brining vs. defrosting in water, albeit salted

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I remember reading or hearing long ago that, obviously, you never defrost a piece of meat in water.  I remember the person writing or saying it said or wrote it with a tone of scorn, as a matter of fact, as if to say anyone who would even think of that is no cook.

And in fact, intuitively i always imagined submerging meat in water would wash away all the flavor, and probably dry it out. 

Now, however, everyone talks about brining everything, and not only whole chickens, where there are no cuts in the muscle bundles so nothing presumably will leak out.

So, i took out a couple of pork chops from the freezer, and wondered if it made sense to put them in a bowl of water and salt.  That would defrost them and brine them at the same time, right?  

Or not? 

I have to say i never really got this thing of brining, and haven't got enough refrigerator space so it's out of the question in any case, but wanted to hear what you guys have to say.

If my microwave is broken (it has a defrost setting) can i just put the meat in a bowl of water and salt? 

thanks
 
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Alton Brown did a show about the different methods of defrosting.  It was quite enlightening.  He took a bunch of ice molds of ducks (if memory serves).  Put one in a hot oven, one in hot water, one in cold water, and one under running water (and a few others, I'm sure).  The fastest method of defrosting was putting in cold water and having a fast drip from the faucet.  The additional water coming in created movement, which helped warmer water come in contact with the frozen item (warmer being relative as tap water is warmer than the water that's right up next to the item to be defrosted.  In such a scenario, you need a fair amount of water.  This wouldn't really work the same as brining because you're mostly trying to extract cold from the meat and the water would become less saline as more water is added.

Lack of fridge space is no excuse to not brine.  You can use a relatively small amount of water to brine.  Take a 1 gallon ziploc bag, toss in a chicken breast, toss in a couple of cups of water, some salt (and possibly some sugar if you desire), mix thoroughly, force out most of the air, and your chicken should be in constant contact with the brining solution.  Brine the chicken for a few hours (up to 8) and give it a taste.  You should be happy with the results.  If there's too much of a salt taste, brine for less time or use less salt next time.  After about 8 hours (per CI), the meat texture gets mushy.  A whole turkey takes much longer to brine than a chicken nugget, obviously.
 
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Defrosting and brining are two totally unrelated processes, Siduri.

Brining is done to raw proteins, in an unfrozen state. Won't go into the theories as to why brining is a good thing, because I'm in a minority who doesn't buy into it. I've tried brining and the only change is that it makes the meat, poultry, and fish taste salty.

Before talking about defrosting we need to first discuss freezing. You will never achieve the same quality when home freezing as you get from commercial products. Reason: Commercial foods are flash frozen, using liquid nitrogen. The faster something freezes the smaller the individual ice crystals. Small crystals do little damage to cell walls.

Conversely, the slower you freeze something the larger the crystals will be. Every home freezer, even those that operate at zero degrees, is comparatively slow. This means you get large crstals, which pierce cell walls. This, in turn, leads to leakage of liquid protein and other fluids.

The slower you defrost, the less damage occurs from large ice crystals. In addition, internally, liquids have a chance to redistribute themselves (as they do when you rest cooked proteins). So, in general, slow defrosting, such as letting it thaw in the fridge, is best.

Defrosting in cold water thaws the food quickly, it's true. But it also flushes away all those liquids---along with the flavors and nutrients they carry. So there is a distinct loss of quality.

Don't know this for sure, but it seems to me that defrosting in salt water would have no particular affect on the final outcome, except that salt, being a drawing medium, might hasten the loss of natural moisture.

In all due respect to Alton Brown, anyone who draws conclusions about defrosting food from the rate at which ice melts (duck shaped or not) is just kidding himself---and a lot of viewers. Not a new thing with Brown, however, which is one of the reasons why he's not one of my favorites.
 
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A big "Amen" to that, KYH, and I may also be in the minority who doesn't quite fully embrace brining of meats--other than as a pre-process to smoking.

Every time I catch staff defrosting stuff, I give them "the speech", goes some thing like this:

"What's the first thing you do before you park your butt on a toilet seat?"

Silence,

"You look to see if there's enough paper, right?.  In other words, you plan ahead.  If you can't pull a few things from the freezer before your shifts ends for the next day, or get someone to do it for you, you aren't planning ahead.  Sure you can use the nukeer, or run it under water, but will you clean up the microwave?  Will you wash out any flavour that was in the meat?"   
 
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What's the first thing you do before you park your butt on a toilet seat

According to Friend Wife, and every other married lady I know, the first thing you do is check to make sure the sumbich put the seat down.

But I digress. /img/vbsmilies/smilies/biggrin.gif
 
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What's the first thing you do before you park your butt on a toilet seat

According to Friend Wife, and every other married lady I know, the first thing you do is check to make sure the sumbich put the seat down.

