For a long time – a looooong time – I never got the whole brining-meat thing. My mom never brined the roasts she served on Sundays, so I never learned to. Her top rounds and rump roasts and roasted slowly in the oven, and presumably, if it was a little dry occasionally, the gravy she made to go with the mashed potatoes compensated nicely. But we live in a different time. Cooking shows have taken the place of soap operas and sitcoms. So after watching enough TV food instruction and inspiration, most recently it was 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. Magical! Brining is the way to go!
Why is it such magic? Harold McGee explains it in On Food and Cooking. First, the salt “disrupts the muscle filaments,” acting as a tenderizer. The salt also interacts with the protein on a cellular level, which means the meat held more water. The flavors of my aromatics moved into the meat with the water. (Remember osmosis? Never mind.) Any moisture normally lost in cooking is balanced out by the brine, so a brined and roasted piece of meat is salted and flavored from within.
Technically a brine is just salt and water, or vinegar and water. Most recipes include sugar to balance the saltiness, and they include herbs or other 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, but it’s not too slow. Do this if you have an afternoon to prep for your evening meal, Here’s what I did to make the magic this first time through:
- Basing my ratios 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.
The time investment and attention to detail paid off. This 5 pounds of pulled pork-style pork loin lasted for several meals. Tacos with black beans, queso fresco, and pickled garden vegetables. Cubano sandwiches. Mmm, more tacos. Yes, I’ll do it again.