Tough meat is a thing of the past when you discover the power of brining. Brining is a fantastic way to ensure that you enjoy a succulent grill, but the techniques can be confusing – do you, or don’t you add sugar? What type of sugar? And what does the sugar actually do?
Why Do You Put Brown Sugar In Brine?
We add brown sugar to brine for flavor and promote the browning of the meat. While all brines contain salt, but not all brines contain sugar. The salt in the brine causes protein strands to become denatured. The sugar, however, has little effect on the texture of the meat.
Sugar also helps meat caramelize as it cooks, and it’s one of the ingredients responsible for the formation of bark when smoking meats.
Let’s explore when and why you might want to consider adding sugar, brown or otherwise, to a brine. And of course – let’s look at a recipe that incorporates sugar into the brine.
How Does Brown Sugar Affect The Meat?
Experiments have shown that even after more than 24 hours, sugar molecules don’t penetrate much deeper than the surface of the meat. So if the flavor doesn’t go all the way into the meat, why add the brown sugar?
Probably the best reason for adding sugar to a brine is so that your meat browns beautifully. Browned food looks, smells, and tastes phenomenal.
We can thank the “Maillard reaction” for this, which is a chemical reaction between the sugar and the amino acids in the food. Tt gives browned food its flavor, which is why it’s also referred to as the “browning reaction.”
Baked bread, smoked meats, roasted coffee, and grilled steaks owe their enticing aroma and taste to the sequence of chemical reactions known as the Maillard Reaction.
The Maillard reaction happens with naturally occurring sugars and at room temperature, but the reaction is far more pronounced with the addition of sugar and at high temperatures.
Without the addition of sugar and a higher heat, you would need to add to cook and possibly overcook the meat to provide enough time for browning to occur.
What Type Of Sugar Should You Put In A Brine?
There are recipes for brining solutions that include all sorts of sugars. So does it matter whether you put white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, or honey in your brine? And can you use one instead of the other?
Essentially, any sugar for a brine will do, but many chefs and home cooks agree that brown sugar is probably the best sugar to use in a brine.
The main difference is that some sugars dissolve more easily than others. A top tip for doing this – if you need to swap your sugar out – use a 1:1 swap by weight instead of volume – because sugar crystal sizes differ.
This same tip applies if you substitute one type of salt for another.
When Should You Add Sugar To A Brine?
You may want to consider adding sugar to a brine under any of the below circumstances:
- You plan on grilling the meat without a glaze, and you want a uniformly brown and aromatic crust.
- Your meal includes thin cuts of meat, like for satay or stir-frys, and the extra boost of sugar and color will enhance the dish.
An hour in a sugar brine (either wet or dry) is enough to infuse the outer surface of the meat thoroughly. Don’t worry about using a sugar brine if you’re cooking your meat under a dark, sweet glaze or rub.
How To Add Sugar To Your Brine
The most basic brine is simply a mixture of water and salt. The recommended formula is a quarter cup of salt for every 4 cups of water. Depending on the cut and type of meat, you will need to soak it in this solution for 30 minutes to a few hours – and for significant cuts of meat, overnight is best.
If you’re comfortable with the saltwater solution, you can start experimenting with adding herbs, chopped vegetables, citrus fruits, and appropriate seasonings, and of course, brown sugar.
If you’re going to add sugar to your brine. We recommend 2/3 of a cup of salt and 2/3 of a cup of sugar for each gallon of water.
A Basic Brown Sugar Brine Recipe
- 1 gallon of water
- 2/3 cup of kosher salt
- 2/3 cup of brown sugar
- Onion slices
- Crushed garlic cloves
- Black peppercorns
- Bay Leaves
- Rosemary sprigs
Note: There are no set rules for aromatics. Use whatever you have on hand and enjoy.
Mix the brine ingredients and any aromatics in a large pot. Bring the brine to a boil.
Remove from the heat and allow time to cool completely before transferring into a big enough container for your meat and small enough to fit into your refrigerator. You can use a bag, stockpot, or bowl for this.
Submerge your meat in the brine completely. Cover and leave to soak in the refrigerator for as long as necessary. Smaller cuts only need a short soaking time, while larger cuts such as pork shoulders, beef brisket, etc., can be brined overnight.
Below is a guide for some common cuts of meat:
- Fish/Shrimp: 30 minutes
- Chicken Pieces: 4 hours
- Pork Loins: 12 hours
That said, the general rule of thumb is to leave your meat in its brine no more than one hour per pound. Leaving it in the brine too long will cause the proteins to break down, leaving you with mushy inedible meat.
When you’re ready to start cooking, rinse your meat thoroughly with cool water after removing it from the brine. Pat the meat dry and add any spices or rubs.
Follow the preheat and cooking temperatures for your grill manufacturer, place the meat on it, and start cooking!
If you are going to brine small cuts for an extended period, you may want to reduce the salt down to 1/2 cup salt per gallon of water so that your meat doesn’t taste too salty.
If you want the meat to brine very quickly, you can double the salt concentration.
You can substitute the brown sugar on a 1:1 basis for white sugar, turbinado sugar, honey, or maple syrup.
Although the sugar may help a little with the brining action, its primary purpose is to flavor and promote better browning of the meat. It also counteracts some of the saltiness of the brine.
If you want to level up your next backyard grill, you should go ahead and try a brown sugar brine – you won’t regret it!