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 juiciness 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

By the way, if you are looking for a great rib rack  so you can fit more ribs on that kettle, I’ve got you covered. Great Rib Rack for not a lot of money. Just make sure you hit it with some spray cooking oil before putting it on the grill and it will make cleanup WAY easier.

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 to 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.

And fee free to experiment with brining. I have brined with hard apple cider, with hard pear cider, with coffee, and even root beer.

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

Scott Thomas

Scott Thomas

Scott Thomas, the Original Grillin’ Fool, was sent off to college with a suitcase and a grill where he overcooked, undercooked and burned every piece of meat he could find. After thousands of failures, and quite a few successes, nearly two decades later he started a website to show step by step, picture by picture, foolproof instructions on how to make great things out of doors so that others don’t have to repeat the mistakes he’s made on the grill.
Scott Thomas

@GrillinFool

https://t.co/lVWgniik3V - #GrillPorn abounds here. All meat, all the time!
Oh my wow! There is so much perfection right there! 😲✔️👍😎 . Video shot by the insanely talented @carlaocarvalho77 …… https://t.co/uKHWyunSxp - 1 year ago

54 comments

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)

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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

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

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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

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.

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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

Brines work via a process called osmotic pressure. Salt first draws out meats natural moisture. This creates negative pressure that then draws in the brine liquid along with its soluables (is. Sugar juice beer booze etc.) Sugar works the same way to a lesser degree. For a low sodium or salt free solution make a strong marinade by simmering your herbs and spices in your chosen liquids. Start ing with fat soluble flavors saute herbs and spices in fat or oil until aromatic add acidic liquid (vinegar,juice etc.), alcoholic liquid (beer, wine, booze.), and water, sugar of choice (DO NOT USE FAKE SUGARS) and any other flavorings you want (lemon grass, onion, fruit, roast garlic, fresh peppers etc.) Return to simmer for 20-30 min. Allow to cool add remaining water in fork of ice add meat and marinate at least 12 he’s. Preferably several days. Pat dry, rub and grill/smoke.

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Do you leave the meat brined over night?

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I brine overnight, Erica. But usually not longer than about 12 hours…

…….Scott

My ribs usually take 6-8 hours using low heat and smoke. Will they cook faster with brining?

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Mark,

I don’t think brining impacts the cook time. At least I haven’t experienced that…

…….Scott

Hey “FOOL” what time is dinner? I’m with you,I brine everything,including the veggys for giardinera.Thanks Buddy!!!!!!

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A couple of quick notes, from a Mexican chef. Even 2-3 hours of brining will work wonders on spare and short ribs. I can’t find cider in Mexico, but they do have cider vinegar, which I use instead. For beef (arrachera, similar to flank steak), Mexicans typically use beer, orange juice, salt, pepper, and oregano. It sound just a bit awful, but trust me, it’s yummy. But when you have a vinegar/water/salt/garlic brine, I wanted to note that you can make a great salad for the next day by reserving part of the brine and drizzling it over thinly sliced cukes and red onions. Hillbilly Heaven, Dawg!

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I should clarify that I mean the original clean brine, not the used brine, for the cukes and onions — and also to let them sit overnight in it. Sorry if that was unclear.

A.C.,

Do I not have in there that you can brine for 2-12 hours? I need to amend that. Yeah, I brine for as little as an hour. I just did ribs in a black cherry hard cider for an hour on Thursday and they were magnificent! Thanks for the tips!

…….Scott

Actually I have a question. After I rinsed the brine off (salt water ) I just the country ribs 6peices in oven bake with BRQ. Sauce smothered. How long. Temp. They are about 2 1/2 ” thick.

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Judy,

You only have to take them up to about 145-150. I would smoke them at 300 for about an hour 15 to an hour and half, but most of all, I would watch the internal temp more than the clock. An instant read thermometer is ideal for this…

…….Scott

New guy here. You have an excellent website btw. What about brining other cuts like brisket or shoulder? Would you brine anything you smoke?

