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To Brine or Not to Brine? That is the Question

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Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs

Brining is becoming more and more popular, particularly with poultry. There is little debate as to whether or not to brine a chicken or a turkey.  Most people agree that it improves the flavor and juiceness of the bird.  But what about other meats? Pork or even beef?  Brining is a hotly debated topic when discussing grilling that I decided to test. I recently did side by side, blind taste tests on both but will focus on the pork here, and in this case ribs.

First a little about brining.  What is a brine?  In the simplest term it’s salt water.  But doesn’t salt dry things out?  Normally it does, but in this case it does the exact opposite.  See, the salt forces water out of the salt water solution and in a situation when that solution surrounds a piece of meat, the only place for the liquid to go is into the meat.  So it makes meat juicier.  Salt water also breaks down connective tissue and thus makes meat more tender.  If you stopped there you would be ahead of most people.  But there’s one more step to take to another level.  What if that fluid moving from the salt solution into the meat wasn’t water but something like root beer, pumpkin ale, or apple cider?  Then it also adds flavor.

To summarize, brining moisturizes, tenderizes and flavorizes meat.  It’s hard to argue with this as these are facts, but still it’s something that is hotly debated.  Many argue that there is no need to brine as the rub is all one needs to add flavor to meat. I agree that rub adds a lot of flavor. But that doesn’t preclude brining from adding flavor. Adding granulated garlic to ribs adds a lot of flavor, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t also add brown sugar or paprika or pepper or all three to add even more.

If you still don’t believe me, then keep reading about the somewhat scientific experiment I did where I had 7 guys each taste two ribs, cooked identically except for one detail, one was brined. I didn’t tell them until after they sampled which rib was brined.

Brine Ingredients:

1 quart apple cider
2 tbsp minced garlic
1/4 cup table salt
10 turns black pepper
10 turns white pepper

The basic idea here is 1 gallon of fluid per cup of salt. This is plenty for 2-3 slabs of ribs. If you plan on doing more or less than that, just remember to keep the ratio of 1 gallon of water to 1 cup of salt. Get creative with the fluid. I’ve used pomegranate, apple juice, sprite, root beer, and plain old water.

You can use whatever rub you want for this experiment as long as the rubs are identical. In this case I used my pumpkin rub. The rub is not important. Use your favorite, but make sure to use it on both ribs.

I had 7 guys coming over for this massive home tailgating session I did for the opening of the NFL season in 2011 so I cut off the last few bones off a slab to make it only 8 ribs (one for each of my guests and one for me).  You can see the small remainder of the slab on the left and me pointing to the 8 bone slab on the right:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 1

I did the same thing with another similar slab of ribs for the brined slab.

For the 8 bone slab above, I applied the rub liberally the night before to both sides, always bone side first so the rub doesn’t stick to the cutting board when I flip them over to rub the other side:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 2

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 3

The natural concave of the ribs allows the rub to be elevated over the cutting board and not stick to it.

I placed the ribs in a ziplock bag and into the refrigerator.

I combined the brine ingredients and put the 8 bone slab and a couple other half slabs into the brine:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 4

Here’s a closeup of the rubbed ribs in the bag:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 5

The next day, I removed the brined ribs from the bag and rinsed the brine off and patted them dry with a paper towel and applied the rub:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 6

I added no salt to the ribs above as the brine handled that for me. For the ribs I rubbed the night before, I gave them a liberal coating of coarse salt before going on the grill manufacturer that shall not be named:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 7

I went with the high heat method which is indirect grilling of the baby back ribs at 275-300 for two hours with pear wood.

Here are the ribs on the grill, the arrows indicating which two are part of the experiment:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 8

If you are wondering how I was able to pack two full slabs of ribs on the side of a kettle, I used a rib rack. If you grill ribs often and are sick of having to rotate them often to make sure one slab is not too close to the fire for two long or just want to cram more ribs onto your grill you need to get one. I ordered mine online. I found them on Amazon.

After two hours I pulled the ribs from the grill, let them rest for about five minutes, and sliced:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 9

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 9a

And then these guys tried one of each:

Brined vs. Unbrined Ribs 10

From left to right that’s Brian, Arthur, David and Shane. The other three were Scott, Erik, and Roy (not pictured) as well as myself. Of the blind taste testers, the brined rib got all 7 votes as well as one from me, but I knew which was which.

How is the brined rib different? It has a certain sweetness that is not in the unbrined rib. It’s got a couple more levels of flavor and is juicier.

If you still have doubts, all you have to do is try this experiment yourself on your grill at home by brining ribs and trying them against ribs that are not brined. The control group is necessary. You can’t do this without something to compare it to. You don’t need to have a bunch of people do it blind. All you need is taste them yourself and you will never go back to rub only. This is the third time I’ve done this blind brine experiment on others and have yet to have a single person prefer a rib that wasn’t brined.

If you have any questions about this grill experiment, feel free to leave them below or shoot me an email.

Also, you can follow the Grillin Fools on their Facebook page where you can post your grilling pictures, share a grilling recipe or two, or join the general grilling conversation.  You can follow them on Twitter @GrillinFool

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  • DanO

    Ok so thinking about doing this for thanksgiving as my mother asked me to prepare a couple slabs of ribs to go along with everything else since my St. Louis style smoked ribs have been amazing. I’m thinking i’m going to do one slab with my normal dry rub/ no brine. My question is, did you apply the dry rub to the ribs before you brined them? That’s what i’m getting from your post but it almost seems to me as if the brine would wash away the dry rub. So did you dry rub/ brine/ dry rub again? Also any different advice for using St. Louis style ribs for this method instead of baby backs? Thanks a lot Grillin Fools, you have made me a master of bbq this summer (according to my friends at least, i’m a little more modest and feel as if I have a lot to learn)

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      DanO,

      Put the rub on after you take them out of the brine and give them a rinse. Avoid using a rub with a lot of salt though. There is plenty of salt in the brine that it doesn’t need any salt in your rub. Also, there’s no difference in the brine process for BBR’s or St. Louis Style ribs…

      …….Scott

  • Kurt

    Is it 1quart if brine liquid per 3 slabs or 1 gallon? 1gallon seems like a lot.

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Kurt,

      No, the ratio is one gallon per cup of salt. But you probably only need a quart, so then you will use just a quarter cup of salt. If you are doing a ton of ribs and need to use a half gallon, then a half cup. Just stick to the ratio…

      …….Scott

  • Ahfi

    If one uses another concentrated solution (instead of salt water), the same process should take place for the meat to be moist. Right? I believe so since any concentrated solution will be stronger than the water in the meat. I can’t have salt but I plan to use beer, orange juice, apple juice or anything that would make it moist and taste just fine. I know that will probably be called marinade instead of brine since there will be no additional salt. I know beer has some sodium in it, though.

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Ahfi,

      Right. If you can’t have salt, then by all means, marinate. The salt adds a bit more to the flavor than the say just cider without the salt, but it’s not a huge difference. Think of it this way. If on a scale of 1-10, the rubbed only ribs got a 4. The marinated ribs got an 8, and the brined ribs got a 10. Actually the marinated ribs might’s been a 9…

      …….Scott