Difference between brine and marinade. Brining is an excellent way of adding moisture to the meat. Marinating is another great way of adding moisture, but it also adds flavor.
If you’d like to know more about both processes and which to use when you’ve come to the right place.
It’s important to know the ins and outs of both because they are not interchangeable. To find out more, please read on.
Difference between brine and marinade?
In the culinary sense, there is not much worse than tucking into what looks like a nice piece of chicken, only to find it dry and tasteless.
It’s not much better than sawing your way into a bit of pork that leaves your jaw aching from the amount of chewing necessary and your tummy rumbling because you didn’t cook it properly.
Dried out tough turkey isn’t much better either. It’s a bit like eating compacted sand.
Once you’ve finished reading your way through this article, you will be able to put these fears behind you.
I will tell you all you need to know about brine and marinade so the meat you cook and eat in the future will always be tasty, tender, and succulent.
Let’s get started.
1 The similarity between brine and marinade
Marinating and brining are similar in the sense that with both processes, you coat the meat in a liquid concoction.
Then leave it to soak for several minutes or hours, depending on the recipe you are following.
It is the same principle whether you are using a thin brine solution or a thicker marinade mixture.
2 Moisture versus flavor
To fully appreciate the differences between the two procedures, we need to delve into each a little further.
How marinades work
I’ve explained that the task of a marinade is to add flavor to the meat rather than just moisture, which is the main work of a brine.
When you pour a marinade over the meat, it is not supposed to penetrate more than a few millimeters.
Some cooks are under the misapprehension that marinating meat tenderizes it. It does not. If anything, it does slightly the opposite, according to the Spruce Eats website.
The misapprehension is born from the fact that the acids in a marinade do bring about changes in the meat, but those changes are not to tenderize it – rather, they are to make it more firm – not tougher – firmer.
Fish Ceviche is a perfect example.
How brines work
Brining meat is all about keeping the meat moist as it cooks, no matter how long (within reason) it is cooked. It can also add a little flavor, but that is not its primary objective.
3 Brining is a longer process than marinating.
Having established that brining is all about encouraging meat to absorb liquid, it makes sense that it will take longer than marinating, whose purpose is to inject a flavor kick just a few millimeters below the meat’s outer surface.
Getting meat to absorb the brine to the point of saturation takes much longer than quick marination when it replaces the water.
It is not just the absorption time to consider; it also takes time to tenderize the meat.
- When you brine meat, it can lose some of its flavors as it soaks in the brine and loses some of its natural water. Some of the flavors leak away into the water.
- One of the ways of combating this taste loss is to make a gravy or sauce or to flavor the brine.
What is Brine?
Brine is a salt-based liquid that you can add to large chunks of meat to make them juicier. The idea is to prevent the meat from drying out too much as it cooks.
At its most basic, brine is water and salt. However, you can add other flavorings such as cinnamon, peppercorns or sugar, or other types of spices.
The underlying principle of brining is osmosis.
Why do you brine before cooking?
Brining meat was a common practice before refrigerators became commercially available.
Today, even though most homes have a fridge, there are two main reasons why cooks still brine their meat to improve or preserve flavor and texture.
Brining meat with flavored brine infuses it with different taste notes simultaneously, making it more tender.
Even basic brine can enhance flavor due to the salt it contains.
How does it work?
The science behind brining is based on osmosis.
According to Future-Learn.com, osmosis is when water molecules travel from an area with a higher concentration of water molecules to an area with a lower concentration by passing through the partially permeable membrane of a cell.
Enough of this technical jargon.
In simple English, it means that the brine will be drawn into the meat.
When meat is first soaked in a brine solution, the water in the meat’s cells transfers from the cells into the brine.
This is how brining works
As a result, the saltiness of the brine is diluted. When the respective concentrations of salted water swap over, the brine, which received water from the meat, travels back into the meat, taking its salt and any leaked flavor with it.
The result is nice, slightly salted, extra moist meat that hasn’t suffered too much flavor loss which will remain moist as it cooks.
Because the meat now has all that extra moisture trapped inside, even though it will lose the same amount of water during cooking that it would have lost before in infusion, it means it will still be lovely and juicy.