But I digress. /img/vbsmilies/smilies/biggrin.gif
Well, i may be in the minority here, but i much prefer finding the toilet seat up, rather than find some idiot left it down!  Therefore the first thing I do is check that it's clean!  (fortunately not a problem at home, unless some repairman has been in, but it happens at work - where all the male colleagues are doctors!    UP,. put the seat UP!!!)
  
 
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Defrosting and brining are two totally unrelated processes, Siduri.

Brining is done to raw proteins, in an unfrozen state. Won't go into the theories as to why brining is a good thing, because I'm in a minority who doesn't buy into it. I've tried brining and the only change is that it makes the meat, poultry, and fish taste salty.

I'm SOO glad to hear someone say this about brining.  It doesn;t make much sense to me logically, soaking something in salt, wouldn't that just draw all the liquids out?  We soak swollen bruised limbs in salted water - saline solution is the physiological solution that draws liquids out, no?  I have experimented by injecting salt water into the meat (roasting a turkey, for instance) but found that putting herb butter under the skin makes it much more moist than anything.

Before talking about defrosting we need to first discuss freezing. You will never achieve the same quality when home freezing as you get from commercial products. Reason: Commercial foods are flash frozen, using liquid nitrogen. The faster something freezes the smaller the individual ice crystals. Small crystals do little damage to cell walls.

Conversely, the slower you freeze something the larger the crystals will be. Every home freezer, even those that operate at zero degrees, is comparatively slow. This means you get large crstals, which pierce cell walls. This, in turn, leads to leakage of liquid protein and other fluids.

The slower you defrost, the less damage occurs from large ice crystals. In addition, internally, liquids have a chance to redistribute themselves (as they do when you rest cooked proteins). So, in general, slow defrosting, such as letting it thaw in the fridge, is best.

unfortunately for me, i never know what i want to cook until i'm home.  It's the compensation for being the main cook - i get to eat what i feel like eating!

Defrosting in cold water thaws the food quickly, it's true. But it also flushes away all those liquids---along with the flavors and nutrients they carry. So there is a distinct loss of quality.

before having a microwave i used to put the food in a bag, pressing all the air out, and put the bag in running water.  Now i have a very slow setting for defrosting and it asks the weight and the type - poultry, steak, hamburger, etc.  Not bad. 

Don't know this for sure, but it seems to me that defrosting in salt water would have no particular affect on the final outcome, except that salt, being a drawing medium, might hasten the loss of natural moisture.

Exactly what i thought - but it;s what i imagine would happen even with brining.  salt water drawing out the liquid.  True, unfrozen food has fewer damaged cell walls, but still, if the meat's been cut, there are some openings from which precious juices would leak out, no?

In all due respect to Alton Brown, anyone who draws conclusions about defrosting food from the rate at which ice melts (duck shaped or not) is just kidding himself---and a lot of viewers. Not a new thing with Brown, however, which is one of the reasons why he's not one of my favorites.

thanks for your, as usual, very complete answer. 

As for "no excuse for not brining" - what did people do ten years ago?  was all food lousy because it was not brined?  And good for anyone who knows hours in advance what they;re going to cook tonight
 
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At the risk of "defending" the much maligned Mr. Brown,

Siduri:  While I understand why you might conclude that a brine would actually draw moisture out, the conclusion conflicts a good deal with basic science.  Osmosis forces the water from an area of higher concentration (the brine) to lower concentration (the protein), carrying the salt in with it through diffusion.  As KYH noted, his experiments with brines lead him to feel his food was "salty," meaning (at least) that this part of the science works.  What Alton--and much of the whole brine craze--means to accomplish with this technique is to gain and retain moisture during the cooking process.  To further the science, the salt and sugar help "denature" the proteins within your target, trapping the increased moisture inside.  I find this aspect a bit hit and miss, though I will say I've cooked his brined pork chop recipe and eaten his brined turkey recipe; both were, by definition, "succulent," and that is not an adjective commonly ascribed to turkey or pork chops.  Having said that, I was not so impressed that I joined in the brine craze and began brining everything under the sun.  I do, however, feel it's an acceptable technique when dealing with larger proteins that tend to dry out easily.

KYH:  All he did with his "ice duck" experiment was illustrate to home cooks the same trick anyone working in a restaurant already knows: you thaw things fastest submerged in cool, running water.  He did not say it was the "best" way to do it, and he also advised to always attempt thawing in the cooler overnight first.
 
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Minor corrections:  It's diffusion for sure.  Osmosis is still largely up in the air. 

Whatever your theory or opinion about the efficacy or desirability of brining.  It does work, as a matter of "science" (or "reality" as I prefer to call it).  Brined meats gain more weight in solution than meats soaked in otherwise identical solution without salt and/or sugar. 

