Brining is one of the oldest methods used to preserve meat. Brining became popular because other preserving methods usually left the meat incredibly touch. Brining can also leave your meat tough after a few months, but by boiling, it is possible to soften it back up.
Common meats made through brining include ham, corned beef, and pastrami (although commercial preparations are quite different than the traditional ones). Corned beef in fact, contains no corn, but was actually named for the particles of salt used to pack the meat. Corn was used to describe any grain, so the “grains” of salt used to preserve the beef became known as corning.
How Does Brining Work?
A brine solution is a mixture of water and salt. The salt and water mix into the pores of the meat and prevent oxygen from getting into the meat and spoiling it. It is possible to preserve meat in a brine for several months, even if you do nothing to preserve it any further, such as canning it. However, it is incredibly important that you keep the brine solution in a cool place (there is not enough salt in brine to protect it from room temperature like in dry-preserving) and that no oxygen ever touches the meat.
The recommended place to keep brined meat is either in a cellar that holds a steady temperature lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit (40 to 140 degrees is known as the “danger zone” for the spread of bacteria). If you do not have a cool cellar, you can store the brine in the refrigerator. It is possible that a strong brine will keep your meat safe at room temperature, but unless you are truly going through a survival situation, it is best to err on the side of caution. You can safely eat meat preserved in brine for about 6 months to a year, but it should never be eaten if it starts to turn green or smell rotten.
Tools Required for Brining
You will need a few tools if you plan to try brining. These tools are simple, and you probably have all of them on hand already.
- Large container with a cover to hold the brine solution
- Weight to keep the meat from floating
- Sodium nitrate (optional, used only to keep meat pinker)
The container you choose needs to be large enough to hold your meat plus a layer of water that is about 6 inches higher than the top of the meat. You can use food safe plastic, glass jars, ceramic pots, or any other food-safe container. Metal is not recommended, because the salt might eat away at it, or cause the meat to have a metallic flavor. I also would hesitate to use plastic, but that is just a personal preference.
The salt you choose is also important. Most recipes state that kosher salt performs best in a brine. Any salt should work as long as it is pure. Pickling salt and table salt are two other possible options. Just make sure to always measure by weight, not by volume, or your solution may not work properly. Sea salt and other salts containing minerals are not recommended for brining.
The weight you choose should be food-safe and sanitized. Metal and wood items are not recommended. Here are a few possible ideas:
- Smooth rocks
- Pie crust weights
- Heavy ceramic objects
- Glass paperweights
You can purchase Herb Brining Kits with instructions that might make things easier.