I never really got the whole brining-meat thing. . . seemed like a lot of time and effort when, presumably, a decent piece of meat cooked well and/or a nice sauce would do the trick. But after watching enough cooking shows – most recently Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction – I caved and decided it was worth an experiment with a lean pork loin. And I totally get it now – it was tender and juicy, infused with rosemary, and perfectly seasoned without adding extra salt.
Why is brining such magic? Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking. First, the salt “disrupts the muscle filaments,” so it acted as a tenderizer. The salt also interacts with the protein on a cellular level, which means the roast held more water, and all the flavors of my aromatics moved into the meat. (Remember osmosis? Never mind.) Any moisture lost in cooking is balanced out by the brine, so I ended up with an internally salted and flavored protein.
Technically a brine is just salt and water, or vinegar and water. Most recipes include sugar to balance the saltiness as well as herbs or aromatics for added flavor. Because fat adds flavor and moisture to meat already, brining works best on lean or tough cuts of meat, pork, chicken, and turkey. It’s not a quick process, though. Here’s what I did to make the magic this first time through:
- Based on Bobby Flay’s brine recipe, I boiled 8 cups of water and then added 1/2 cup salt and 1/4 cup sugar, 4 garlic cloves, a handful of thyme and 4 sprigs of rosemary from my garden. Once the salt and sugar dissolved, I took it off the heat and let cool for a couple of hours.
- Once the brine was cool, I poured it into a stainless steel mixing bowl and added a 5-pound pork loin, covered it, and put in the fridge for an hour.
- Then I put it on a rack to drain and left it in the fridge for another hour.
- Here I went back to Bobby Flay and mixed 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar with 1/8 cup honey.
- I heated the barbecue to 500 degrees, popped the pork on the fire, and seared all sides, basting it with the honey and vinegar. This took about 30 minutes.
- While that was cooking, I preheated the oven to 350 degrees.
- Once it was seared, I transferred the pork to a covered Dutch oven and roasted it in the oven until the internal temperature was 160 degrees. This took about an hour and 15 minutes.
It was definitely a big time investment, but 5 pounds of pulled pork-style pork loin lasted for several meals. Tacos with black beans, queso fresco, and pickled garden vegetables. Cubano sandwiches. More tacos. Yes, I’ll do it again.