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I see good answers to What brine ingredients are effective?, and I am looking to really push the envelope. I realize that there is some debate as to the effectiveness of brine to add flavor to the meat itself, so I'm going to experiment to answer that question for myself. My intention is to brine a big (6 lb) chicken overnight in a 5% salt brine adding tons of flavor to the brine. After brining I think I'm going rinse and dry the chicken and throw it on to my "set-it-and-forget-it" counter-top rotisserie. When the chicken is just about done I'm going to glaze it with a very basic soy-based glaze Mr. Yoshida's.

Some of the ingredients I'm considering, just because I happen to have them on hand, are brown sugar, finely minced preserved lemons, powdered ginger (I'm out of fresh), hot pepper flakes (lots), crushed fresh garlic (lots), any combination of the myriad of whole spices I used in my recent successful pho (star anise, cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamon, fennel), Ras el Hanout, harissa, onion, dry sherry and even fish sauce.

I'm confident that I can play with those ingredients (selectively, of course) and create a brine that tastes good at that point. One of my concerns is the tendency of some ingredients to become more powerful over time. For example, if I use star anise to flavor the brine I will fish it out before I add the chicken. I don't want the final chicken to taste like licorice. Another concern is the possibility that a particular ingredient might cause a chemical change that I don't want. Alcohols and acids come to mind.

Are you aware of any particular ingredients that should be avoided in a brine, or any caveats concerning specific ingredients?

2 Answers 2

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A brine serves two purposes: to make the meat moist and flavorful.

How the moist part works: "Brining makes cooked meat moister by hydrating the cells of its muscle tissue before cooking, via the process of osmosis, and by allowing the cells to hold on to the water while they are cooked, via the process of denaturation." (Wikipedia)

It makes the meat flavorful by acting the same way a marinade does. So you're pretty safe following "standard" marinating rules. Chief among those being that you want to avoid using too much acid or using acid for too long because it might make the meat mushy.

Avoid alcohol as well. "If your marinating anything with alcohol, cook the alcohol off first. Alcohol doesn't tenderize; cooking tenderizes. Alcohol in a marinade in effect cooks the exterior of the meat, preventing the meat from fully absorbing the flavors in the marinade." - Thomas Keller, the French Laundry Cookbook

Remember to use a nonreactive container (no metal) and avoid ingredients like olive oil that solidify when chilled.

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The short answer is to just stick to salt, because nothing else is going to meaningfully impact the brining process. But there are certainly some things that would be actively harmful.

Your question and another answer correctly identify acids and alcohols as two of the biggest culprits. Common acids used in cooking include vinegar, any citrus fruit, yogurt, tomato, buttermilk, coffee, soy sauce (and many other fermented products), pop/soda and some teas. From your list, .

But you wouldn't want a very basic brine, either. It's less of a concern because there are so many more low-pH (acidic) foods and ingredients than high-pH (alkaline) ones—people tend not to enjoy the bitter taste and sometimes soapy mouthfeel of bases. Still, for the record, don't using baking soda in your brine unless you need it to neutralize the pH of a particularly acidic water source. (And even then, there may be a better solution; consult a water treatment professional.)

Baking powder, by the way, is a mix of base and acid (commonly baking soda and tartaric acid, but commercial products vary) that probably balances out as neutral-to-acidic when all's said and done. It has some applications in dry brining, and I've personally had success using a mixture of up to 1:4 baking powder to salt in a dry brine for a whole chicken. But the caveat here is that it didn't really improve the moistness of the meat at all, compared to pure salt; what it did was produce a crispier skin, and I've found it really difficult to get that crisping effect without also introducing some amount of bitter flavor, which is why I stopped using it. Personally, I don't think it's an improvement over the more traditional (?) method of rubbing fat between the skin and meat and/or basting. And if you're strictly interested in a wet brine (which I believe is implied when you say "5%") then I'd stay away from baking powder altogether.

Another thing I would avoid in overnight brines is any tenderizing enzyme such as bromelain, papain and ficin (found naturally in pineapples, papayas, and figs, respectively). In particular, products sold as "meat tenderizer" (whether enzyme-based or not) should probably not be applied for this length of time.

