Dry Brining, Easier And Less Wasteful Than Wet Brining
"One thing I like about Argentina, they only cook with salt. That's it." Robert Duvall
Dry brining is a technique popularized by Chef Judy Rodgers of San Francisco's famous Zuni Cafe. It is different from wet brining, where we submerge the food in a salt water solution of 5 to 10% salinity. It is different from injecting, where we pump the meat with a brine with a needle. Since discovering it I almost never wet brine anymore.
With dry brining we simply salt the meat a few hours before cooking. Sounds simple, but something complex and wonderful happens.
Salt does several things to the food. First of all, it amps up the taste because salt is a flavor enhancer. But if you do it properly, it doesn't make the food taste salty. For more on the subject of how salt impacts food, read my article on The Zen of Salt.
But something else happens. Salt is made of sodium and chloride ions that carry electrical charges. These ions attack the proteins, causing them to unwind a bit, a process called denaturing. These altered proteins have a greater ability to retain water, so meat that has been treated with salt remains moister through the cooking process.
You can see it working in the pictures here. In the top picture the meat has been sprinkled with Morton's kosher salt. The salt draws water out of the meat. The water dissolves the salt. See how the meat has become shiny with moisture and the fat has become splotchy in the middle picture?
Then, in the bottom picture, the meat reabsorbs the moisture (and much of the juices that have leaked out) bringing the salt in with it. Notice how the color of the fat has changed where the salt has soaked in.
Now watch the whole process in time lapse photography in the bottom frame.
Once inside the meat it doesn't go far. As with wet brining, it stays near the surface, but that's where the moisture is needed because that's were we apply the most heat.
How does this work? The AmazingRibs.com Science Advisor, Dr. Greg Blonder, explains: "Salt is hygroscopic, which is a fancy way to say it absorbs moisture from the environment. Water is a "V" shaped molecule. It has two positively charged hydrogen atoms on one tip of the V and one negatively charged oxygen on the other making H2O. This asymmetry creates an electric field, kind of like a small magnet. The polar nature of water is why it's practically a universal solvent.
"When water in the air stumbles in very close to the NaCl crystal, the salt feels the attraction of the water's weak electric field, grabs it, and then breaks apart into a positively charged sodium ion and a negatively charged chloride ion. When we sprinkle salt on a steak, water molecules, some from the air, but most from the meat, are captured on the surface of the salt crystal, and eventually, accumulate into a pool of briny liquid. Then, as the salty slurry diffuses into the meat, there is less salt on the surface to attract moisture, and the juices return to whence they came. Contrary to popular myth, there is no osmosis or cells breaking."
For steaks and chops
Take the meat out of the fridge about an hour before cooking and pat it thoroughly dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle salt on the meat, a little more than you would use at tableside and massage it in. Then back in the fridge. About 1/3 teaspoon of table salt per pound is good (2/3 teaspoon of Morton's Kosher Salt), especially on burgers, where too much salt will gel the meat proteins and make for a dense patty. Don't use large salts like sea salt. It won't dissolve easily. If you want, put it on a wire rack in the fridge so air will surround the meat. Click here to read more about salt.
For bigger cuts of meat like prime rib, measure 1 teaspoon of table salt per pound of meat (2 teaspoons of Morton's kosher salt). Rub the dry brine mixture over the entire surface area. For best results, refrigerate overnight or for up to 2 days.
For chicken and turkey
The problem with chicken and turkey is that they are more likely to be contaminated in the slaughterhouse than steaks and chops. Contamination grows much more rapidly at room temp. If there is bacterial contamination on a steak it does not go far beyond the surface, and it is killed rapidly during cooking. If there is contamination on chicken or turkey it can be deeper into the muscles where heat takes longer to penetrate so if you undercook, there is a greater risk of getting sick.
Keep in mind, chicken and turkey skin is mostly fat, loosely attached to the meat, and a raincoat that blocks salt penetration of the meat. If the skin is on, the brine will enter and penetrate the nonskin side more easily. I know dry brining chicken and turkey are all the rage, but I doubt the salt goes very far beyond the skin. I think the reason people like this method so much is because the salt helps make the skin crispy and salty, like cracklins. It is a better strategy to work the salt, along with some herbs and oil, under the skin. The oil helps transmit the herb flavors, and the meat juices dissolve the salt. Use about 1/3 teaspoon of table salt for every pound of poultry (2/3 teaspoon of Morton's Kosher Salt). For turkey breasts, up to 1/2 a teaspoon.
Rubs are aromatic and savory spice and herb mixes that are applied to meats to flavor them. Most contain salt which can help pull the flavorings into the meat. Like dry brines, they should be applied hours in advance of cooking. Click here to read more about the Zen of Rubs.
This page was revised on 1/12/2013
About this website
AmazingRibs.com is all about the science of barbecue, grilling, and outdoor cooking, with great BBQ recipes and tips on technique. Learn how to set up your grills and smokers properly, the thermodynamics of what happens when heat hits meat, as well as hundreds of excellent tested recipes including all the classics: Baby back ribs, spareribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burgers, chicken, smoked turkey, lamb, steaks, barbecue sauces, rubs, and side dishes, with the world's best buying guide to barbecue smokers, grills, and accessories, all edited by Meathead.
Advertising on this site
AmazingRibs.com is far the most popular barbecue website in the world and one of the 50 most popular food websites in the US according to comScore and Quantcast. Visitors and pageviews increase rapidly every year. Click here for analytics and advertising info.
| Weights, Measures, Conversions | Tips & Techniques | Recipes | Equipment Reviews | BBQ Culture & History |
| My Ingredients | BBQ Joints | About Us | Blog | Links | Newsletter | BBQ Tunes |
| Privacy Promise, Code of Ethics, Other Legal Terms | Advertising & Sponsorship Opportunities |