The meat has been cooking away on the grill; it smells incredible. And then you cut into it, and it is dry, flavorless, and rubbery. Could anything be more disappointing? Luckily, we can avoid this disappointment with two simple techniques: brining and marinating the meat before cooking it. Let’s examine the difference between these two techniques.
What’s The Difference Between A Brine And A Marinade?
A brine is a salty bath used to soak a cut of meat. The salt in the brine allows the cells in the meat to retain the moisture and tenderize the meat. The main reason we marinate meat is to provide additional flavor. Marinades usually use some sort of acid which may help to tenderize the meat.
Now that we know the fundamental difference between the two let’s dig a little deeper to understand the science.
The Science Behind Brining And Marinating
It is time for a bit of a science lesson. Because in a kitchen, science is everything. The key to deliciously cooked meat is controlling the amount of moisture in the meat. When the meat is cooking, the internal temperature of the meat rises, and the higher the temperature, the tighter the muscle fibers become.
Essentially, the proteins bind and squeeze the moisture out of the muscle. However, we can counteract this action by soaking the meat in a brine. At its most basic, a brine is a mixture of salt and water. The salt denatures the meat’s proteins which allows for additional moisture to be pushed into the muscle tissue by means of osmosis.
The salty brine also causes the muscle fibers to unravel and swell, making the meat more tender. All of these actions mean that there is so much liquid inside the meat that it can’t all evaporate, and the meat stays moist and juicy. Aside from all of this, the brine also adds flavor to the meat.
A marinade is all about adding flavor to the meat. A marinade does not usually have as much salt in it as a brine. Instead, it is generally made from a base of oil and acid, like vinegar, wine, or citrus juice.
Even when we soak our meat for hours in a marinade, the flavors don’t usually penetrate too far below the surface of the meat, and the acid is not really strong enough to tenderize the meat. However, the surface treatment of the meat does add loads of flavor, so marinating is never a bad idea.
When To Brine And When To Marinade Your Meat
Brines are great for lean meats – pork chops, chicken breasts, turkey, and seafood. This is because they don’t have much fat and marbling to protect them and retain moisture, and they can overcook easily. So brining adds a bit of “insurance” against overcooking.
Red meats, such as beef or lamb, don’t need to be brined. Neither do the fattier cuts of meats like chicken thighs or pork belly. These meats are great, however, with a marinade to add flavor.
The Basics Of A Brine
As we’ve established, the main ingredients in brine are water and salt. Any sort of salt will do, but salts have different volumes, which may affect the taste of your brine.
If your recipe for the brine calls for a specific type of salt, follow the recipe for the best results.
Here are some ideas to jazz up up your brine:
- White or brown sugar or molasses add a deliciously sweet flavor to your meat and also encourage browning. Pork loves a sweeter brine, so try this next time you’re grilling pork chops.
- Alcohol helps the brine’s flavors to penetrate deeply into the meat. As little as a tablespoon of spirits will help carry the meat flavors and can be added in addition to lower alcohol liquids like wine and beer.
- You can substitute the water for other liquids like chicken broth, apple or pickle juice, or even buttermilk. If you’re going the acidic route, you will need to reduce the brining time.
- Add in some other flavors – herbs or citrus peels, onions, or garlic. Other options that add loads of flavor are Worcestershire or soy sauce.
What About A Dry Brine?
The science behind a dry brine is basically the same as a wet brine, just without the water. Rubbing the meat with salt and allowing it to sit uncovered in the refrigerator for as long as you would soak your meat in a wet brine.
You will only need to use about a tablespoon of salt for every two pounds of meat. Rub it in, but don’t cake it on. The salt will infuse with the meat’s juices, making for a fantastic flavor.
Next, add some herbs and spices so that the meat is brined and flavored with a delicious herb or spice rub.
How To Make a Marinade
There are endless combinations of ingredients, and even a vinaigrette will work as a marinade. However, if you want to use your imagination to make a winning meat marinade, the key is to use one of each of the following elements:
- Oil or other fat- The rest of your marinade ingredients will infuse the oil and coat the meat.
- Acids, such as vinegar or citrus juice – although we’ve established that the acid won’t do too much to tenderize the meat, it will balance the flavors and the richness of the oil.
- Sweet and salty – you can use salt and sugar, but ingredients like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, fruit juice, molasses, or honey are all far more exciting.
- Herbs, garlic, and onions – it almost goes without saying, but these traditional aromatic ingredients are essential for the depth of flavor of your meat.
The difference between brining and marinating is in the salt content. Deciding which to use depends on the type of meat you are putting on the barbecue.
Either way, taking some time to prepare your meat by brining or marinating is an excellent way to make sure your next barbeque is a great success.
If you’ve never made your own, there are plenty of recipes online to follow, or you can buy a BBQ book online from Amazon that will have plenty of great recipes for your next cookout!
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