After our household transitioned to real food, we remember well the first year we purchased a pastured turkey straight from a local farmer. We were faced with a challenge: all twenty-five-plus pounds had to fit in a large pot full of water and herbs in our fridge. Why? For brining, of course!
Why does brining meat matter? How else does one cook a tasty turkey if one cannot first flavor the meat through brining? Yet all that water and weight created a real problem for our refrigerator (and our backs!).
There are, in fact, two ways to tackle brining of meat. Most people are familiar with “wet brining,” where salt is added to water (along with other flavoring agents), and the meat is submerged for a few hours to a few days. What I want to focus on here is the lesser known skill of dry brining.
Traditional Versus Industrial Brining
Large-scale meat companies love brining or “plumping” meat,1 but for them, it isn’t so much about improving the quality of the final product as improving the quality of their quarterly profits. Injecting cheap salt water into meat means companies can charge consumers a pretty penny for artificially plumped-up protein. Low-quality salt also helps cover up the bland, tasteless muscle tissue that animals produce when they are raised in modern concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
For the home cook, true brining sits somewhere in between just tossing salt and seasonings on the surface of meat shortly before cooking, and the longer-term curing methods that used to include some or all of the “four S’s”—salt, sugar, smoke and sodium nitrate— strategies that made meat shelf-stable before widespread modern refrigeration. Among other benefits, brining can help preserve meat for a few days to a week until it is needed.2
Where brining—and notably dry brining—really shines as a technique is with pastured meats. This is important knowledge for those who obtain their meat from real farmers, because pastured meats tend to be leaner and tougher than their industrial counterparts. Pastured animals’ more natural diet combined with a more active lifestyle changes their body composition (usually resulting in less fat) and strengthens animals’ muscles.
Dry brining pastured meat thus serves two key purposes, adding flavor and tenderizing tougher cuts, giving the more muscular, leaner real meat a more tender “mouthfeel”.3 The technique works for everything from small cuts to entire animals, both small and large. As an additional benefit, it also reduces cooking time.
Dry Brining 101
A liquid brine typically describes water that contains a large amount of salt. Wet brining is the process of placing meat or vegetables into this salt water, often along with herbs and spices.
Dry brining uses salt (and optional herbs or spices) but works by using the natural moisture of the meat to move salt into the muscle tissue. The process actually begins with the dry brine pulling moisture out, only for the meat to pull it back in over time. As the meat pulls the moisture back in, it takes the salt and many other things with it, slowly working its way throughout the tissues until the process is complete (or you decide to cook the meat).
Both wet and dry brining are powered by simple chemistry—diffusion and osmosis. The concentration of salt in the brine is much higher than the concentration of salt in the meat. Over time, the concentration moves toward equilibrium. And as the salt brine moves into the meat, it will carry some of the flavor of the herbs, spices and any other ingredients with it.
In addition to flavor, salt has another beneficial impact: it changes the structure of the meat. Ordinarily, cooking causes meat tissues to contract, expelling moisture. This is why lean cuts dry out so easily and quickly; the lack of fat (which contains far more water than muscle) and the long strands of protein under heat squeeze the moisture right out. But after brining? The meat is better able to hold on to its moisture because the salt reshapes the proteins and causes the formation of a gel that helps keep the natural juices where you want them—in your meal!
Where does dry brining diverge most significantly from wet? Although it may seem like restating the obvious, with wet brining, you are not just adding salt, herbs and spices—you are adding water. This extra moisture dilutes the natural flavor and juices of the meat and sometimes results in a rubbery texture after cooking. Indeed, many early proponents of wet brining have mostly or completely abandoned the method because of these two major drawbacks—loss of texture and flavor—coupled with having to figure out how to handle all that additional water weight and refrigerator space safely.4
Many store-bought meats in the U.S.—even the organic options—are water-chilled after butchering, meaning they are immersed in cold water. (The alternative, air chilling, is superior but is more expensive.) This often results in meat with added retained water, sometimes disclosed as a percentage on meat packaging. Such meat is a perfect candidate for dry brining, as it will make good use of that extra moisture. However, meat that has been flavored or “enhanced” (meaning it is already wet brined or injection brined) is a different story; do not dry brine it!
Note that in some parts of the country, people dry brine and don’t even realize it. For example, many barbeque recipes use “dry rubs” that sit on meat for a few hours to a day before smoking or cooking. If the rub has sufficient salt, then it’s dry brining!
Dry Brining Pasture Meat How-Tos
The first step in dry brining is figuring out the amount of time your meat will need to be salted. Smaller cuts of meat, such as steaks (unless over one and a half inches thick), chicken breasts or pork chops need about twenty-four to thirty-six hours. Thicker steaks, whole chickens, whole ducks or roasts need about thirty-six to forty-eight hours. Even larger cuts or whole turkeys need a minimum of seventy-two hours to brine fully, though larger means longer is better. In our experience, there is no cut of meat nor type of animal that isn’t suitable for dry brining.
The next decision is to figure out how much salt you should use. A good rule of thumb is to start with about one-quarter to one-half teaspoon salt (and one-eighth to one-quarter teaspoon dried herbs/spices) for each pound of meat. Depending on your tastes and preferences, you can adjust the total amount and ratio from there, and also make adjustments if using fresh rather than dried herbs. Mix the salt, herbs and spices thoroughly before applying the dry brine to the meat.
