Arkansas has such a rich agrarian community bustling throughout the state. It is evidenced in the local farmers’ markets and the many independently owned eateries that fill their menus with seasonal produce. I have spent sixteen years in food service in this great state, and I have watched the food system evolve into the great community that it is today.
As sous chef at South on Main in Little Rock, for the last three years I was able to work closely with many of the farmers in the Central Arkansas area. Buying produce and meat from local farmers is a priority for South on Main (and many other restaurants in the state), not only for the greater quality of ingredients, but also for the sake of being able to build a personal relationship with our producers and to know where the food comes from. Beyond that—from an economical standpoint—buying goods locally financially supports the community directly around us. Chances are that if you are reading this, you might be aware of most of the benefits of purchasing goods from fine folks like the family farms that comprise the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative. For myself—as a chef and a father—I feel that meat raised healthily, ethically, and with a lower ecological impact seems to be a better choice for my children and the communities of the future. And, really, it just tastes better.
My goal for this blog series is not to preach to you about all the reasons to cook with local food. You probably get that. But I want to teach you some of the tricks of the trade from all my years in the food business. I think there’s a common misconception about professional cooking that the level of difficulty makes it nearly impossible to achieve the same results at home. But, really, the successes that happen behind the kitchen doors of your favorite restaurant are the result of technique, focus, and patience. I’m here to lend a hand to your technique. The focus and patience are up to you.
So, let’s start with a simple technique that can vastly improve the quality of your finished product—brining. Simply put, brining is the act of soaking meat in a salt solution prior to cooking. Doing so flavors the meat throughout and adds more moisture to the meat itself before cooking, allowing for a juicier end result. Pork and poultry take brines very well. Fish—especially trout and salmon—also take to brines very nicely. Even larger, tougher cuts of beef—such as brisket—will benefit from brining.
A ratio-based recipe is critical to a successful brine. My preference is a a 5% brine—the percentage being the amount of salt in your solution—is a 20 to 1 ratio, water to salt. So, for every 20 ounces of water, add an ounce of salt (by weight).
Brining with just a salt solution works fine, but you can also mix in your favorite aromatics. Whole fresh herbs like parsley, rosemary, bay and thyme add subtle complexity, and whole seed spices such as mustard, peppercorn, coriander, or cumin can contribute warm and earthiness. Add honey or brown sugar for a bit of sweetness, whole cloves of garlic or onion for acidity and pungency. The basic brine recipe is a blank canvas awaiting your preferred flavor profiles to be added.
The amount of time the meat spends submerged is also important. The timing of depends on the size of the cut. If meat is left in a brine for too long, it can become salty and a bit rubbery in texture.
After the brining process, don’t forget to let the meat rest for a few hours before cooking. This is where that patience comes into play. I assure you, it will be worth it in the end.
No matter what method you choose to cook your meat with, it will have a greater chance of being moist and delicious after a brine bath.
Basic Brining Rules
Use 5% salt solution, 20:1 ratio water to salt.
Add aromatics for extra flavor. Herbs and spices can be placed in whole. Heat water, salt and aromatics in a pot on the stove to dissolve the salt and allow the aromatics a chance to integrate into the brine.
Do not put warm brine on raw meat. To cool the brine rapidly, heat half of the water with your salt and aromatics and measure the other half out with ice. Pour the warm salt solution over the ice and stir. The brine should be cool before the meat is added.
Brine only for as long as needed.
Individual cuts take 2 to 4 hours.
Whole chickens or pork loins take 8-12 hours.
Whole turkeys take up to 24 hours.