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Cures and Brines

Cures and Brines

For larger cuts of meat, in this case a ham, brine is injected using a syringe-like pump to ensure complete and even brining in a shorter amount of time. (photo CIA)

Culinary Institute of America


When a dry cure is dissolved in water, it is known as a wet cure, or a brine. As you make the brine, you may opt to use hot water, or even to bring the brine to a simmer to infuse it with spices or other aromatics. However, the brine must be thoroughly chilled before you use it to cure foods. This technique is used primarily for moisture retention but can also add some flavor to the foods that are brined.

The brine may be applied in two different ways, depending upon the size and composition of the food you are brining. For small items such as quail, chicken breasts, or ham hocks, it is usually enough to submerge the food in the brine, a process sometimes referred to as brine-soaking. These foods are placed in enough brine to completely cover the food, topped with a weight to keep them submerged as they cure, and allowed to rest in the solution for the required number of days.

Larger items, such as turkeys or hams, are injected with brine to ensure that the brine penetrates completely and evenly in a shorter period of time. An amount of brine equivalent to 10 percent of the item’s weight is injected into the meat. A turkey breast weighing 12 lb / 5.44 kg, for example, requires 1 lb 3 oz / 539 g brine. Once the brine is injected, the product is generally submerged in a brine bath throughout the curing period.

A number of tools are used to inject brine. Syringe and continuous-feed pumps are the most popular tools for small operations.

Commercial operations use a variety of high-production systems. In some, vacuum pressure is used to force brine into the meat. Another process, known as artery pumping, was first introduced by a New Zealand undertaker named Kramlich in 1973. In this method, brine is injected through the arterial system. Stitch pumps inject brine by inserting a single needle into the meat at specific points. Multiple needle pumps rapidly inject meats through a large number of evenly spaced offset needles.

Recently, the basic formula for brine has changed because the purpose of brining has evolved. In recent years, meat has begun to be bred leaner to address health concerns throughout the country. Brines are now used primarily to add moisture and flavor to meat rather than to preserve it for long periods of time. Brines are also now commonly made without TCM or other curing agents because meats are not brined for very long and they are cooked very soon after they are brined.

The omission of TCM in the brines reduces the risk of nitrosamines (see above) and makes for a more natural brine. See the basic formula for brine below. This can be adapted for a variety of meats and flavor profiles by adding spices or changing the type of sweetener. The possibilities are nearly endless. Also, the size of the meat determines how long it stays in the brine: e.g. turkey is brined for 36 hours, pork loin for 24 hours, chicken for 12 to 24 hours depending on the size, and duck breast for 12 hours.

Brine formula for moisture and flavor (makes 5 gal / 19.20 L)
-4 gal / 19.2 L water
-1 lb / 454 g salt
-1 lb / 454 g sugar
-1 gal / 3.84 L ice
-Heat 1 gal / 3.84 L water; add the salt, sugar, and flavorings. Dissolve the salt and sugar. Add 3 gal / 11.92 L cold water and 1 gal / 3.84 L ice to chill the brine.

Brining Time for Meats

Reprinted by permission from The Culinary Institute of America, “Garde Manger: The Art of Craft and the Cold Kitchen” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2008).