While out camping, you might rely on a knife or utility tool to do a million jobs. Cutting firewood or a hole in fabric, sculpting when bored, various emergency uses, and on and on. When it comes to great cooking, the one thing that does a million jobs isn’t just the knife, it’s brine, and it isn’t just a curing tool either. Since it’s the weekend, I decided to give you what you need to know to cook with brine!
- Brine, noun: a mixture of salty water used especially to preserve or add flavor to food (source)
But what does it all mean..? Brine is:
Natural tissues, plant and animal, are made up of individual cells linked together by proteins. These protein layers give us protection against viruses and bacteria by keeping them from passing between our cells into our body. All tissues, including those making up a cucumber, function using what is called a gradient. Gradients can be as simple as a drop of dye mixing throughout a clear glass of water all by itself. The dye, without stirring, will eventually spread to the rest of the liquid. It doesn’t need help. Gradients usually have barriers that control the flow back and forth. That’s the proteins’ job. How does a gradient work in a cucumber?
Cucumber cells contain what is basically plain water when compared to brine. The salt water wants travel to the inside of these cells, like dye into clear water, because the salt content will equalize one way or another. That salty water brings with it the aroma and taste of garlic, dill, peppercorns, whatever your heart desires. Heat and/or the breakdown of the cells by bacteria (fermentation) lets the salt water exchange happen faster. This is a simple, elegant way to flavor vegetables, and the funny thing is, its use in food preparation predates the revolution that was the battery (batteries work based on similar principles)!
Well, now that we’ve gone over how salt moves into foods, it’s time to talk about how it drives water out. In my Bread and Butter Pickle Recipe, flaky kosher salt is sprinkled all over cucumber slices. Eventually this pulls most of the moisture out, causing the pieces to (not fully) dehydrate! Then when added to a sweet brine, it all re-enters the cells in a sort of re-hydration. In the days before refrigerators, people would cure meats this way. Thin cuts of venison or fish would be covered in a thick layer of salt that mixed with the moisture in meat to create a crust on the outside. No bacteria or disease could live in or around such a high concentration of salt, preservation complete.
In brines, salt acts as a preservative because it kills bacteria that would spoil your food. It’s the same concept as salt crust, but in liquid form. In this way, ships could carry barrels of pickled goods in damp boats across rough waters for weeks at a time and still get the food to markets around the world. More below, but first this.
Making your own brine
1 cup distilled or filtered water
3/4 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon pickling salt
Any spice(s) of your choice – Surprise and impress your friends!
Add this to the food you’d like to brine, and let it sit in the refrigerator. Find the best brine-time for your food from the recipe you use, or from a chef you trust (sign up to receive emails below!). Cook it up and discover the very real and delicious difference brine can make.
As An Ingredient
You can’t make Thousand Island dressing without pickle relish, and I learned a nice little trick; adding lots of that pickle relish juice makes it undeniably delicious. I swear by that, drain a spoonful of relish before adding to your hotdog and leave it in the fridge for your salad dressings! Sweet relish is best. It’s packed with preservative vinegars, salt, celery seed, and red peppers, depending on the brand.
Add a splash when you saute vegetables or meats, and over salads with an already mouthwatering cheese. It acts like salt, bringing all those flavors out to play. Barbeque sauces contain a bit of vinegar to pull the flavor from their sources and give them a place to mix and mingle. They would be nothing without that bitterness. It cooks out, so we don’t cry over it much. Just add brine, in a 1:1 ratio, in place of vinegar in these.
Salt has a useful affinity for moisture. This is the reason table salts have anti-caking agents, moisture or humidity will “melt” salt crystals and bond them back together as they dry out. When used in cooking, we can use this to our advantage. Brining meats introduces more water into the tissue. When cooked, these meats hold their moisture through the cooking process. Juicy chicken and steak, that’s what summer barbeques are all about!
Here in the southwest, and especially in Mexico, lime juice, salt, and garlic are used to brine flank steaks. This is a thin cut of meat, often used in street tacos. Kept marinading overnight in the fridge, the acidic lime juice will break apart proteins, rendering the meat tender, and leaving the door open for the mingling of flavors. Salt helps the juice penetrate this relatively thin cut of meat, and garlic is just a delicious freeloader. Add pepper or chili flakes to that and it is ready for a taco!
It’s July, go get something on the grill, and most importantly, don’t let that pickle juice go to waste!
What are you planning to make? Put it below!
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