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Why boil a brine before using?

The Chez Panisse "Cafe Cookbook" brine recipe doesn't call for one to boil the salt/spice mixture before cooling it and submerging the meat, but many brine recipes and products do. I can't find scientific explanation for this variation in technique in McGee or any of the cookbooks that litter my house. Does anyone know why some chefs boil their brine and some don't?

Boiling and cooling the brine adds many hours to what is already a fairly long process, so if that can be omitted without loss of flavor, well, great.

My own tests lead me to believe that the flavors of the spices actually tend to cook out and disappear during boiling. In the no-boil Chez Panisse recipe the flavors of bay, clove and thyme come through loud and clear in the roasted pork/chicken.

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  1. Only a guess, but I think it's to insure that the sugar or whatever source of sweet you're using dissolves.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jasmurph

      I've always thought that since you leave the meat in it for as much as 24 hours, it was to eliminate any bacteria that you might be introducing into the flesh.

    2. I'm quite fond of a pork brine from the Dean & DeLuca cookbook that calls for boiling. The brine includes bay leaves, peppercorns, cloves, and a cinnamon stick so it's easy to see why it needs to be simmered before using.

      I don't find that it adds all that much time to the process. First of all, this brine only simmers for five minutes. After I've removed it from the heat I transfer the brine to a bowl (just so it won't be in contact with the still-hot pan) and put in a zip-lock baggie full of ice cubes. I usually have to fill the baggie a second time, but I have room-temp brine in no more than ten minutes.

      3 Replies
      1. re: JoanN

        But if the OP is talking about brine for a turkey, which means GALLONS of brine, the process is considerably longer.

        1. re: christy319

          One year, I brined my turkey using a boil-first recipe but didn't want to boil GALLONS. I just boiled the brine spices and herbs in just a small amount of water (a few cups), then added it to the pot with cold water. Came out great :)

          1. re: MeowMixx

            Yes, I do that too :).

            I infuse (not really boil) with a small amount of water, herbs, citrus rinds, peppercorns, etc., then refridge overnight--just add tap water to the "brine concentrate" when ready to actually brine...

      2. Right - the heat helps dissolve the salt and sugar and coaxes the flavor from the other additions. I usually heat 1/4 of the total amount of water to be used with all the salt sugar and flavorings, heat for 5 minutes, then add it to the rest of the plain, cold water.

        1. The Zuni pork brine has been wildly sucessful for me, and I don't see the point of boiling all the water. I *do* tend to use hot water from the kettle to dissolve the salt/sugar, but the rest is plain old NYC tap water . . . and star anise, bay, and chiles.

          "Boiled water, as is known, loses its good taste. However, as this change is brought about by the loss of air during boiling, the flavor can be restored and air again introduced if the water is shaken in a partly filled jar or bottle, or beaten vigorously for a short time with an egg beater."

          or of course if the issue is contaminated water supply . . . that's a whole different deal.

          1. This is the first year that I boiled a brine before using it and I have to say I didn't think it made the meat as flavorless as the non-boiled versions I've used in the past. Not a scientific study, by any means....

            2 Replies
            1. I've never seen a brine recipe that calls for boiling first, and I've seen lots of recipes and brined a lot of birds. So I don't see why you'd need to do this (I don't have trouble dissolving salt).

              1 Reply
              1. re: christy319

                It's more likely for the sugar, not the salt.

              2. In Mario Batali's new "Molto" book, he boils his pork brine. I picked up a prepack brine at Whole Foods that calls for boiling. I've seen other brine products that call for it, and other recipes in books old and young. Where is Christopher Kimball, that sage Yankee Wookie, to scare his minions into finding the true answer? He probably has, but was too busy helping a neighbor pull an old red tractor out of mud all weekend to tell us about it.

                1. As it was eluded to in other posts, it's because #1 you want the salt and sugar to dissolve. #2 is so you can create a "herbal tea" from the rest of the ingredients you put in. Just like making coffee or regular tea, the heat helps the flavors and essential oils come out of the herbs and spices.

                  1. in a simple salt/sugar and water solution, the reason for heating is two-fold. first, it's to ensure that all the sugar/salt dissolves (agitating it will do the same, as long as there's not too much solute). second, by heating the liquid, the chemical properties change and more of the solute can de disolved into the solvent (ie a super-saturated solution is created).

                    the practical application is that the sugar/salt can be dissolved into a smaller volume of water than the full brine calls for. then the super-saturated solution can be combined with the rest of the cold brine, thereby reducing the temp of the solution.

                    personally, i've never found it necessary to heat a solution for brining. simply stirring/shaking vigorously has always worked for me.


                    1. If your brine contains a concentration of table sugar (essentially pure sucrose), the boiling may partially hydrolyze the sucrose, a disaccharide, into glucose and fructose -- especially if there is acid present in the brine to catalyze the reaction. The same thing happens when you boil sugar water to make simple syrup, and the result is sweeter than when you started. The Joy of Cooking's recipe, from over half a century ago, for mulled wine begins with boiling for five minutes a sugar solution with orange peels, cinnamon sticks, and some citrus juice -- there's definitely the infusion of aroma compounds from the spices, but also hydrolysis.

                      I can only speculate about what the advantage of this is in a brine, though. The simpler sugars could penetrate the meat faster, and they could also contribute to browning better than sucrose -- McGee suggested as much, in an online discussion about brines.

                      1. I do not boil when I am just using just a salt and sugar combination.

                        But, when I am *infusing* herbs, whole peppercorns and citrus rind, I boil to release the flavors.

                        1. I would only boil a brine that called for salt and/or sugar, because these ingredients do not readily dissolve in cold water. If I were going to add strong spices, such as bay leaf or clove, I'd had those while the water was still hot but while cooling. More delicate spices I'd add after the brine had cooled.