Ten years ago brining was a rarely used technique in home kitchens but is now widely recommended. Even as it gained popularity there were several open questions on the supporting science.
Does the water in the meat draw salt in and then does that salt draw in more water from the brine? Does the brine change the meat’s structure or just add salt and water? How far can brine penetrate in the usual brining time? Do flavoured liquids, aromatics like onions and garlic, herbs, or spices make a difference to the meat’s final taste?
It’s the last question that was at the centre of a brief discussion I had on Twitter with Chris Nuttall-Smith, Eric Vellend, and Michael Ruhlman. Harold McGee (patron saint of food science) writes in Keys to Good Cooking (and also in this Serious Eats Thanksgiving post) that the flavour molecules in aromatics are so much larger than salt or water molecules that they will have much more difficulty crossing the osmotic barrier to get inside meat. Ruhlman says that he’s found differently from his tests.
Consensus seemed to be that Thomas Keller’s recipe for brined pork tenderloin from his Ad Hoc at Home cookbook (that Ruhlman had a hand in creating) would be a good first test for the theory.
I brined three pork tenderloins, half in the to-the-letter pork brine (pictured at the top) from Ad Hoc and half in the pork brine with just the water, salt, and honey. I then followed the rest of the recipe including the pan searing with butter, garlic, herbs, and preserved lemons. My only modification was that there were some Seville oranges preserved with my lemons and they were chunked instead of sliced. Each pork tenderloin was divided between the two bags to try and control for any effect the meat might have had.
Going in I was with McGee. His explanation just seemed irrefutably objective. My guess, based on experience with brining many turkeys, was that the aromatics do little more than control the raw poultry smell in the garage where you’ve stashed your brining bucket overnight (below 4°C, right?).
The pork tenderloin was served as the main course in the local wine meal that we had last weekend at the cottage. Each person started with two slices from each type of pork brine. I tried to avoid conversation leading to a consensus opinion and had diners indicate their preference as soon as some started trying to guess which herbs went into one of the brines.
The first eight of us had all voted the same way, when my brother (a true carnivore) one of two late arrivals after we had voted, said he had a clear preference that ran the other way. Quickly checking we realised that his plate had been inadvertently flipped around so that the meat was at six o’clock instead of the salad.
All ten voted for the full recipe, aromatics-heavy brine. Subjectively, I could tell the difference–even with the herbs, preserved lemon, and butter going into both pans for the cooking step. The herb flavours faded quickly on the salt and honey brine but the full brined pork had a more complete, balanced flavour.
Pork tenderloin is an interesting case. Pork chops and boneless chicken breasts may be the only standard candidates for brining with higher surface to centre mass ratios. Did the flavours from the brine actually penetrate into the meat or just sit on the outside? Also, as an internal muscle, tenderloins aren’t protected by the skin like on whole birds so would results be different for a chicken or turkey?
As I say the results were directly opposite to my preconceived notions, so take those questions with a grain of (kosher) salt. I will try to test with a whole chicken and may go the extra step of cubing the meat to blind-taste differences between the centre of muscles and the parts closest to the skin. Aromatics aside, Kenji Alt’s Foodlab post on brining turkey breasts is a great specific resource for the science of brining.
Generally, this is an excellent recipe for one of my least favourite parts of the pig. The meat was well-flavoured and just blushing pink from edge to edge almost as if it had been cooked sous vide. Buying the small bunches of several herbs would otherwise be an aggravating step but if you have a flourishing herb garden give this recipe a shot.