10 Days of Sous Vide: To Brine or Not to Brine & Herbed Brined Chicken (Day 4)
Welcome to day 4 of the 10 Days of Sous Vide series. Last week we left off on pervasive myths about sous vide & a short rib recipe. This week we pick up again to discuss the purpose of brine and if it’s necessary for sous vide. Bon Appetit!
Whether or not to brine your protein is an easy question. Are you cooking meat that is prone to drying out easily? If we’re talking turkey, chicken breast, or brisket, the answer is a resounding yes! Then you should brine. But of course, the answer is never that simple.
Brining–the act of submerging a protein into a salt concentrate solution–will help your protein retain moisture, but how? Ask any chef and you’re likely to hear it chalked up to osmosis, that is, the tendency for a solvent to move across a semi-permeable membrane to a region of higher solute concentration in an attempt to equalize both sides. However, that explanation isn’t entirely accurate, and would likely lead to a drier protein. Instead, the primary reason your Thanksgiving turkey is retaining moisture after a brine is because the salt is denaturing the proteins. The salt is causing some of the proteins in the muscle to unwind and swell, and water is binding to these proteins.
Why you may not need to brine for sous vide
The biggest reason to ever want to stick your meat into a brine is if there is a risk of overcooking it. Overcooking is the entire reason your meat gets dry in the first place. If it were able to be cooked precisely to the correct temperature, then the moisture content wouldn’t be an issue at all. What is the one cooking method that can consistently ensure precise cooking? Sous vide, you say? Yeah! You’re catching on just fine. So, that settles it right? No brine necessary for sous vide.
No, no. Hold up right there. You’re mostly right, but there are exceptions to every rule (though our rabbi would probably like to hear a good explanation for my exceptions). You still need to brine to pickle or corn meats. We needed a brine for our deconstructed bagel and lox. And, while in theory, it isn’t necessary for other purposes, it does change the meat quite a bit. So we tried it on our chicken.
We did a lot of chicken recipes in our trial of sous vide testing, so we had a lot to compare to in order to judge effectiveness. There was a big difference in our brined chicken. In fact, the texture and flavor were so different that we couldn’t stop talking about it. We were blessed with leftovers, which we reported to one another as being almost inedible due to saltiness. However, if we were to pair it with a dairy-free avocado cream dressing, it would have balanced that saltiness out very nicely. This makes incredible chicken for salads.
Aside from the saltiness, which isn’t too surprising, the texture was markedly different. It was closer to the texture of a Costco rotisserie chicken. I wouldn’t call it juicy, but it’s not dry. The fibers separate easier. The flesh takes on an almost pink color. We agreed we liked it but also decided we thought it better for a filler than as a stand-alone meat. Accordingly, it ended up being repurposed into chicken salad sandwiches.
Herbed Brined Chicken
Is “herbed” a verb, I hear you asking. It is now. I am the lexicographer of this blog, and I say it is so. Moreover, after soaking our chicken in a brine with herbs, the chicken was certainly herbed. Infused through and through of delicious herby goodness. Cool tip: you can start the chicken in a brine and seal it for freezer storage, and it won’t be any different than had you kept the chicken fresh. That worked perfectly for me, as I had been seasoning two weeks worth of meat to freeze in advance of the last of the summer semester.
Today we discussed how a brine affects your meat and why it probably isn’t needed for your sous vide. In our next post, I’ll go over the perfect sous vide egg. Stay tuned!
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