To Brine or To Marinade? :: The Grilling Question
THE CHEF SCOTTY ELEMENTS OF EARNEST SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA BARBECUE ARE SUPER SIMPLE:
1. Have good beer in hand (or go for the gold with Fortaleuza tequila and fresh lime, just make sure you have a backup barbecue agent on hand!
2. Propane or charcoal... or neither? You can't grill if you don't have one and while I very much prefer to keep things in the natural flavor of coals and water-soaked wood chips, it's important that we keep things real - propane is easier and quicker.
3. Always have pan spray or lavishly use oil of any sort. It's necessary should you
wish to avoid half of your dinner over-charred and glued to the grille.
4. Turn the tunes up for your favorite '80s band if you really endeavor to Einstein up on Bobby Flay. Happy chefs make happy food and creativity is always encouraged!
5. Purchase seasonal produce and fully fattened proteins when considering your
shopping list. The beauty of barbecue is in it's simplicity. Well-lubricated and self-medicated are the right approaches regardless of the menu or person.
6. Your sides are just as important as your showpieces. Choose wisely and please
for the love of ABBA . . . make your own potato salad (commercial potato salad is to me just as bad as last night's mistake-of-a-stay-over).
7. When someone asks "Can I bring anything?," a premeditated response is best,
so know your list early: Remember you'll always need ice, more vodka, board- games, more vodka, a midget named Gertrude in drag and more vodka . . . do you get the point yet?
8. Brine your meats and marinate your seafood! What is the difference between
a brine and a marinade you might ask? Well, now we finally have something tangible to talk about.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MARINADES AND BRINES:
Marinades are usually made up of three components: Acid, oil and herbs. The acid helps to partially denature the meat's proteins, opening up "tunnels" in the meat structure, in which flavor can seep in. However, marinades generally only penetrate the surface. Marinades work best on leaner proteins such as pork and poultry, because the muscle structures are not as dense as in beef. For denser meats, a marinade works best when the meat is cut into smaller pieces so the marinade can be distributed over a larger surface area.
Be aware however, if marinades are left on too long, the acids can actually "cook" the surface, causing the meat to dry out. Some proteins, such as pork, can marinate for hours. Other less dense cuts of meat, such as chicken breast and most fish, only need to stay in a marinade for a short period.
Brining meat -- that is, putting meat into a salt-water-sugar solution -- adds moisture to the meat through osmosis. Osmosis happens when water flows from a lower concentration of a solution to a higher concentration through a semi-permeable membrane. In meat, this membrane is the plasma membrane that surrounds the individual cells. When meat is placed in brine, the meat's cell fluids are less concentrated than the salt water in the brining solution. Water flows out of the cells in the meat and salt flows in. The salt then dissolves some of the fiber proteins and the meat's cell fluids become more concentrated, thus drawing water back in. Brining adds salt and water to the cells so that as the meat is cooked and fluids are heated, moisture is retained in the cells because the brining was done before cooking.
Brining is very easy and economical and requires no special cookware and like a marinade, it keeps food moist and tender. Brining (also known as salting) is a way to increase meat's moisture-holding capacity - resulting in a juicier product when cooked. One of the greatest things about brining, is that there are so few rules. Most brines start with water and salt, traditionally, about 3/4 pound per gallon of water, but since we're not concerned with the brine as a preservative, you can cut back on the salt and add sugar for some cushioning (water being a hydrant).
Beyond that, you can add flavor in many different forms, including herbs and spices. Use brown sugar, honey or molasses in place of the sugar (a little sweet tends to offset any saltiness the brine might otherwise impart). You can use apple juice, cider, orange juice, beer, wine, rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, stock, tea, or other liquids to supplement a small amount of the water. You can also put together decidedly Eastern flavorings, with soy sauce or the Japanese rice wine mirin.
HOW LONG TO BRINE:
It is possible to end up with meat that's too salty for your taste. To avoid this, brine on the low end of the time range (say overnight for your first attempt). You can always brine longer next time, but there's no way to salvage a piece of meat that has been brined too long (adding more sugar to your brine will buy you more time).
A SIMPLE BRINE:
3/4 cup coarse kosher salt, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 cup boiling water,
1 gallon cold water, 1 tablespoon pepper
A heavy-duty plastic tub, stainless-steel bowl, or resealable plastic bag can work as a brining container, as long as the pork is fully submerged. Weight with a plate, if necessary, to keep the meat fully covered by the brine.
To determine how much brine you'll need, place the meat you'll be brining in your chosen container and add water to cover. Remove the meat, then measure the amount needed.
Dissolve salt and sugar in the boiling water. Add it to the cold water, then add pepper and stir to combine. Chill brine completely in the refrigerator before add- ing meat. Place meat in the water and refrigerate for the time mentioned above.
Experiment with seasonings, the salt is essential, but everything else is optional. Consider garlic, ginger, fresh herbs, juniper berries, clove, cinnamon stick, vanilla bean, mustard seed, coriander seed, star anise, hot pepper flakes or Sichuan peppercorns. To give pork a sweet edge and encourage browning, add 1/2 cup sugar to each 2 quarts of water.
Rinse meat twice after removing it from the brine solution and discard brine; if you are not ready to cook at the end of the brining period, refrigerate until ready to use.
Do not add salt to brined meat before cooking. Cook according to your favorite recipe, but be careful to not overcook. Once brined, meats tend to cook faster, so be careful and use a thermometer inserted into the thickest area of the meat.
FIRE UP THAT GRILL AND ENJOY!