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It’s All in the Brine

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.

The bare-bones salt, honey, water brine.

The bare-bones salt, honey, water brine.

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 from the bare-bones brine. White cutting board means salt-only brine.

The pork tenderloin from the bare-bones brine. White cutting board means salt-only brine.

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.

And the pork from the full recipe brine. Orange cutting board means full-flavoured brine.

And the pork from the full recipe brine. Orange cutting board means full-flavoured brine.

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.

This pork tenderloin was the main course of a local wine meal. I have submitted that post to a contest being run by the LCBO. Please consider visiting their site, reading that post, and voting.

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  1. Kevin Liu says:

    I’ve think I’ve read that much of the meat we buy in United States has been tenderized with a jaccard – a small device that punctures tiny holes into the meat to break up connective tissue.

    Do you have any idea whether the tenderloin you used might have had this process applied? Maybe that would influence how deeply the aromatics permeated.

    Great post, thanks for sharing you curiosity!

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Hi Kevin, thanks for commenting. I’m 99% sure the tenderloins were not jaccarded. They were sold from the meat section of a grocery store and my impression is that, here in Canada, if any processing has been to meat sold that way it has to be marked as such.

    That treatment could have that effect though, I’d bet. And of course injection brining is a (widely recommended) way to get brine to the centre of meat quickly.

  3. susan says:

    I notice you brined 3 tenderloins…did you triple the Ad hoc recipe or? My butcher thought the brine solution for one tenderloin would be fine to use for all 3 loins (packed closely together in a ziploc)…what do you suggest? Also, what kind of kosher salt did you use? Apparently that makes a difference.

    (Just saving myself from dinner party disaster by asking questions first :))

    Thanks in advance

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