As culinary king and science geek Harold McGee said, it is one rare occasion when the old enemy of water retention works for us rather than against us.
- When meat is brined, it takes on more liquid and salt, which then proceeds to break down the proteins of the meat.
- If you imagine the proteins of meat to be tightly wound coils, the salt allows them to relax. The result is meat that feels more tender in the mouth and has less chewiness about it.
If you check out this episode of Good Eats, you’ll find a nice, easy explanation about brines and the work they do.
But were you aware that you can dry brine as well as wet brine?
Dry brine vs wet brine
Whether we are talking dry or wet brining, in essence, they both work the same way – they both infuse salt into the meat.
As briefly explained above, the salt breaks down the meat’s muscle proteins allowing the water to be absorbed into said muscles.
If we make a roast turkey as an example, thanks to the fact that the salt has destroyed the bird’s protein strands, its muscles can no longer contract.
It minimizes the amount of liquid the bird loses during cooking, thereby helping it to retain moisture and contributing towards giving you a lovely juicy and succulent turkey.
Let’s now take a look at wet and dry brine in action, starting with wet.
We’ve already discussed how wet brining saturates meat. The amount of brine that is absorbed increases the content of the meat by 40%., much of which is retained during cooking.
It’s the reason that you don’t see rivers of water leaking from the meat as it cooks.
Dry brine does the same thing as wet. It draws the natural moisture of the meat out, mixes it with the salt on the outside surface of the meat, which then gets re-absorbed back inside.
The resulting brine that is re-absorbed is more concentrated, and it too acts to break down the muscle proteins, stopping them from losing too much liquid as the meat cooks.
- The magic ingredient with both wet and dry brining is coarse salt. You can add other flavors, such as sugar, spices, and citrus zest, but they neither hinder nor help the osmosis process.
It’s quite likely that you wouldn’t even taste them following a wet brining.
However, with dry brining, any flavorings are in direct contact with the outer flesh or skin, which means they can be easily absorbed straight into the meat, giving it more flavor.
How to wet brine meat?
1 The basic principle for any wet brine solution begins with one cup of salt (Kosher if you are Jewish) to one gallon of water. Ensure that you dissolve the salt before you immerse the meat.
2 You can add a few smashed cloves of garlic, some black peppercorns, some crushed citrus fruit, and some honey or brown sugar for additional flavorings.
3 You can try using apple juice if you prefer, rather than water. It will give any poultry a slightly sweet autumnal type of flavor.
- If the meat you are brining has skin (for example, chicken or turkey), after draining it, pat it down with some paper kitchen towel and pop it into your fridge to sit for a few hours before cooking.
- Once cooked, the meat will be succulent and tender, and the skin will be a lovely golden brown and incredibly crispy.
How to dry brine meat?
Although it’s stating the obvious, dry brining doesn’t require any water.
As there is no osmosis to transfer the dry brine into the meat, the spices must sit on the outside of the joint for long enough to allow the flavors to infuse.
1 You need to allow for one teaspoon of salt per two pounds of meat, plus any other flavorings you intend to add.
2 Work the dry brine vigorously into the meat until it is completely covered.
3 Once done, place the meat into a plastic bag (a large Ziploc bag will do nicely) and let it stand for 24 hours or more.
4 Whereas with wet brining you can ruin the meat if you leave it in the solution for too long; that is not the case with a dry brining.
However, you don’t want to leave the meat brining for too long, or it could start to go off. I wouldn’t recommend allowing it to dry brine for any longer than three days, tops.
5 There is another way of dry brining whereby you transfer the meat (uncovered) into your fridge and leave it there for between one and 3 three days.
6 Whenever I use this method, I transfer the coated meat onto a wire rack, set it in a tray lined with foil, and place it in the fridge.
- You’ll find that if you add a small pinch or two of sugar to your brine mixture, it will encourage the meat to caramelize while cooking.
Which types of meat benefit from brining?
Not all meats are the same. This has to be considered when brining because they differ in structure (texture, density, and moisture).
