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, so we can finally answer the question to end all questions, to brine or not to brine?
What is the Purpose of Brining?
- To make meat juicier
- To tenderize meat
- To add flavor to meat
First, what is a brine? In the simplest term, it is 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? Those flavors will ride the liquid into the meat. And thus the brine 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.
To Brine or Not to Brine Ingredients:
- 1 quart apple cider
- 2 tbsp minced garlic
- 1/4 cup table salt
- 10 turns black pepper
- 10 turns white pepper
How do you properly brine?
The basic ratio here is 1 gallon of fluid per cup of salt. This is more than enough for 2-3 slabs of ribs., so for this cook, I cut both the fluid and salt in half. 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.
Is brine just salt water?
It can be just water, but it gets better the more creative you get with the brine. I’ve used pomegranate juice, apple juice, apple cider, peach cider, sprite, root beer, and plain old water. Avoid citrus as it will actually start cooking the meat. Ceviche anyone?
You can use whatever rub you want for this experiment as long as the rubs are identical. Use your favorite, but make sure to use it on both ribs.
So I brined half the slabs over night and simply dry rubbed half the ribs overnight. Then, the next day when I pulled the brined ribs from the salt solution and seasoned them exactly as I did the ones I rubbed the night before.
Here are the ribs getting the rub the night before. Always apply the rub bone side first so the rub doesn’t stick to the cutting board when I flip them over to season the other side:
The natural concave of the ribs allows the rub to be elevated over the cutting board and not stick to it. I repeated this process on half the ribs.
I combined the brine ingredients to create my brine solution and put the other half of the ribs in the brine inside a resealable plastic bag and then put them all in the fridge for the night.
How long should you brine meat for?
The next morning, I removed the brined ribs from the bag and rinsed the brine solution off and patted them dry with a paper towel and applied the rub.
One point about the salt. When I rubbed down the ribs the night before, they got salt added to the meat. The ribs that were brined did not get any salt when the rub was added because the brine added enough salt. The day of the cook all of the ribs were put on the grill manufacturer that shall not be named:
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:
After two hours I pulled the ribs from the grill, let them rest for about five minutes, and sliced:
And then these guys tried one of each:
To Brine or Not to Brine Results
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 un-brined 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 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. How do I know? The first time I brined ribs I didn’t do a control group and just thought my ribs always tasted like that and didn’t brine again for more than 2 years at which point I did a controlled experiment and realized I was wrong. Since then, I have never looked back.
You don’t need to have a bunch of people do it blind like I did. 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.
If you have any questions about this grill experiment, feel free to leave them below or shoot me an email.