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Aaron,

I’ve brined a lot of stuff, including steaks. Of the 8 guys that did a blind taste test between the steaks, 6 liked the brined steaks (brined in soy). The other 2, myself being one of them, like my steak more traditional. Still, just about anything I brine comes out better than meat that isn’t. Just don’t go too long or it will get hammy….

…….Scott

Scott, I tried your brinimg method, also did a bit of modif by adding some sugar,then instead of grilling the ribs directly, I pre.cooked them in pressure cooker,using the brine as the liquid…then onto the grill…result?.may not be as original but awesome! The brine makes all the difference. It can even be used as bases for stock ans soup,thanks

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Jimmy, glad they came out well. And you’re right, brining makes a ton of difference…

…….Scott

Scott,
Tried your brine method w/ a brine that has 1 cup of salt, 1 cup of brown sugar per gallon of water and some assorted spices. Brined pork loin back ribs for 12-14 hours, put some rub on them and cooked them for 4 1/2 hrs. at 225. Flavor was good but was way to0 a salty. Would like to try this again, but should I cut the salt in half in the brine, or just brine them for a shorter time, say 6 hrs.

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JW,

Did you rinse the ribs off before putting on the rub? Also, was salt the first ingredient with the rub. When I brine, I avoid adding any more salt at all, so no rubs where salt is one of the first 3-4 ingredients….

…….Scott

I pretty sure I should have come here first. New to this. I just did a brine of kosher salt and water per ratio. In the frig, but for 48 hrs.! turning about every 12hrs. Should I just toss them? If not, I’m kind of at a loss now. I had planned on just throwing them on the grill a couple hours.

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Go ahead and grill them and see what happens.

How did your ribs turn out?

Kosher salt has only half the salt per cup compared to table salt so I’ll bet that help save the day.

I was told by a Cajun chef that the salt molecules imparted from brining draws the smoke into the meat while grilling through the chemical process of ionization, bringing that flavor deep into the meat rather than just at the surface.

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Susan,

Thanks for that info. I really appreciate!

…….Scott

Apple cider or apple cider vinegar can you put water in it

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Donald,

Apple Cider. Not apple cider vinegar. And you can put water in if you need more liquid…

…….Scott

I love all these posts with great step by step photos, that makes a real difference when you can see it too… Question; Have you ever put frozen STL ribs in a brine bag, then let them thaw in the refrigerator over night before smoking them the next day?

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Brian,

I have not tried that. Let me know if you do. I’d like to know how things come out…

……Scott

l did frozen pork chops with a brine the other day…..WOW, l didn’t think they would “draw” in the brine but they did. l took the chops out around 11 at night, threw them into my brine in a plastic bag, thus eliminating a lot of wasted brine, l “broke” them apart in the morning, (they were refrigerated). all night.l BBQued them around 6 the same day, and man were they good. l try to use as little brine as possible by using plastic freezer bags, cuts down huge on brine, and there is still enough brine that surrounds the chops. l also add a generous dollop of Keg spices and grind the whole shabang with my small electric grinder that l use almost daily. That adds HUGE flavour, then before l BBQ them, l pat them good and dry and throw them on the grill. l also baste them with olive oil and garlic powder every time l turn them….my mouth is watering now, and l’m getting hungry looking at all the delicious recipes…….l guess l’m just going to have a piece of my keg seasoned tenderloin strips that l smoked today……nice blog Scott, great info, keep it up buddy
George in Niagara Falls Ont.

Just stumbled on this site. I think I’m going to love it! Making ribs for the super bowl and wondered if you can brine ribs. Thank you for all of the advise and tips!

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My apologies for the late response, I too was in “big game” mode last weekend. Sure you can brine ribs, any variety of ribs. Ironically I brined 2 slabs of babybacks and 1 rack of spares for my game gathering. I simply used water and salt with the ratio of 1/4 cup salt to a quart of water. Mostly I use apple juice or apple cider instead of water but both get the job done. You may want to add other seasoning or aromatics to your taste.

