Brining has become a very popular method in cooking, not just for pickling but also for marinade. For example, some people who love deep-fried turkey swear by herb-laced brine as one method for making a truly flavorful bird. The longer an item remains in brine, the more the base changes the taste and texture of the food.
Brining is very easy and very popular for meat because the salt helps keep it moist during the cooking process. To the foundation of salt and water, many cooks now add other flavorings to transport taste to every part of the meat (rather than just the exterior, as sometimes happens with a marinade). Meats that benefit from brining include lean poultry, pork, and seafood.
When using brine for meat, it’s very important to soak it in the refrigerator at about 40°F. Before the meat goes in, both the brine and meat should already be at the correct temperature. This avoids bacteria. Smaller meat cuts accept brine easily within about 4 hours. Note that brined meat cooks in about two-thirds the time of nonbrined meat.
The same concept holds true for vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Whatever spices you add to fermenting or pickling brine are transported with the salt into the vegetable. This typically results in a unique texture that not everyone likes, so start your brining efforts small until you find a process that’s pleasing.
Salt by Any Name
Table salt and sea salt are the most common ones used in brining, and some folks like a gourmet touch like fleur de sel and Hawaiian salt—but these get costly. Recipes will usually specify which salt they recommend. If you’re going to substitute, 1 cup of table salt becomes 1 ½ cups of kosher salt.
Food storage containers, large cooking bowls, and stainless steel stockpots all work very well as brine receptacles. Alternatively, if you’re doing a large amount of brining, try a clean cooler (this needs to be sterilized). Remember that you’ll need enough brine to completely cover the food. If you can’t guess, put the food in the container and cover it with plain water. Measure that water and add your salt accordingly. Note that no matter how much you might like a blend, you should never reuse brine.
In the 1600s, a fish brine from China called ketsiap traveled via spice routes to numerous countries. As the soy-like substance reached different regions, the various cultures put personal spins on the basic recipe. In 1711, the word ketchup was born, and 100 years later the first tomato ketchup recipe was printed in the United States.
Hotter . . . Colder . . . Hotter
Some cooks adjust their meat brine according to the temperature at which they plan to cook it. Slow and low cooked meat receives more sugar and salt compared to high-heat (grilling or broiling) meat.
Generally, the slow cooked brine takes ¼ cup of kosher salt and sugar to 1 pint of water. For high heat cooking, use 1 quart water, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 1/8 cup of kosher salt. In terms of brining time, about 1 hour per pound is a good measure.
Pickle brine includes vinegar for curing along with the traditional salt and/or sugar. Cucumbers are far and away the most popular vegetable for pickling. They are best purchased or harvested unwaxed, when they’re small and very firm. Brining waxed cucumbers won’t work because the salt cannot penetrate the skin.
The basic brine for pickling is 1 quart water to ½ cup salt. It’s important that the vegetables remain under the brine throughout the fermenting period. It takes about a month for a whole pickle to be completely fermented. The best test is to cut one open and look for uniform color.
Always use the amount of vinegar or salt suggested in a recipe. If you find the blend is too harsh for you, add a pinch of sugar to balance out the tartness. Both vinegar and salt are important to safeguard against bacterial growth.
Now you can rinse the pickle mixture and move it into 3 parts of good quality vinegar (5 percent acidity) with one part filtered water and any additional flavorings. Cider and malt vinegar are mild and work well in sweet pickle recipes, while white vinegar is the most commonly used because it doesn’t discolor the vegetables. You can certainly substitute one type of vinegar for another in your recipes, as long as the vinegar has the 5 percent acidity necessary for pickling.
If a recipe calls for sugar, you could try substituting honey if white sugar isn’t in your diet. Use about 3/4 cup honey for every 1 cup of sugar. Be aware this changes the flavor of the end product. At this juncture, you can store the pickles in the fridge for snacking or can them. However, pickles fermented in this way will lose some crispness to canning.
Where does the phrase “beneath the salt” originate?
During the Middle Ages, salt was a highly valued commodity that was traditionally utilized only by the wealthy. When people ate together, those of high birth would sit at a high table or the head of the table where an ornamental salt server had been placed for their use. Everyone else would sit at a Low Table—literally beneath the salt, indicating their place in society.
Salt pickling is really just another name for brining, with one exception— dry salting, most commonly used with meat and fish. This method goes back to ancient Egypt, if not earlier, and it can be used with vegetables to create a pickle-like item. For example, cabbage, radishes, cucumbers, and even greens can be fast pickled by cleaning them off, dusting them evenly in salt, and then putting them in a bowl with pickling seasonings.
In this case, a heavy plate needs to go on top of the pickles to press them (try filling a 2 liter bottle of water and put that on top). Twenty-four hours later, after a quick rinse and chill, your salt pickles are ready. Note that the shelf life for these is only 2 days in the refrigerator.