You don't have to like it, but it does help keep meat from drying out during the cooking process.

Defrosting in a brine can work very well.  The frozen tissue doesn't take on more salt, but the defrosted stuff sure does.  While the actual brining process isn't as efficient, defrosting is more efficient.  I do it with fish, duck, turkey, spares and bbs which come frozen routinely.  When I butcher loins, I freeze quite a few chops to hold and occasionally defrost some of those in brine.  Sometimes I defrost first.  I don't notice a lot of difference in quality either way.

You need to watch concentration, time and temperature so as not to over-brine, which, like falling into the bowl, is the cost of carelessness. 

BDL
 
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(or "reality" as I prefer to call it)

You're a bold man, BDL, but we can't all just abandon our euphemisms.
 
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>It does work, as a matter of "science" <

I don't question the science. But the obsession with brining, even when it demonstrably doesn't do the job claimed for it, makes my teeth ache.

Here's a test. Check out Adam Lang's procedure for grilling a spatchcocked chicken. Follow it exactly. End result of having brined the bird: A chicken that is both dried out and overly salty.

What I'm saying is that brining is not the magic carpet ride so many proponents claim, and that it doesn't work (meaning a jucier, more succulent end product) more often than it does.
 
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 Disclaimer-  1) this is long winded and unnecessarily biologic... but that's how I roll

                   2)For the purposes of keeping this in my wheel house I am assuming intracellular and extracellular electrolyte concentration of chickens is not appreciably different from humans.

For those of you who think brining dries out meat by pulling fluid out of the meat, you don't understand cellular and extracellular makeup.  The Concentration of normal saline (about as salty as human tears give or take) is 154meq/l. This what is considered isotonic, meaning it exerts no oncotic pull on blood cells in the human body. I am certain that the average brine is Hyper-tonic, That is exerting a oncotic pull on cells. Sodium attracts fluid, this is true but BDL's "reality" tells us that brined meats weigh more than unbrined. Now unless that dead chicken is lifting weights or pounding sliders the only explanation is added fluid, but how. Science tells us that everything moves toward equilibrium across a semipermeable membrane IE-cell wall. The intracellular concentration of ionic sodium is about 10meq/l. Extracellular concentration of sodium is142meq/l. Shouldn't they be equal? Well yes except in the living the sodium potassium pump moves the electrolytes to were the body needs them to function properly. Fortunately for us and not for the chicken, she's dead. So there is no pump to move that sodium back out. So as the cells soak in the very hyper-tonic solution the sodium diffuses across this semipermeable membrane into the cell. From inside the cells sodium exerts an oncotic pressure which pulls water into the cell, accounting for our chickens weight gain.

Talk about retaining fluid, must be that time of the month.

You can have the subjective argument over whether or not it makes your food taste better, but it definitely does not dry the meat out.

P.S. whats wrong w/ spatchcocked chicken? Mines never dry.
 
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 whats wrong w/ spatchcocked chicken?

In general, nothing. We're talking about a specific recipe and grilling technique that results in a dried out chicken (without crisp skin, btw) despite it having been brined.
 
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Oh, so spatchcocking good, Adam Lang recipe bad... Ever meet someone who thinks they're so smart they're an idiot? That'd be me.
 
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NIce explanations everyone. 

About the sodium-potassium pump, boy-nurse,  i thought that was just nerve cells and how the "battery" of the neuron got recharged for another firing. I didn;t realize it was all cells.

I get the argument about the difference between living and dead tissue.  But (without meaning to be obtuse) why, then do we salt certain vegetables before cooking to remove some of their liquid?  And maybe you and cookinMT lost me somewhere - the animal is dead, but the cells are alive in some way, no? i mean, isn;t that why they rot?  I don;t have enough science behind me, so i leave it as a question.  But I'm still lost on the reason for soaking a swollen limb or infected wound in warm salted water, if it would absorb the water rather than extract it.  Is it because of it being in a living organism? And why would it draw out in a living organism and absorb in a dead one?

BDL, about your statement about the meat gaining weight, i'd say the word you want is not "science" or "reality" but rather "empirical."  However, since water is surely a quick way to defrost stuff, and you've tried it (empirically) i might try defrosting with saline solution.  (the problem of finding refrigerator space is removed, since the food is frozen) if my microwave breaks down again.

I ask again, is injecting with saline solution (with a hypodermic) any different from brining (except for being infinitely quicker and more practical)?  When I've done this, I've made lots of little injections all over a turkey.  Though as i say, i find stuffing (salted, herbed, garlicked) butter under the skin has the same effect in terms of experience of eating moist food, and makes the skin nice and crispy too).  The idea of filling a bathtub with ice and salt water to brine a turkey, or get a refrigerator large enough to take a washbasin along with everything else in the holiday season when i already have all my vegetables hanging in bags on the terrace to keep them cold, seems a total excess. 