First time on this site. Really love it! Great comments and posts as well. I’m new at smoking, but it’s a great hobby. An friend of mine gave up her entire Saturday to come show me how to use the smoker I bought. She did a fantastic job of teaching me the basics. Now I am ready to move forward, and I am really enjoying the information regarding brining posted here. Thanks for the tips!

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I have a couple of questions for you Scott…
1. what is the max time for brining ribs or any other meat?
2. Can you cut down on the salt in the brine if you are using a store bought rub that has salt in it?

Love your web site!!! GREAT info & tips!!!

Thank you very much,

Tracy

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The max I brine is 12 hours, Tracy. Any longer and you risk making ham. I wouldn’t waste the rub like that. Only the sweets and the salts penetrate the meat. Better off with apple juice and salt.

Hi Scott! Love your ideas! Question.. can I brine in seasoned salt? I realize not to have salt in my rub. Speaking of rubs do you have a good one for country pork ribs cooked slow in the oven . Please and Thank You.

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You can use seasoned salt, Kim, but getting the ratio right will be harder with the extra ingredients. Rubs? I like Code 3 Spices, Cimarron Docs, Caribeque, and Dizzy Pig. All are excellent. Experiment with ones you like…

…….Scott

I bribe chickens, I brine turkeys and now I am going into pork ribs!

Great article!

I will report back next week!

Thanks again!

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I’ve got this brine technique bookmarked. Thanks for the info! I’ve had success with letting frozen half slabs defrost in brine in Ziplocks. Also, the brining works fine for “cheat ribs” where you bake the ribs on low for a 2-3 hours and then finish on the grill. When using that method, I use a high ratio of wood so that the ribs have a chance to pick up the smoke flavor in that shorter grilling time.

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I’m having a large family gathering where I intend to cook up 6 full slabs of ribs and I am planning on a slow cook basting method in a roasting pan in the oven using apple juice under the roaster rack. Due to the lack of refrigerator space, I am thinking of using my 5 gallon bucket that I brine my turkeys in. Since I will be using ice in the bucket and placing it in the garage over night, should I cut down on the liquid for the brine? (Using this method on a turkey, there is still some ice in the bucket the next day, but I couldn’t begin to guess how much has melted and added to the brine)

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And yes, it goes to the grill for about the last half hour.

Eric,

You could cut it down some. It’s not an exact science. You will be fine…

…….Scott

Hey Scott!

Just a big Kudos to you and thank you for writing this blog and keeping up with the posts. You started in 2011 and here we are in 2018 and I’m still using your brineing methods. I’ve made many racks of ribs over the years and everyone has always raved about them. Thanks again and keep up the good work!!!!

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Great article Scott! I’ve shared this with many of my friends. Brining ribs is definitely the way to go. I prefer apple juice and I’ve heard not to use citrus juice. I want to try making ribs with Hawaiian flavors. So my question to you is if pineapple juice can be used to make the brine?

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Larry,

Pineapple juice will start to cook the meat because of the acids. You might be able to pull it off if you mix the pineapple juice with some other liquid, but even then, I would only brine for a few hours, not overnight…

…….Scott

Wow Scott, What a great site. I bookmarked it. I appreciate that you answer most every comment. Many blog owners do not.

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Did you brine in zip locks also? And what us the minimum amount of time you can brine in?

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Vicky,

Yes, I brine in Ziplocks. You can brine in as little as 2 hours. If you are brining short term like that, try to add a little more salt.

Hi Scott,
It is cold here today so I was wondering if I could cook these in my oven? I read through the article (excellent by the way) so apologize if I missed this but all I remember seeing is bbq’ing them… But I am avoiding outside today haha! I read through the comments and just wanted clarification on cooking temp and times as I don’t want to ruin my brined baby back ribs in an oven. Would 275 degrees for 2 hours then broil on bbq sauce for a few minutes work? Thank you so much for all the work you have put into this!

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Roxanne,

Absolutely it would work in the oven!

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