Don’t forget that the basic reason for brine in the first place is to help the meat retain moisture and infuse a bit of additional flavor, perhaps.
It means that meats that are not particularly moist benefit most.
Any fat on or in the meat should be left because it melts during cooking, helping to keep the meat nice and moist.
It’s one of the reasons that ribeye steak is so succulent.
Meats that don’t have a lot of fat are prime candidates for brine.
Poultry is a perfect example of meats that benefit from brining.
A large chicken or turkey can take quite a while to cook, especially when stuffed.
It’s also easy for it to lose a lot of moisture during the cooking process. Brining will help to prevent that.
2 Big meats
The types of meat that benefit most from brine are those that are leaner and have less fat. Because of this, they tend to dry out during cooking and lose flavor.
Some meats fare better from brining than others.
These include pork chops, loin, tenderloin, and racks of ribs—large joints of meat such as pork leg or shoulder benefit particularly well from brining.
Bear in mind that larger cuts of meat tend to take longer to season thoroughly, don’t run out of time. Plan ahead.
Meats that tend to have more fat, such as beef and lamb, are not the best candidates for brine due to the extra fat.
The fat means that they already have the extra moisture they need, and as the fat cooks, it also infuses the meat with more flavor.
So you end up with a succulent, tasty piece of meat without the necessity of having to brine it.
- When buying a joint of meat for brining, it’s good to check the label to make sure that it hasn’t previously been injected with a saline solution.
More helpful brining tips
1 When brining, you need to bear in mind food health and safety. You don’t want to encourage nasty bacteria like Salmonella, so it’s essential to allow the brining to take place in your fridge.
2 It is also a good idea to ensure your meat is not exposed directly to the air. If it is, it can heighten the chances of bacterial contamination.
3 It would be best always to allow refrigerated meat to reach room temperature before you start cooking it because it will help ensure it cooks evenly and remains tender.
4 Last but not least, a quick reminder to pat a wet brined turkey dry with a paper kitchen towel before placing it into the oven. It will give you gorgeously crispy skin.
How long does it take to brine meat?
The length of time it takes to brine a piece of meat completely depends on what the meat is and its size.
The larger and denser it is, the longer it will need to be left to soak and become infused adequately with the flavorings and seasonings.
As a general guide, you should wet brine meat for approximately one hour for every pound of flesh. Although it’s entirely possible to over-soak the meat, people tend to do the opposite and under soak it.
For best results, you should keep it as close to the guideline as mentioned earlier.
However, remember that one hour per pound is a generalization.
Let’s now look at the various types of meat and see how it affects the brining time.
Brining chicken and seafood
These types of meat are significantly less dense than meat like beef, lamb, and pork, so generally, they will need less time to wet brine.
If, however, you brine a whole chicken, you can stick to the one-hour per one pound guideline.
Since these meats are so much less dense, they will need less time soaking. A whole chicken can follow the “hour-per-pound” rule.
Shrimp will never take more than an hour to brine regardless of how many you are brining. Because they are small and separate, they only take minutes to brine.
If you brine a whole pork loin or shoulder, you will need to allow it to soak for at least 12 hours.
It is because the meat is so dense that you need to allow enough time for the brine to work its infusion magic.
A quick brine is not really worth it.
If I got home from work and forgot to brine the pork in the morning, I wouldn’t bother to start it so late. It won’t have the desired effect.
But whereas under brining is not very effective, you can go over brine, providing you don’t overdo it.
I think that leaving it for half again as long as you originally intended won’t do any harm. If anything, it will make the meat nice and juicy and flavorsome.
There is a handy guide on how long to wet brine various meat, fish, and poultry on the MSN.food website. Click here to access.
What is marinade?
We already know we brine to add moisture to the meat while we marinade, intending to add flavor.
Marinades usually contain some acid, which, as you now know, helps to break down proteins and readies the meat for infusing with more flavor.
The type of acid with talking about comes from things like citrus, vinegar, and wine.
But whereas you can leave a meet in a wet brine for considerably longer than you intended without seriously harming its texture, the same can’t be said for over marinating.
If you let the meat marinate for too long, it will begin to turn mushy, and that is not nice.
