Before refrigeration there were very few options to keep meat fresh, one of them was salt. There are two ways to apply sufficient salt to preserve meat either apply it directly to the meat the way prosciutto is cured or to make a brine which is simply salt water. This discussion of brine is for flavor and not to preserve meat which makes it somewhat simpler. In order to preserve meat you would have to be very careful about the percentage of salt in the brine to prevent bacterial growth. I am interested in flavor for this discussion and my recipe will use the brine like you would a marinade, under refrigeration.
One of the advantages a brine has over a dry cure is the speed with which it gets salt and other flavors into the meat you wish to enhance. Along with the salty flavor a good amount of moisture will come with the salt adding another advantage. Dry rubs and cures, on the other hand, usually draw moisture out of the flesh which, in the case of poultry, might be counter productive. If that is not enough of a reason to use a brine, I will give you one more; the salt and the water will carry other flavors as well. The recipe below has a great deal of flavor and will enhance all types of poultry: chicken, duck, turkey, goose or guinea hen.
Chicken, for example, will only need 2 to 6 hours in the brine to get enough flavor and not become too salty depending on the size of the bird. The immersion should be done in the refrigerator and the brine should be cold when the fowl is placed into it. I mention that because I often find it helpful to boil the brine when assembling it in order to marry the flavors quickly. A simple time saving trick I use is to boil the seasonings with only ½ of the water, assemble all of the flavor ingredients, bring to a boil and then finish the brine by adding the second ½ of the water as ice water to cool the brine quickly; otherwise I would make the brine the day before and allow it to cool naturally.
The flavor combination that I use in this brine may be unfamiliar to you since I have taken them from very old recipes, but you will find them quite pleasing (I do, I hope you will) and the ingredients, though a bit odd can be found in a good grocery store.
- ½ gallon of water (split if you are in a hurry)
- 4 oz salt (about ½ cup, a little less) No table salt, don’t ever use iodized table salt
- 4 oz sugar (about ½ cup)
- 2 nice sprigs of fresh rosemary (1 tsp dry)
- 1 tsp dry tarragon
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1 clove
- zest from ½ lemon
- 3 crushed juniper berries
- 1 bay leaf
Bring 1 quart of water and the rest of the ingredients to a boil in a pot over medium high heat. Pour the liquid into a bowl and add 1 quart of ice water (1 quart pitcher or measuring cup filled with ice and then with water). Let cool in the refrigerator. This brine can sit in the refrigerator overnight for use the next day or used immediately. Marinate the chicken for 2-6 hours before cooking. When marinating, place the chicken and the brine into a resealable plastic bag, partially seal and squeeze the air out before sealing the rest of the way. Place in the refrigerator.