Soaking whole or large cuts of chicken and turkey in a saltwater and seasoning mixture has become a very popular way to add flavor as well as enhance the moisture of the meat when roasted or grilled. This has inspired a lot of backyard chefs to start brining cuts of pork before smoking or grilling.
Obviously, the same osmosis concept is going to work with pork meat very much like how it works with chicken. However, some purists disagree claiming that the brining process alters the classic flavor and texture of many popular cuts of pork. They also note that larger, dense cuts like Boston Butt pork shoulder need an enormous amount of time in the brine to be saturated all the way through.
With so much debate about brining cuts of pork, we thought we’d take a closer look at the potential benefits of giving popular cuts of pork a good, long bath in seasoned saltwater before bringing them to the grill or smoker.
What Does Brining Meat Do?
Brining is a strategic process of soaking lean or dry cuts of meat in a salty flavorful water mixture. This taps into the power of osmosis to draw water, salt, and other flavorings into the meat. Thus, making it moister, more flavorful, and often more tender when cooked. It is especially helpful for preserving moisture in dry applications such as roasting, smoking, or grilling.
The Difference Between Wet & Dry Brining
There are different types of brining methods and different ingredients to consider putting into a brine. Though most brines can be broken down into either “Wet” or “Dry” brines.
As the name implies a wet brine uses water as the base medium for suspending the salt and other seasonings. Wet brining is the more popular of the two techniques and tends to be used for modest pieces of meat that have a firm texture such as turkey and whole chickens.
A wet brine can be used for most proteins with the exception of fish. Fish and most other forms of seafood tend to fall apart when soaked in water affecting the texture or making it nearly impossible to transport to the grill or smoker.
Dry brines are very similar to spice rubs. The difference is the amount of time you allow the meat to sit with the seasoning blend on it. A lot of spice rubs, like you would use on steak or chops, are only applied for an hour or less before grilling. Whereas a dry brine is typically applied 8 to 24 hours before bringing the meat to the grill or smoker.
Depending on the type of meat you’re making, you might need to adjust your dry brine’s salt content. Left too long the surface of the meat can become excessively salty.
Dry brine tends to be the preferred method for adding flavor to fish and seafood. The way it draws water-soluble proteins to the surface of the meat also helps barbecued cuts of pork to develop a more flavorful bark.
Of course, the main drawback of a dry brine is that it isn’t bringing any moisture to the equation. If anything, it’s drawing moisture out, which might make a long, dry brine a bad idea for a dry/lean cut like pork tenderloin.
What’s the Difference Between a Pork Brine & Marinade?
Pork marinades focus primarily on enhancing the flavor of the meat, with moisture as a secondary consideration. They also tend to have some sort of acidic component that can help tenderize the meat. Though with pork some acidic liquids like pineapple juice can give the meat a somewhat off-putting texture.
What Is the Best Brine for Pork?
The cut of pork, its size, fat content, and how you plan to grill or smoke it can influence the ratio of water, salt, and other ingredients.
Wet Brine Ingredients For Pork
- 4 cups water
- ¼ C kosher salt
- ¼ C light brown sugar
- 1 T fresh cracked black pepper
- 1 T of dried or fresh rosemary
These proportions are just right for four thick-cut pork chops or two average-sized pork tenderloins. You can then scale these proportions up for larger cuts of meat like a Boston butt pork shoulder or a pork loin roast.
It’s also important to note that the sugar will not dissolve in solution in cold water. You’ll need to simmer the water for a few minutes while stirring it in. Then allow it to chill, or add a handful of ice cubes.
This wet pork brine is a base canvas that you can then use to add other seasonings to such as:
- Crushed bay leaves
- Smoked paprika
- Minced garlic or garlic powder
- Onion powder
Dry Brine Ingredients for Pork
With a dry pork brine, dialing in the percentage of salt is absolutely critical. The general rule of thumb is that you should use ½ teaspoon of salt per pound of meat. You can then enhance the flavor by adding things like black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and smoked paprika.
You can apply the brine to every square inch of the meat, and let it sit, lightly wrapped for at least 6 hours. Though 8 hours, overnight, or even up to 24 hours will really give the salt and seasonings time to permeate the pork.
Best Cuts of Pork for Wet Brining
Wet brining tends to be more effective with lean cuts of meat that don’t have the benefit of a lot of fat or collagen. The salt, water, and sugar help infuse the meat with added moisture and flavor, while also helping to tenderize it. This includes cuts like:
- Pork loin roasts
- Pork tenderloin
- Baby back ribs
- Bone-in pork chops
- Boneless pork chops
Best Cuts of Pork for Dry Brining
Larger, fattier cuts of pork tend to take better to dry brining. The way the salt draws out the water-soluble proteins to the surface of the meat makes for a more flavorful crust or bark. Then when the meat is smoked or grilled over low heat for a long period of time, the rendered fat and gelatin then help carry the flavor of the surface seasonings deep into the meat. This includes cuts like:
- Boston butt pork shoulder
- Pork hocks
- St. Louis-stye ribs
- Pork belly
- Pork cheeks
- Stuffed pork chops