All that said, there's a much better approach in my opinion, which is to resist the urge to get fancy and just use salt! Table salt (sodium chloride) dissociates into very simple ions that transport far more easily through osmosis than the larger and more complex flavor compounds that you're looking to add to your brine. And even then, it takes many hours for those simple salt ions to fully penetrate your bird. Other compounds, like proteins and lipids and esters and all the various complicated molecules that we use to impart flavor to food, either can't or won't penetrate the meat in the time it takes for the sodium chloride to do its job.

I understand the temptation to do something extra-special by including aromatic herbs and spices, citrus rinds, etc. and look for a secret ingredient, and the brine that you create may itself smell heavenly—but I think Serious Eats puts it best:

For the time and effort it takes to make a flavored brine, heat it up, and let it cool completely, you're much better off making a flavorful rub or herb butter. You'll get just as much (if not more) flavor into the bird, use fewer ingredients, and save yourself some time in the process.

Honestly, I wouldn't add any of the ingredients you list to a brine. You may add a little flavor to the outside of the bird that way, or you may just be adding some nice smells to your kitchen the day before the meal; either way, my question is why do it in the brining step at all? You can just add these to your bird directly, using other techniques. I hear your concern about spices like star anise that you don't want to become overpowering (whole cloves also come to mind) and if you really want to put those in your brine, I can't think of any whole spice that would hurt the chicken—but I expect it would always be more efficient and effective to extract their flavors into a fat or alcohol beforehand, which you can then apply to the bird after the brining step. This gives you more options and, I think, a finer degree of control over your flavors since you can't exactly taste a bucketful of raw salty birdwater to see how things are going.

Of the ingredients you listed, there are approaches for all of them outside of brining. I'd tuck garlic, herbs, or herbed butters between the skin and the breast after brining and before the bird goes into the oven. The fat of the skin renders as it cooks, extracts the flavors from the "tuck in" ingredients, and bastes the meat. I'd rub sugar, dry spices, and spice mixes onto the skin before cooking (in moderation, so they don't create a thicker crust that will burn). If "onion" means a raw onion, the traditional approach is to halve it and put it in the cavity of the bird with a bouquet garni, or try half a lemon (instead, or in addition); and the sauces I would always save until the end. They work great in glazes (note that the glaze you plan on using already has soy sauce and alcohol as ingredients), for deglazing the roaster to make a quick brown gravy, or even as condiments in their own right (fish sauce, ooooh-mami!).

For all of these, a huge disadvantage of adding them via a wet brine is that the water of the brine will dilute them so much that you'll end up having to use a lot more of them to even have a chance at imparting the same amount of flavor.

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  • This is the current on-trend answer, but is provably false with real world a/b testing you can do yourself. If you don't wanna, this popular YouTube channel has done it for you: youtu.be/w0DKT67edBU Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 8:03
  • @RISwampYankee Would you mind clarifying what aspect of the answer you take issue with?
    – Air
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 17:15
  • Tracking down the links are difficult because I'm on mobile, but the YouTube channel Mythical Kitchen had a decent informal experiment where they had a wet brine - a mix of sugar and salt and whole spices in water - and a dry brine, just a lot of salt slathered on the bird, and a no-brine turkey, as well as basted and not basted, and then tasted by professional chefs. Wet brine and basted had the crispest skin and the best flavor. By a lot. Dry brine had some trouble with texture, and did not taste as good. This matches with my own experience. (Found the link - youtu.be/w0DKT67edBU ) Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 12:38
  • @RISwampYankee Yes, I watched the video and was really not sure what the problem is. This question does not seem to me to be asking for a comparison of different techniques or for how to make the best turkey, so I focused only on how to make sure you are brining effectively. There is nothing wrong with using sugar in your brine, if you have lots of sugar on hand; but as I warned, the video demonstrates a wet brine that requires 3 cups (!) of sugar to compensate for dilution.
    – Air
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 19:04
  • @RISwampYankee Also, not that this really changes whether the advice itself is good or not, but none of the hosts of that video are foodservice professionals. "Mythical Chef" is a title they made up for the program. Their conclusions are also in conflict with a lot of more popular, credible, and respected sources (e.g. Alton Brown, Serious Eats, America's Test Kitchen).
    – Air
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 19:26

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