When someone mentions steak, several things come to memory: hot summertime barbeques, zesty seasoning and marinades, thick cuts of beef. But has the term brine ever crossed your mind? What is brining? It’s an excellent technique for preparing a nice, juicy steak. Simply put, steak brining uses a salty solution to treat and preserve food.
When making a salt brine, any type of salt will do, so you can use whatever you have at home- table salt, kosher or sea salt. We’ll dive deeper into the science behind it later.
There are several ways to do it, namely, dry and wet brining methods. Keep reading to discover the best way to brine your steak every time for your upcoming recipes on steak cooking.
Why Should You Brine a Steak Before Cooking?
Everyone likes tender steak, right? Then that is reason enough to brine your steak! Compared to using marinades and dry seasonings, brining steak using either dry or the wet methods brings out the natural flavor of any cut of steak.
While it is impossible to transform cheap flank steaks into filet mignons or ribeyes through any method, brining enhances the flavor and texture of any meat— be it seafood, pork, poultry, or beef.
Taking the additional steps to brine a steak with salt water is ridiculously simple but will significantly improve the flavor, so steak seasoning and brining are worth the effort.
Two Common Meat Brining Methods
How does brining make steak more tender? The science behind brining lies in the salt levels and how it affects the muscle fibers of the meat.
A saline or saltwater solution is what we call a hypertonic solution, which means that the concentration of salt crystals is higher than that of healthy cells. Salt loosens up protein fibers and attracts water molecules, so when a piece of meat has sea salt or kosher salt coating, some of this salt dissolves due to moisture and will permeate the meat. The result is softer meat with more delectable juices.
Many gas grills have a searing station that aims to achieve deliciously cooked, medium-rare steak by utilizing extremely high cooking temperatures. The downside of the sear method is that the intense, dry heat can leave the steak overcooked if not expertly handled.
(Remember: if you cook a steak and it’s undercooked, you can always heat it again for a few more minutes, but once you overcook a steak, it is game over! The steak’s gone bad.)
That is where brining saves the day! Get perfect steak every time. By wet or dry brining steak, the salt that gets absorbed within the meat helps to hold in more water when you cook steak, as well as unleash the savory umami flavor when you use the reverse sear method.
1. Dry Brine
Although vastly underrated, dry brining is one of the best ways to prepare a steak for cooking. The dry method is similar to the simple salting method, wherein you just need to coat the steak with any type of salt moderately.
What sets them apart is the length of time the salt stays on the meat. In the salting method, cooks simply spread regular amounts of salt on evenly just before the steak hits the pan or grill. It is quick, easy, and tasty.
With the dry brining method, salt’s coated lightly around all surfaces of the steak. Then, the steak is left to rest for an hour up to three days, the meat resting in the fridge uncovered throughout the process.
Do not rinse the meat after dry brining or else you will wash away the juice, which defeats the purpose of brining in the first place.
Once the steak is ready and dry brined, you can start cooking it how you would usually cook your steaks—pan-searing, gas or charcoal grilling, or even in the oven. The results will amaze you that you’ll want to dry brine a steak again!
Tips for dry brining a steak:
- Clear off a shelf in the fridge. This way, other food and containers in your refrigerator have less chances of contamination. It also prevents the absorption of unwanted flavors into your steak. If it is unavoidable, try placing a small box of baking soda in your fridge to absorb any offensive odors.
- Try placing the salted steaks on a wire rack over a tray or plate while it is in the fridge. These will allow the excess water to drip off without creating a pool of liquid around the steak. Which also means less work down the line.
- Try using flavored salts to infuse the steak with subtle flavors while it is in the fridge brining away.
- Pat dry after brining. Before you pan-sear or throw it on the grill, especially if you decide not to use a rack while brining, this short step helps to improve the Maillard reaction and crust formation on your steaks once it hits the fire.
2. Wet Brining
At this point, you’ve read how simple and effective dry brining is for steaks and other types of meat. But what does wet brining bring to the table? Well, for starters, wet brining is what the word “brining” classically means. It’s the process of submerging meat into a solution of salt and other seasonings.
With wet brining, you can use a salt and sugar combination mixed with water. The salt works the same way it does in the dry brining method, but the added sugar helps to complement the salty and savory flavors of the meat once it’s cooked. The process of wet brining is essentially the same as marinating.
