I admit it, I am a late convert to brining. When I first began cooking about 15 years ago, I read all about brining – the submersion of meat in a solution of salt, sugar and aromatics meant to enhance the flavor and texture of meat – but it always seemed like too much trouble. Many authorities recommend, for example, brining a Thanksgiving turkey. But to submerge the turkey in water requires a huge container, copious amounts of salt and sugar, and a place to keep the turkey cold. My un-brined turkey, carefully seasoned and properly cooked, was plenty flavorful and tender, thank you very much.
And so I discounted brining for years. Even though salt is hardly a scarce resource, whipping up a brine solution felt very wasteful, especially since it’s not supposed to be reused. Instead, I adopted a practice which Alice Waters and others have called “dry brining”, simply seasoning with salt far enough in advance to allow the salt to become fully incorporated into the meat, allowing the salt time to modify the cellular structure of the meat to ensure juiciness and to unlock the flavor compounds trapped in the meat. Dry brining by salting a few hours in advance seemed to accomplish the same goals as wet brining, but with much more economy of effort.
And it does… mostly. Dry brining works for almost every meat, and it is one of the most important techniques in the kitchen. But I was troubled that certain lean meats still were too dry, even when salted in advance. In particular, pork loin – whether cut into chops or left as a roast – continued to elude me. No matter how carefully seasoned and cooked it was, even when keeping it at a rosy medium-rare temperature, the results were underwhelming. I despaired of ever cooking a pork loin that I was really proud of.
But some time in the last year, I decided to give wet brining another try, hoping beyond hope that it could do something to enhance the loin. I carefully prepared my solution of salt, sugar, and aromatics. I submerged the pork. I hoped for the best.
It didn’t help that different sources give wildly different recommendations for brining solutions and brining times. Messing this up means meat which is under or over-seasoned with no way to fix the problem. I settled on a ratio of 2 quarts water to 125 grams salt and 60 grams sugar, and a brining time of 12 hours for a small boneless pork loin roast weighing several pounds.
I admit I had low expectations, but when I cooked and sliced the roast, I was blown away. Even though it was slightly overcooked at around 165 degrees, the meat was still moist. I couldn’t believe it. I knew that salt changed the cellular structure of the meat, allowing water to be better retained, but I had thought that dry-brining could accomplish the same thing. I’m not sure at this point why wet brining does this job better, and my interest in food science is not so great as to research it, but there’s no doubt that it does make a difference, at least for pork loin. Finally, I had found a way to redeem pork loin and turn it into something succulent and delicious.
Because of the extra time, materials, and space involved, wet brining will not replace my time-honored practice of dry brining for most meats. Most meats can be served juicy and succulent simply through careful cooking. But at least for pork loin, there’s no question that it’s an essential technique.