Note that you can turn almost any recipe into a dry-brined recipe by making a 7:2:1 blend of salt, black pepper and garlic powder and using a tablespoon of this mixture per four to five pounds of meat, dry brining for one to two days and then preparing the meat as you normally would—but don’t add any additional salt!
While dry brining, meat should be stored below forty degrees Fahrenheit, so find a spot in your fridge or another chilly location for the duration of the meat’s preparation. Dry brining is not a substitute for good meat handling practices.
When cooking dry-brined meats, it is important to be aware that they tend to cook more quickly, anywhere from one-fourth to one-third faster. That said, dry-brined meats—and especially thick cuts—are a perfect match for slow roasting at low temperatures for long periods of time; this creates an incredibly flavorful and tender final product.
There is one final caveat. When you are first learning to dry brine, don’t start on a special occasion! Instead, get some practice with some smaller, easier cuts of meat, or try it out on a whole roast or chicken, so that you can become familiar with the technique and find blends and amounts that suit your tastes and your particular cut of meat best.
Benefits of Dry Brining Pasture Meats
- Decreases cooking time—dry-brined meat generally takes one-fourth to one-third less time.
- Changes structure of meat, making it moister and more tender.
- Is easy to do, even to large cuts or small animals, as there is no additional water weight.
- Makes meat harder to overcook, as the changes to the meat’s structure help it to “hold onto” moisture better.
- Provides deeper, more even flavor through the entire portion (instead of concentrating flavor just on the skin or surface).
- Allows you to split meal prep work up and prepare meat ahead of time for quick cooking later.
Personal Dry Brined Favorites
Dry Brined Pork Roast
We typically use Boston butts, picnics or shoulder roasts, but almost any pork roast cut will work. Roasts generally
run in the three- to five-pound range. This recipe is slightly adapted from The Joy of Cooking.
one five- to seven-pound picnic roast (or similar)
12 large garlic cloves, mashed (or roughly three tablespoons
of fermented garlic scapes/flowers, or a mixture of both)
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon black pepper
1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar or red wine
- Combine garlic, salt, oregano, pepper and vinegar or wine in a small bowl (or with mortar and pestle).
- Using a sharp knife, cut slits into the meaty end of the pork roast.
- Take the garlic, salt and spice paste and rub it all over the roast, working some into the slits. Allow to sit covered
for twenty-four to forty-eight hours in the refrigerator.
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- Place roast in a cast iron Dutch oven and cook until desired internal temperature (around 160-165°F) is achieved.
- The pan drippings can be combined with stock to make a wonderful reduction sauce.
Dry Brined Whole Chicken
If you are looking for a way to prepare a chicken that has good flavor throughout, dry brining is our favorite approach.
To speed up the process (or if you are short on time), you can make a few small cuts into the breast and work some of
the dry brine deep into the cuts.
1 whole chicken (4-5 pounds)
6 parts salt (3 tsp for this size chicken)
3 parts paprika (1.5 tsp)
1 parts garlic powder (1/2 tsp)
1 part onion powder (1/2 tsp)
- Make a rub of the salt and spices. Mix thoroughly.
- Rinse the chicken, if needed, and pat dry. Place chicken into a clean plastic (or similar) bag and thoroughly cover
the chicken with the rub, working it all over the bird. Allow to sit refrigerated for thirty-six to forty-eight hours.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Place chicken on a cooking rack in a pyrex dish or Dutch oven.
- Cook until done (about 90-150 minutes depending on your oven and the size of chicken). While cooking, you
can turn the chicken twice if desired to crisp the skin on all sides. If the outside begins to brown too quickly,
you can tent with foil or parchment paper.
Dry Brined Steak
Grass-fed steaks can benefit from an initial dry brining followed by a marinade. You can then use the marinade to make
a lovely reduction sauce.
Four to six grass-fed steaks, thawed
Salt and dried or fresh garlic
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp pepper (optional)
- Combine four parts salt to one part dried garlic, or two parts salt to one part fresh garlic (or to taste).
- Rub mixture on both sides of the steaks, using about 1/2 tsp to 1 tsp per steak, depending on thickness and size.
- Allow to sit for about 12 hours in the refrigerator, turning once about halfway through (optional).
- About two to four hours before cooking, remove the steaks from the refrigerator and make a marinade with the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, oregano, cumin, and optional pepper.
- Place steaks in a Pyrex or similar dish and pour the marinade over the steaks.
- Flip the steaks every hour, if necessary using a spoon to reapply the marinade over the meat.
- After two to four hours, remove the steaks from the marinade, allowing the excess to drip off into the dish.
- Cook the steaks to your preferred level of doneness.
- While the steaks are cooking, make the reduction sauce. Take the marinade, combine it with beef or chicken
stock in a pot, add gelatin or other thickeners if desired and gently simmer the liquid down. Drizzle the steaks with the sauce and serve.
- Pope S. The complete guide to dry brining meat. The Healthy Home Economist, n.d. https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/dry-brining-complete-guide/
- Preserving meats by salting and brining. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Jun. 20, 2011. https://www.almanac.com/preserving-meats-salting-and-brining
- Mattison LD. Here’s how to get super tender meat every time you grill. Taste of Home, Dec. 16, 2020. https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/brining-meat/
- Severson K. The rise and fall of turkey brining. The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2018.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2021🖨️ Print post