To brine? Or to marinate?
So there you are in your kitchen, with a raw chicken before you. You’d love to cook it so it’s tender and juicy the way your mom did, but are unsure how. That or you scored a nice piece of flank steak at the market, and you’d like to make it rock like a piece of prime sirloin. What can you do to get desired results?
The most obvious answer is you need to tenderize those meats, then flavor them. I’m sure your tenderizing mallet looks like a tempting answer, but it’s obviously not very practical for a whole chicken, or if you want your steak to still look like a steak. What you need is a means to tenderize and flavor those meats without physically damaging them, thus comes liquid solutions such as a brine or a marinade.
Liquid immersion in cooking is nothing new. If you’ve tried many of the chicken recipes on this website, then obviously you’ve done this in some way. For many meats and some vegetables, it’s the ideal way to both flavor and tenderize. However, it can be quite easy to be confused by what a brine is versus a marinade...and believe me they are not the same thing.
Marination is probably one of the more used methods of flavoring/tenderizing via liquid immersion. I know it’s been one I’ve used all over the place. A marinade works its magic due to its basis in acids combined with whatever flavor you wish. Acids such as wine, vinegar, citrus juices, etc.
Now it’s been a debate as to whether or not a marinade actually tenderizes meat. I’ve seen opinions from both sides, but I have to lean on the “yes” viewpoint. I’ve done plenty of marination in my culinary life, even with little to no salt in the mixture, and yet the meat turned out tender and delicious.
You should use a marinade when you need to infuse a big, bold flavor into your meat of choice. Meats that do not carry a deep flavor on their own are ideal, like chicken breasts and lower-cost cuts of meat.
If you need recipes utilizing a marinade, here’s a bunch to try:
- Greek-Style Chicken
- Mexican Marinate for Tacos and Burritos
- Balsamic Chicken
- Char Siu (for Ramen)
- Chicken Satay
- Jerk Chicken
- Carne Asada
- Hawaiian Chicken
- Mediterranean Chicken Stuffed Peppers
- Tandoori Chicken
- Mediterranean Garlic Chicken
- Chicken Tikka Masala
Brining is a similar process to marination, only the liquid solution has a different composition. Brines use salt to tenderize meat, as opposed to the acids of a marinade. Now one could point out how most of my marinade recipes use salt as well, and I’ll say it’s a factor in the tenderizing process. However, brines strictly stay away from the use of acids, hence why I would not lump any of those recipes here.
Brines are ideal when you need to tenderize, but do not wish to drastically alter the flavor of the meat. They infuse subtle flavor, thus are ideal for instances such as that whole chicken, or a turkey. Brines are also used for vegetables, mainly in pickling.
How you make your brine is up to you, as you’ll see plenty of different ratios of salt and liquid. I would honestly be careful in how much salt. Most recipes I encountered resulted in very salty meat, thus I’d always use less. The liquid itself is also open to several options. Water is quite basic, but you could also use broth, or even some types of milk.
I don’t really have any past recipes that utilize a brine, as I’ve been a bigger fan of marination. Instead I’m going to share with you a basic buttermilk brine I’ve been using a lot lately in making chicken. I originally learned of it in Bon Appétit Magazine, but found their recipe had too much salt.
Now you might be thinking “buttermilk?”, but if you’ve been around the Southern United States, you’ll find it’s a common culinary staple in making chicken. From a chemistry standpoint, milk is a base, thus giving your bird an acid-free soaking that will tenderize and yet subtly tweak the flavor. Try it yourself.
Basic Buttermilk Brine
- 4 cups of buttermilk
- 2 tsp of sea salt
- In a sealable container, combine the buttermilk with the salt, and any other seasonings you desire.
- Place your raw chicken, turkey, duck, or other meat into the mixture.
- Seal the container and place it in the refrigerator for at least four hours.
- Cook your meat as you see fit.
The two ingredients represent the basic framework. You can leave it plain or add other seasonings as you see fit. If you need more brine than the four cups, then treat this as a ratio. If you prefer things more salty, then add another teaspoon of salt per 4 cups of buttermilk.
The seasonings you add beyond the basic ingredients are entirely up to you. Here's a few ideas:
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed.
- 1 tsp of tumeric
- 1 tsp of lemon pepper
Lemon & Thyme Chicken
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 lemon, cut into quarters
- 1 tbsp of dried thyme
- 1 tsp of pepper
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 tbsp of dried rosemary
- 1 tsp of pepper
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 tbsp of curry powder
- 1 tsp of cinnamon
- 1 tsp of paprika
- 1 tsp of cumin
- 1 tsp of sugar
Healthy It Up
You're not confined to buttermilk. I've done this brine with coconut milk and almond milk with wonderful results.
How long to soak?
Whether you’re using a marinade or brine, the usual question arises as to how long you should soak meats. Some will speak of days, others hours. In my personal experience, I try to soak no less than four hours, and no more than twelve. The best times to brine or marinade are overnight, as I’ll prep my meats before bed, thus leaving them to soak in the refrigerator while I sleep.
I’ll also add in that your leftover marinade or brine is NOT ideal for a sauce. I’ll brush meats with a used marinade as I’m cooking them, but only because the heat is killing all the leftover bacteria left in it. If you ever plan on using a used brine or marinade for a sauce, boil it first.