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Now's a fine time to brine


At the Bristol, 2152 N. Damen, chef Chris Pandel always has a variety of brines going for everything from chicken to cod.

Following are some of the combinations he works from. The basic principle for all of these is to heat the liquid and combine with the rest of the ingredients until the salt and sugar are dissolved, then chill the brine before proceeding.

Pork brine

1 gallon water, 1⁄2 cup salt, 3⁄4 cups brown sugar, 1⁄4 cup honey, 3 garlic cloves, 1⁄2 rosemary sprig, 1⁄2 sage sprig, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns

Pork brine No. 2

1 gallon water, 1⁄3 cup brown sugar, 1⁄3 cup honey, 1⁄4 cup salt, 1⁄4 cup mustard seed, 1⁄4 cup fennel seed, 1⁄8 cup black pepper, 1 bay leaf, 3 rosemary sprigs, 3 thyme sprigs

Quail brine

1 gallon water, 1 cup salt, 3⁄4 cup light brown sugar, 31⁄4 cups molasses

Chicken brine

Bring 2 quarts water, 1⁄2 cup diced onion/carrot/celery and 6 bay leaves to a boil; let cool and chill. Combine 2 quarts water, 3 cups maple syrup, 3⁄4 cup kosher salt, 1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons curing salt, 11⁄2 teaspoons ground cloves, 11⁄2 teaspoons ground ginger, 1⁄4 cup cracked black pepper; add to chilled mixture, stir well and chill.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Want in on a chef’s secret to creating delicious chicken, pork and other mildly flavored meat that doesn’t require fancy equipment, expensive ingredients or a culinary degree? Hint: It’s something you might have tried at Thanksgiving.

Brining, that age-old process originally used to preserve meat which has garnered present-day fans for its ability to do great things to turkey, is a day-to-day practice among chefs.

“We brine almost every piece of meat that comes into the Bristol [at 2152 N. Damen] except beef,” says chef Chris Pandel, listing pork, chicken, goat, lamb and especially things like roasts as examples. “It helps maintain so much moisture and gets the seasoning all the way to the core without having a salty outside. Generally speaking, everything comes out tasting so much better after it’s brined.”

It’s the same story at the Publican, 837 W. Randolph, where chef Brian Huston goes as far as to credit brining, as well as pre-seasoning, for the restaurant’s success. He cites mentor and one-time employer Judy Rodgers of San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe for his initial inspiration.

At West Town Tavern, 1329 W. Chicago, chef Susan Goss, who brines “pretty much every day,” appreciates not only the flavor-enhancing aspects of the technique — “It brings out the natural umami flavors of the meat,” she says — but also that in the heat of a Saturday night rush, if she slightly overcooks her popular pork tenderloin dish, it’ll still be moist.

“It gives us a bit of breathing room because we know the meat won’t dry out,” says Goss.

Michael Taus of Zealous, 419 W. Superior, who first learned how to brine from his Czech grandfather, agrees: “Once you brine, you don’t have to worry about overcooking. You can’t screw it up.”

What Rob Levitt of the Butcher & the Larder, 1026 N. Milwaukee, appreciates most about brining is, “You can take something ordinary like chicken or a less-accepted cut of meat and make it more special and fun.”

In the planning stages for the butcher case of his recently opened Noble Square shop: pre-brined whole chickens and parts.

Breaking it down

So with all this culinary cred behind it, why is it that brining gets put to use in most home kitchens only once a year, if even that?

Chalk it up to a lot of misconceptions, say chefs.

Brining involves two basic scientific principles, diffusion and osmosis, which occur when meat is submerged in a saltwater solution. To maintain equilibrium between the substances, the brine is absorbed into the meat.

Once there, the salt unravels the meat’s protein cells, making even more room for the liquid to enter. Add in other ingredients — sugar, molasses, rosemary, vinegar, garlic, onions, etc.—and that’s when the fun really begins.

While the process itself may sound complicated, the actual work to make it happen isn’t.

“It’s one of those things that chefs do that is very easy for a cook to do at home,” says chef Paul Fehribach of Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark. “It could make their home cooking much more rewarding.”

For his Niman Ranch pork chop dish, sweet tea gets added to the brine mixture — about 4 ounces to 1 gallon of salted water — but he also recommends Calvados or apple cider vinegar.

“A little bit of acidity makes something more mouthwatering when it touches your tongue,” he says.

At the Bristol, a base brine of garlic, rosemary, black peppercorns and sugar in the saltwater mix is always in the walk-in cooler (tip: to help disperse the ingredients, Pandel brings the rosemary, peppercorns and garlic to a boil in some water, then purees them before mixing with the rest of the liquid).

Additional brines are made depending on the season, the meat, the cut and cooking method.

Liquid and protein

Once you’ve decided the ingredients for your brine and the water-to-salt ratio — most of the chefs recommend ½ to 1 cup of kosher salt to a gallon of water, but it varies depending on the size of the protein — it’s time to make it.

Most recipes require you heat the brine to infuse the ingredients. Rather than heating and then cooling the entire batch — an important step to prevent the raw product from spoiling — Huston recommends heating only, say, 1 to 2 cups of liquid with the flavoring ingredients. Then cut your additional water in half and add twice the amount of ice.

“That way you’re cooling and diluting it at the same time,” he says, a great time-saver.

Now, you need to decide what to brine. Paul Virant of Vie, 4471 Lawn Ave. in Western Springs, recommends first-timers keep it simple.

“Brine something that you are comfortable with. If that’s chicken breasts, just do that,” he says, adding that by using something you’re familiar with, the end results will be more dramatic.

Once you’re convinced brining is the way to go, you can experiment, says Levitt. His recipe for an Asian-style chicken, for example, would include a brine of soy sauce, fresh ginger, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns.

Time it right

Soaking time also depends on the type of meat and its size.

“Longer isn’t necessarily better,” says Goss, who recommends going by an inches-thick method. “Less than inch, you’re looking at an hour. If it’s 2 inches, go for a couple of hours. And if it’s a big piece of meat, like pork loin or a whole chicken, do it overnight.”

But be careful, says Levitt: “If you overbrine, you’ll end up with chicken that tastes like ham.”

If refrigerator space is limited, that shouldn’t be a problem — you don’t need a huge container as you would when brining a whole turkey, just one large enough to keep the item submerged.

Keep in mind the container should be non-reactive; Tupperware would work just fine.

And, adds Virant, with Chicago winters there’s always the option of using coolers in the garage or under the deck “away from the critters” for your brining.

When cooking your brined proteins, there are two important items to think about.

First, be mindful of additional seasoning since brining does add salt. Second, if your brine includes a sweet component, that’ll affect the cooking technique.

“With any piece of meat you brine, you need to make sure your sugar content is appropriate depending on how you want to cook it,” says Pandel.

“If you are planning on pan-searing a breast with the skin on, you don’t want a ton of sugar in the brine because the skin will burn before the breast cooks through. But if you are going to roast a whole chicken, honey is perfect and it’ll caramelize well in the oven.”

Still not convinced of the advantages of brining?

“It’s really not any more work than marinating,” offers Goss. “People should open their minds and embrace the brine.”

Lisa Shames is associate editor at Where Chicago magazine.

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