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I'm trying to figure out how to brine chicken wings (for hot wings) and have some questions about brine:

  1. What is the minimum and maximum amount of salt to water ratio to make a brine?
  2. Does brine have to be boiled? I've seen some brine recipes that call for the solution to be brought to a boil, then cool. Can't I just stir the solution until the salt and water are fully incorporated?
  3. Some brine solutions add ingredients other than salt. When does such a solution become a marinade instead of a brine? And what's the difference?
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If anyone has a copy of The New Best Recipe handy, it has a science section for brines which, if I remember, goes some way to answering this question. My copy is on the boat from Australia to Europe :( –  Chris Steinbach Jan 5 '13 at 22:10

3 Answers 3

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What is the minimum and maximum amount of salt to water ratio to make a brine?

This is a very complicated question--in the chemical sense, salt dissolved in water is a brine, but they can vary in concentration (usually measured in percentage of salt by weight).

For the culinary purpose of seasoning and helping meat cuts stay moist, it varies considerably; the stronger the brine, the shorter the brining time, in general, although below a certain threshold you are going have little effect. Too much salt in the brine, and it will get to the point where you are are wet curing, and the product will start to take on hammy textures and flavors.

A good range for culinary brines is about 3-5%, depending on the length of time you intend to brine, and the size of the cuts being brined.

Does brine have to be boiled? I've seen some brine recipes that call for the solution to be brought to a boil, then cool. Can't I just stir the solution until the salt and water are fully incorporated?

No, you don't have to boil the brine; doing so is for ease in dissolving the salt (and possibly sugar).

For safety, you only want to brine in cold brine, so you would then need to cool a previously boiled brine. This is usually done by boiling half the water weight with the salt/sugar, and then adding the other half of the weight of water as ice after.

Some brine solutions add ingredients other than salt. When does such a solution become a marinade instead of a brine? And what's the difference?

Marinade is not defined scientifically, so there is no formal distinction. It is a matter of culinary purpose. My personal take is that brines are made of water, salt, and sugar, and possibly one or two flavorants; marinades often have an oil, dairy, or acid (such as orange juice or vinegar) base, although there is considerable variation.

Marinades are about adding flavor (usually), and possibly tenderizing (when acid, or an enzymatic actor such as pineapple juice is present). Marinades act at the surface of the food product.

If the primary purpose is to help the meat stay juicy, and to season it, the application is brining, so call it brine. Brines, with enough time, will affect deep into the meet, although there is some argument over what the exact scientific mechanism is.

The thing is, despite the myth, brining does not help flavor (as opposed to salt, for seasoning) enter the meat--adding extra ingredients to it beyond salt, sugar, and water is not generally helpful, as these flavors will not pass the cell walls (they are too large at the molecular scale), so they don't actually have much if any effect on the meat other than at the very surface.


Here is a link to an article from Virtual Weber Bullet with great information on brining, and a myriad links to even more resources.

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Great answer, although I'll note that following the link you provided shows two brine recipes of about 15% salt (in weight that is, about 12% volume). Also I checked one of my Blumenthal books where he has a brine of 8-10% (depending on whether you take his odd advice to treat milliliters as grams) which you leave the bird in overnight. –  Chris Steinbach Jan 5 '13 at 22:00
    
That is what I get for just believing the sources. sigh If you have access to better science information than I found online, please feel free to edit. I have moved away from brining these last few years, to so called dry-brining. So much easier. –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 5 '13 at 22:03
    
Ah, never tried that with poultry. Would have been good last year when we had a tiny fridge. –  Chris Steinbach Jan 5 '13 at 22:21
    
Just for clarification, the salt is 3-5% of the water, right? It's not, say, 3-5% of the protein weight or something else? –  CookingNewbie Jan 10 '13 at 11:53
    
See @ChrisSteinbach comment above regarding the actual brine strength, but yes, regardless of what the desired strength is, it is the ratio of salt to water--not the size of the protein, as long as you have enough total brine. The time required is proportional to both the strength of the brine and the thickness of the protein, as it takes time for the brine to infuse through the thickness of the meat. –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 10 '13 at 11:55

You can find a lot of useful information about brining here. https://www.stellaculinary.com/podcasts/video/the-science-behind-brining-resource-page

The reason people boil or heat a brine is to make the salt (or other ingredients) dissolve more quickly. I sometimes heat a small portion of the brine to dissolve the solids quickly and then add the remaining amount of water in form of ice to quickly cool it down.

My basic brine solution is 1-3% salt by weight of the protein your brining. You can add about anything you want to the solution, I like a mixture of peppercorns, brown sugar, and some aromatics. The brine is working to impart flavor and moisture into the innermost parts of the meat whereas a marinade primarily deals with the outermost layers and typically involves acids/tenderizers/etc to impart flavor.

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I will add a bit to SAJ14SAJ's answer.

Boiling the brine is used to infuse the brine with more flavor from the spices, i.e. it is not needed for brining, but will extract more flavor from the spices, i.e. if you only use salt and sugar you do not need to boil, but if you add spices you will get more taste if you boil. Boiling also helps to solve the salt/sugar.

Secondly, yes you do flavor the meat, if you have a flavorful brine. The brine water and its taste gets deep into the meet.

I use this with liquid smoke on beef, it works very well (for people like me that does not have a smoker) and give a very needed smokey taste to the meat. For bird/chicken you can use e.g. rosemary or lemon (no boiling for lemon!), it will flavor the meat.

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Good addition, but it will help dissolve anything but the salt. The saturation point of NaCl in water is temperature-independent, source: my 9th grade chem teacher. –  rumtscho Jan 7 '13 at 17:04
    
@rumtscho, Interesting! I have been told that salt dissolves better at higher temperature, wikipedia shows your old text book is quite right. Anyway my point was not salt it was other stuff. Everyone else also say heat helps to solve, why are we so wrong? Or is 'ease of dissolving' and solubility two different things? Must test at home! –  Stefan Jan 8 '13 at 4:57
    
"Why are we so wrong" - humans normally learn by observing patterns. Most water-soluble crystalline substances we come in contact with on a daily basis dissolve better in warm water than in cold, so cooks automatically assume that salt does it too. It takes actual measuring to prove that in this case, common sense fails. –  rumtscho Jan 8 '13 at 16:55

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