the Latin word “sal”, which is salt.

Corn Beef Recipe

Brining vs. Pickling

For thousands of years, cultures from around the world have salted meats and vegetables to preserve them. Innovative cooks soon discovered that processing food in salt water not only preserved it but made tough meat carcasses more tender and enhanced its natural taste. Salt water kept veggies tender-crisp. Preserving food in brine become known as “pickling”, from the Dutch word that means “to preserve”. Traditional pickled delicacies are found in just about all world cuisines.

So, are pickling and brining the same? While they both require salt and water, brining takes the process a step further. After doing some research on the subject, I found that the distinct difference between brining and pickling is the ratio of salt to water. Pickling brine typically calls for more salt, resulting in a saltier food. Vinegar, herbs and spices are often added to pickling mixtures for flavor and tenderizing. Most of the time, pickled food is ready to eat when preservation time is up. Pickled vegetables, like cabbage, create deliciously fermented dishes that are loaded with healthy probiotics. If anything, some pickled foods may be heated up a little before serving.

On the other hand, brining solution usually requires less salt. Like pickling mixes, brines may contain aromatic herbs and spices to amp up the flavor of the preserved food. The major difference between the two is that most brines incorporate citrus ingredients (i.e. fresh juice and zest) as the acidic element instead of vinegar. Brines also usually contain a natural sweet element (sugar, honey, molasses, etc.) that improves browning when the food is cooked. It results in a sweet & tangy, less-salty depth of flavor that perfectly complements the preserved meat. Another marked difference is that brining is often a preparatory step before smoking or cooking.

How to Brine

Culinary Chemistry

When great-grandma prepared the brine for her delicious homemade corned beef, she wasn’t worried about the chemical processes she was creating. All she cared was that her blend of salt, water, citrus & savory spices made a juicy & tender corned beef that she was proud to serve her family.

Basically, salt and citric acid work to break down tough collagen in the meat to make it tender. It also loosens the cell walls to allow subtle flavors of herbs & spices to penetrate and provide maximum flavor. This chemical reaction slows bacteria growth and stabilizes the meat for preservation. Brining veggies infuse the plant cell walls in the same process. Fortunately, you do not need to completely understand the science to reap the benefits of delicious brined food!

Pickling Spice Blend Recipe

Basic Brining Steps

  • What to brine - Most naturally lean meats (poultry, fish, shrimp) are excellent choices for brining. You may also consider extra-lean cuts of beef or pork (i.e. brisket, chops). Many of these cuts are less expensive and get a tender boost of flavor and juiciness when brined. Turkey, which is apt to be on the dry side, becomes remarkably juicy when brined. Some cheeses, like feta, are cured in a brining solution. When choosing meat, make sure it has not been cured or injected with salt water beforehand.
  • Brining ingredients - There are as many brining recipes as there are cooks who use them. It all depends on the meat and flavor profiles you want. Most brining recipes call for at least 1 cup of salt per gallon of water. Savory herb & spice blends are added to enhance flavor. Juice & zest of oranges, lemons, limes and other citrus fruits bring complementary flavors and juiciness to your finished dish. Sugar and other natural sweeteners develop lighter flavor nuances in the meat and help it brown better in the oven or on the grill. Some brining recipes can be made ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator until needed.
  • Food Safety - For safety, never brine meat at room temperature. It should be kept below 40 degrees in the refrigerator. Drain and discard brine after use.
  • How long to brine - Check your recipe for length of time for brining. It can be anywhere between hours to days. Be careful not to let the meat soak for too long, or it will turn into a mushy, inedible mess. Keep the stockpot covered in the fridge and let the brine do its work. Usually, stirring is not necessary.
  • After the brine - Transfer the meat to a platter and use paper towels to pat it completely dry before cooking. Thin-skinned meat (poultry, fish) should be left uncovered in the fridge for 2-3 hours. You will be amazed at how golden brown and crispy the outside will be after cooking!

Are you ready for some sensational brined dishes that your family will love? Try my yummy corned beef recipe brined with my homemade pickling spice mix! Discover more of my favorite brining recipes on!

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About Chef Bear

Robert Felkins

My food philosophy is simple; food should be a feast of all five senses. Meals should be based on simple, tasty and smart recipes that are easy to follow. Instead of serving processed junk, I prefer to use fresh & seasonal ingredients. I gravitate towards all cuisines that are BIG on flavor. By cooking at home, we can all eat healthier and save money.

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