No one mentioned my (brilliant, i thought)  method of defrosting in running water with the meat tightly sealed in plastic.  I do thrive on praise.  Nice job siduri, good thinkin', that sort of thing?  Or is it not a good idea? (squeezing out all the air and tying the bag with a good knot so it doesn't take in water)  Yeah, yeah, i SHOULD take out the food in the morning, but in the morning the very thought of choosing between pork chops or chicken thighs while drinking my milky coffee and toast just isn;t possible. Neither sounds good.  
 
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Well, yeah, placing it in a tightly sealed bag and running it in running water IS a good idea.

But the best defense is offense.....

While you're "in the mood" cooking dinner in the evening, you have the opportune time to anticipate next day's meal and pull out stuff from the freezer, soak legumes, etc.

I stand by my "looking for paper" rule as the primary thing to look for.  Doesn't matter if the seat's up or down, bowl flushed or not, I won't "start the job" if I don't have the opportunity to complete the paperwork. If I am assured of sufficient paper, adjustments can always be made to the seat.  But not vice versa.....
 
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Siduri- You are confusing the sodium potassium pump with depolarization. Yes nerve cells use ionic shifts of sodium and potassium for depolarization but this happens along the sodium channels, and is rapid. It is the Sodium potassium pump that maintains a relatively low intracellular concentration of sodium which allows for rapid diffusion of sodium into the cells when the sodium channels open. Muscle cells differ in that depolarization is usually triggered via calcium channels. But yes all animal cells have to regulate intracellular and extracellular concentrations of electrolytes, the sodium potassium pump is one way that happens. As to the dead chicken, the Potassium/sodium pump requires ATP and oxygen, (except in anaerobic application which can't be managed long due to lactic acid production) So it is safe to say, given enough time, dead animal cells electrolyte concentration will move to equilibrium with extracellular fluid. But the concentration of electrolytes in extracellular fluid pales in comparison to the concentration of a brining solution (that doesn't even include the sugar which further increases tonacity)

As to the swelling thing. Typically when you are soaking in a "salt bath" you are using epsom salts, which is actually magnesium sulfate, not sodium chloride. How it reduces swelling probably has less to do with the salt and more to do with warm water increasing circulation to the area and improve capillary permeability, making diffusion easier. As semi-permeable membranes go the skins is probably the least permeable. Therefore fluid loss due to oncotic/osmotic shifts through skin would be negligible to nill, unless skin integrity has been compromised or your an amphibian. Note never apply heat to a fresh injury, it will increase circulation and add fluid to a situation were capillaries are likely damaged. As far as infection goes bacteria like moist, dark, difficult to clean places. They do not like hypertonic solutions- soaking a wound helps clean it and introduce the bacteria to the hypertonic solution, while simultaneously increasing circulation to the area- increasing supply of immune cells especially phagocytes.

From the vegetable perspective, in that case you are dealing w/ plant cells, not animal cells. Fresh vegetable cells are likely still alive when you cook, eat or salt them. Think about that you vegetarians:). Additionally adding salt only would dry out anything, but that is not the same as adding a solution. There is only so much solute one can add to a solvent before it precipitates, and typically the colder the solvent, the lower the maximum concentration of solute is.
 
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Thanks tbn  - very exhaustive (even a bit exhausting for my brain - never was very good at chemistry and all that).  Anyway, even if i can;t follow the whole thing, I can rest in knowing there IS an explanation, which is always a good thing. 

Indirectly, though, you're saying I might want to consider brining.

Not to be ungrateful, but I probably won't.  It irritates me to think of some meat that i would like to be nice and crusty outside and nice and juicy inside just sitting there in water - goes against the grain, whatever scientific evidence there is in favor of it -  but i may some day defrost in a brine, why not?  Kill two birds with one stone. 

thanks all
 
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Well, yeah, placing it in a tightly sealed bag and running it in running water IS a good idea.

thanks for that, foodpump!

But the best defense is offense.....

While you're "in the mood" cooking dinner in the evening, you have the opportune time to anticipate next day's meal and pull out stuff from the freezer, soak legumes, etc.

two objections - one, what i feel like eating (and cooking) tonight may not be what i feel like eating or cooking tomorrow night. For the same reason, i don;t ever get my clothes ready for the next day since i can't know what i'll feel like wearing.

And more importantly, two, if the husband decides tomorrow it might be nice to eat out for a change, I don;t want to worry about the defrosted chicken!  

Oh, yes, and a third, if my kids are home, one or the other or both, i may not find out how many are for dinner until close to 8PM.  Very annoying to have taken out a steak for three and then the son ends up going out, or, alternatively, brings some friends home. 

If I invite people, on the other hand, i do prepare in advance.  But that's not every day. 
 
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