Be sure to prepare enough brine to submerge the meat entirely. A general guide is to use a cup of salt per gallon of water, then add a few tablespoons of sugar if you desire. Avoid using too much salt and sugar because it may overpower the taste of the meat once it’s cooked. Always remember that you can always add, but you can’t take away!
The benefit of wet brining is that it works faster than dry brining since the solutes are already in a solution. And because the meat’s submerged, all sides will be equally in contact with the salt and sugar crystals.
An essential difference between the dry and wet brining methods is the length of processing. You should leave dry brining alone for a day or two in the fridge to achieve the best results. With wet brining, the minimum time is 30 minutes. And if you are working with drier types of meat like pork or chicken, you can leave it for up to a day.
If you leave the meat in a wet brine solution for too long, you will do more harm than good. Because wet brine works to tenderize the muscle fibers in meat faster, there will be a point where the brine replaces the natural juices of the flesh. You will end up with drier and blander meat once you cook it- which is something nobody wants.
Once the meat brined for a sufficient amount of time, take it out of the solution. Then, remove the excess liquid. This step is especially crucial if you plan to deep fry your poultry or pork because the excess water will splatter once it hits the hot oil, causing mess and chaos in your kitchen. Worse, you will end up with soggy birds and chops when cooking steak!
A quick pat-down with paper towels is good enough to reduce liquid on the surface of the meat. You can cook your meat however you want- frying, roasting, or grilling.
Tips for wet brining:
- Wet brining is best for cheaper cuts of beef with little fat content and white meat. These are chicken, turkey, and pork. The wet brine injects more moisture into the muscle fibers of the flesh, helping the finished product stay moist and tender after cooking.
- Consider using a dedicated container for your brining, especially if you are working with poultry. Plastic Tupperware containers, glass jars, and casserole dishes are perfectly fine.
- Do not reuse leftover brine! It will have microbe contamination and juices from the previous brining, and the amount of salt will reduce. The result is unfortunate brining and possible food poisoning—yikes!
Other Techniques for Adding Flavor without Brining your Meat
Aside from the salting method of brining, dry-aging of beef is also possible. Dry-aged meat is more expensive and you won’t easily find it in the average supermarket. The underlying process is somewhat similar to dry brining. However, dry-aging requires several weeks (up to a month) of preparation and does not rely heavily on salt.
This method still uses salt, but the more important aspect here is the use of a hot box. After butchering the meat, it is then cleaned, rinsed, and dried. Once initial preparations are done, the carcass hangs in a particular type of freezer, ironically called a “hot box.”
While in the hot box, the meat undergoes several transformations. Due to the cold temperature, moisture loss increases (think freezer burn but without as much “burn”). This drying process is called desiccation and helps to concentrate the beefy flavor of the steak.
As with all organic matter, the meat from slaughtered animals release various enzymes and undergoes decomposition. Usually, the flesh would begin to rot after several hours if left at room temperature or outdoors. But, with the cold, controlled temperatures from freezers, this process almost stops.
The result is a much slower decomposition rate while still sufficiently breaking down the tight connective tissues of meat. Note that I said decomposition ALMOST stops happening, which means that microbes such as bacteria and fungi can still grow on the meat.
You should expect this, and somehow it imparts a unique flavor to the meat. This thing is also what occurs in other food such a bleu cheese. But don’t worry! When you order a dry-aged steak at a restaurant, you won’t be eating anything rancid. They cut off parts of the meat with microbes before cooking and serving.
It is important to note that only thick, high-quality cuts can undergo the dry-aging process. Sellers often sell prime steak cuts like chuck, rib, flank, brisket, and shank as dry-aged beef. Of course, they have a considerable price tag. Because of that, many grocers do not carry dry-aged beef products, leaving the market to specialty butchers and upscale restaurants.
I spent most of my life fascinated by food, and the outdoors. I can’t think of a more fitting combo that leads to mastering the art of BBQ one day. I ended up decent enough to grill the perfect burger and choose the best equipment after years of improvement. I create this website for outdoor cooking enthusiasts, who are fueled by interest but lacking in help, feel educated when they leave because I see my past clueless self in them.