In our previous post I used a soup mix from Mad Dash Mixes to cook a rooster we processed that was a little less than tender. I used a little vinegar in the cooking water to tenderize the meat as it was cooking and it worked well. But going forward, when I process my birds I want to do everything possible to make them good cuts of meat. So, I sat down with Google and did some research and found a poultry brine is what I needed to do before putting them in the freezer.
Keep it Tender
I have since learned from others and research, to prevent the meat from toughening up and to keep it tender, the processed birds should sit in the refrigerator in water for a few days. This allows the rigor mortis to come and then go before the bird is frozen. Considering that is what we used to do to the wild water fowl harvested by my hunting ex-husband, I should have known better. When the legs move freely the rigor mortis has passed.. this takes anywhere from 24 to 48 hours.
To improve the quality of the meat it is a good idea to brine the bird. This can be done while the bird is going though rigor mortis. To brine the bird add salt to water and allow the bird to soak. When the rigor has passed, remove the bird from the salted water and pat dry. Then, let it dry further on a rack in your refrigerator before using or packaging to be frozen.
I did some research on brining and it seems it is actually a good idea to use on many store bought meats. Pork chops, shrimp, turkey and chicken all benefit from brining. Brine adds flavor and keeps meat tender and juicy. If you want to add additional flavor you can add sugar, herbs, spices, onion and garlic to add flavor. You can also substitute other liquids, like apple cider or pork brine, to replace some of the water.
How a Brine Works
Anytime any muscle fiber is cooked, moisture is lost. Heat causes individual proteins in the fibers to unwind then join together with one another, resulting in shrinkage and loss or moisture. Normally, about 30 percent of the weight of the meat is lost during cooking. However, if you soak the meat in a brine solution first, you can reduce the moisture loss to as little as 15 percent.
There are several ways brining enhances juiciness. Muscle fibers will absorb the brine liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid gets lost during cooking, but since it has more moisture in the meat, more is left at the end of cooking. Brined meats tend to weigh six to eight percent more than they did before brining.
Another way that brining increases juiciness is by dissolving some of the proteins. A mild salt solution can actually dissolve some of the proteins in muscle fibers, turning them from solid to liquid.
The dissolved salt in the brine also causes some of the proteins in the muscle fibers to unwind and swell. As they unwind, the bonds that had been holding the protein unit together as a bundle break. Brined water binds directly to these proteins and also gets trapped between these proteins when the meat is cooked, and the proteins bind together. This process normally happens in the cooking process, but the brine unwinds more proteins and exposes more sites to binding. As long as the meat is not over cooked.. these natural juices will be retained.
Create Your Own Brine
If you decide to create your own brine recipe there are a few things to keep in mind. A good brine should have all the flavors mixed. To accomplish this the brine needs to be brought to a boil. Many brines use sugar and it needs heat to dissolve. Make your brine in a large pot that will hold the chicken or what ever other meat you want to brine. After it has been heated and mixed you will then need to let it cool completely. Adding poultry to lukewarm liquid raises the temperature of the meat to a point that it invites bacterial activity. Once completely cool, submerge the bird or meat and store the entire pot in the refrigerator.
Many brines include sugar, which is fine as a flavor enhancer. However, sugar has no technical function when it comes to juiciness; salt is the key ingredient. It is important to have a brine with the correct salt concentration, especially if you are brining for any length of time. Smaller and thinner pieces of meat, like fish and shrimp, can withstand a concentrated brine because the immersion times are usually only half an hour or less. For longer brines, a scant cup of table salt per gallon should get you where you want to be.
If you want to use Kosher salt you will need more of it by volume because it has larger crystals and is bulkier than table salt. It does dissolve in the brine much faster and can be bought in bulk. Use 2 cups of Kosher Salt per gallon of liquid to get proper brine concentration. If you use Morton’s Kosher Salt it is denser and you only need 1 and 1/3 to 1 and 1/2 cup to get the same concentration.
For brining you need a food-safe nonreactive container. A turkey can be brined in a cooking bag that will completely enclose the turkey. It would be a good idea for several chickens as well. Put the turkey or chickens in the bag and set in a large bowl before adding brine. The bowl can then be placed in the refrigerator. For a large bird or multiple chickens I have seen people use a cooler. Care would need to be taken to keep the bird properly cool during the brining process. After the birds are removed all brine should be discarded and never reused for safety reasons.
You can leave your chicken or turkey in the wet brine for up to two days (a larger turkey can handle more without becoming overly salty), but the liquid will need at least 12 hours to work its magic.
Not ready to create your own brine and want to try one already created? I found this Turkey Brine Recipe that looks really good. Since the quantity of the brine is for a turkey, I feel I can use this recipe for a few chickens. For just a single bird or a smaller cut of meat it would probably need scaled down in size. From now on, when I process my own chickens, I will take the time to brine and allow the rigor mortis to pass so I can get more enjoyment from the chickens I have raised. If I am going to take a life, I want to make sure that I have a purpose and use for the meat so the life had meaning.
FOR A TURKEY UP TO 16 POUNDS SERVINGS
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 carrot, peeled, diced
- 1 large onion, peeled, diced
- 1/4 cup diced celery
- 2 large sprigs thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
Bring salt, sugar, and 4 cups water to a boil in a very large (16-qt.) pot, stirring until salt and sugar are dissolved.
Turn off heat. Add remaining ingredients to brine base. Refrigerate, uncovered, until cold.
Add 6 quarts cold water to pot. Add turkey. Place a plate on top of turkey to keep submerged. Cover; chill for up to 72 hours. (The turkey will be moister and more flavorful if allowed to brine the full 72 hours.)
Recipe by Sam Sifton .. Photograph by Zach DeSart