Don’t forget to pop your marinating meat into the fridge. You want to keep any harmful bacteria at bay.
What are the best meats to marinate?
Not all meats have to be marinated. Take a large joint, for example. A marinade only gets absorbed into the outer surface, so the flavor doesn’t penetrate deep into the flesh.
1 Some cuts of meat like ribeye and T-bones are juicy and tender enough in their own right and do not require marinating. In fact, if you do marinate them, you can do more harm than good.
- Note: Bearing in mind that marinades add flavor, they are best used with meats that have less strong tastes – we’re talking here about chicken breasts and pork chops or beef cuts such as flank or skirt, which if not marinated tend to be tougher.
To get the most out of a marinade, it’s best to use the marinade on smaller, thinner cuts of meat such as beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and veal.
These smaller cuts only require marinating for around 2 hours which is plenty of time to absorb the marinade.
2 Larger cuts like whole chickens can be left to marinate for up to 2 days, while joints of beef, lamb, pork, and veal can be left for up to 4 days.
When you use an acidic marinade on fish and seafood, you will find that the food turns pale and become a little firmer because they are, in fact, “cooking.”
However, please note that marinated seafood still needs to be cooked to the recommended internal temperatures.
3 Veggies too can be successfully marinated, though it tends to work best with softer vegetables.
Why not experiment a little with things like eggplant, green beans, mushrooms, peas, summer squash, and zucchini?
How to marinate meat
Follow these simple steps for successful meat marination.
1 Assemble your ingredients and mix them together in a small, non-reactive bowl.
2 Transfer the meat into a large Ziploc bag. Pour the marinade over the meat inside the bag.
3 Close the Ziploc bag but leave a small gap so you can insert a straw, suck out as much air as possible, then extract the straw and complete the sealing of the bag in one swift motion.
4 Gently massage the marinade into the meat to ensure it is completely covered.
Note: If you are marinating vegetables, it’s safer to carefully toss them inside the closed bag rather than massaging them as you could break them.
5 Position the bag in a bowl or tray to catch any leaks. Store it in the fridge for the recommended time.
Read: Marinate frozen chicken
A basic marinade recipe
The ingredients listed below will make you a good basic marinade that will work well with most meats and veggies depending on the options you choose from the ones I’ve listed.
- An acid using one or a combination of citrus juice, vinegar, wine, or yogurt
- Aromatic enhancers such as garlic, ginger, onion, and shallots
- A choice of herbs and spices from things like cinnamon, cumin, cloves, oregano, or rosemary
- Hot spices such as chili peppers, red pepper flakes, or Tabasco sauce
- Oil – olive oil or vegetable oil will both be suitable.
- Saltiness by way of salt, soy sauce, or Worcestershire sauce
To recap on something I said earlier, about what proportion wise, allow ¼ of a cup of marinade for each pound of food you intend to marinade
You can try different combinations of the ingredients listed above to give different marinades for various meats and veggies.
If you’d like to sample something different, take a look at this Italian marinade on the nytimes.com website.
Remember – food safety and hygiene comes first.
Whenever you’re playing around with food, it’s important to work in a safe, hygienic way.
You must marinate your foods in your refrigerator. I know that your marinate is likely to have one or more of the acids I recommended, but that will not prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria if the food is left out at room temperature for too long.
Keep it in your fridge and under a constant 40°F.
It’s also a good idea to place the tray at the bottom of the fridge if there are any leaks. You don’t want to spoil other foods in the refrigerator.
Tips on marinating meat
1 Don’t let your marinade come into contact with any reactive metal – an aluminum tray, for example. It will set off a chemical reaction with the marinade, which will add an unpleasant taste and may also affect the color.
2 If you are marinating meat, be sure to discard the marinade once you’re finished with it.
3 Whether you decide to wet or dry brine your meats or marinate them, you’re sure to be delighted at how succulent the finished cooked product is and how tasty too.
If you’ve not tried any of these methods yet, make a note to do so.
There’s no excuse not to, as we’ve been over everything you need to know. Try it once, and I’m sure you’ll do it again and again.