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Whenever I cook pork or chicken I always brine it. Is this something I still need to do with sous vide? I've noticed most of your recipes don't use a brine.
Very good question! And the answer is "It depends"!
Traditionally, the brine was used as a way to maintain the juiciness of food, as well as to firm up the texture and introduce flavors. This is all still true in sous vide cooking, though it isn't as apparent because the sous vide-only result is so good by itself. We will break down brining into "meat" and "fish", since they are handled differently.
The most common "meat" to brine is pork and chicken. If you are brining to introduce flavors or change the texture of the meat then a brine is still really worthwhile. The flavors will get introduced like they normally would and the meat will be slightly juicer.
If you are brining to increase juiciness, then it's a little tougher. The meat will definitely turn out juicer if you brine it first...however it will be blander. In traditional cooking you use a LOT of juice, especially compared to chicken and pork that is cooked sous vide 10°F to 20°F lower (5°C to 10°C). So a brine would help to replace all the juices you are losing.
However, in sous vide, the majority of the juices stay in the meat. This means your food will often taste more watery than it would without the brine. Sous vide meat is already super juicy and moist, so adding more moisture, especially in the form of bland water, will often just result in less flavorful meat.
The answer to this question is almost always "yes". Fish, especially when cooked to low temperatures, doesn't have a lot of bite to it. Brining it ahead of time, or salting it and letting it rest before cooking, helps firm up the flesh, giving it a better texture.
There are several ways to brine food and you should use the one you are most comfortable with. The easiest for me is a simple brine Michael Ruhlman made from 1/2 cup sugar, 1 cup salt, and 1 gallon of water. To this brine you can add spices and seasoning such as peppercorns, cloves, garlic, herbs, or any other flavorful aromatics.
Combine these ingredients over medium heat until the salt and sugar are dissolved then let them cool fully. You can also heat only half of the water initially and add the other half as ice to more quickly cool down the brine.
Once the brine has fully cooled, submerge the food in it and let it soak in the refrigerator for several hours. The length of time depends on the size and type of meat. In general:
Remember not to reuse the brine, it will be full of impurities from the food.
I hope you feel a little more comfortable about how to use a brine with sous vide!
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