Math is Hard. But a Great Piece of Pork is Worth it.
There are plenty of good reasons to submerge a piece of pork in a salt and water solution prior to cooking. As meat absorbs a brine, and it diffuses through the meat equally—achieving equilibrium—that pork will taste better, just as if you’d seasoned it conventionally. It’ll also get moister and it’ll tenderize. Brining also has a preservative effect so it will keep longer. And it’ll be a more forgiving piece of meat.
It’ll also get bigger.
“Typically you can expect a piece of meat that goes into a brine to come out weighing 10 to 20 percent more,” says Bill Briwa, professor of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America. “I like to think of that as money-making machine.”
Briwa is a brining evangelist, and has developed a reputation for his mad-scientist-meets-chef-meets-preacher brining speeches, but he warns there are pitfalls to the method. If you aren’t careful, a brine can make everything taste like ham. Overbrining can make pork too salty. And nitrites and nitrates sometimes used in brining can impart a pink coloration that might make your guests freak out, thinking you’ve served them raw meat.
Years ago Briwa was asked to teach math at the CIA. And while it’s not his favorite thing to do, he follows a mathematical process adapted from Paul Bertolli’s classic Cooking by Hand, that when practiced a handful of times becomes a simple, reflexive way to achieve consistent, predictable results. Get a handle on a few simple formulas, and you’ll be on your way.
Here’s how to do it:
How much salt and sugar do you want in your brine? Figure on 3 to 5 percent salt to ensure safety and proper seasoning, and 2 percent sugar to balance out the flavor of the salt. First, you have to figure out how much water you have, keeping in mind that meat itself contains 60 to 70 percent water. Weigh your meat, and then determine how much water (that’s cold water - during this process keep everything under 35 degrees Fahrenheit) you’ll need to cover it.
Use these equivalences to measure your water weight
1 gallon water = 8.33 pounds
Water weight in meat = pounds x 65 percent average water weight (.65)
Let’s say you have an 8.5 pound pork loin you want to brine. It’ll take 3 gallons of water to cover it at 8.33 pounds each for just about 25 pounds of water.
3 gallons x 8.33 pounds = 25 lbs. (rounded)
Now figure out the water weight of the loin:
8.5 pounds pork x .65 avg. water weight = 5.525 pounds water
Now combine the total water weight for the whole system:
Brining water + meat water = 25 + 5.525 = 30.525 pounds water
Now determine your brine strength by calculating your salt and sugar, figuring you want 3 percent salt and 2 percent sugar in the system:
3 percent salt (.03) x 30.525 total water= .91575 pounds salt (about a pound of salt)
2 percent sugar (.02) x 30.525 total water= .6105 pounds sugar
Smoke it with nitrites
“One benefit of brining is that it’s typically a precursor to smoking,” says Briwa. “You brine with the addition of nitrites. A smoker is an environment that is perfect for the development of botulism. Food, warmth, and lack of oxygen: that’s a smoker. Nitrites are there to prevent botulism.”
For that you use tinted curing mix, or TCM, a salt and nitrite mix which is used to inhibit bacterial growth, died pink so you don’t confuse it with salt. The government dictates that a volume of 200 parts nitrites per million be added to cured meat systems (meaning the brine and the meat). Because the actual amount of nitrites in TCM is so small (about 6.25 percent) relative to salt (about 93 percent), it makes things easier to convert the weight of all variables to metric grams.
Calculate the total weight of the brine = brine water + raw weight of the meat + salt + sugar. It’s about 35 pounds and change:
25 lbs. brine water + 8.5 lbs. meat + .91575 lbs. salt + .6105 lbs. sugar = 35 lbs (rounded)
Add the nitrites
How much TCM should you now add to the brine? Take the total weight and multiply by the government-mandated 200 parts per million:
35 lbs. X 200 ppm divided by a million= .007 pounds pure nitrites
Take that .007 pounds nitrites and divide by the 6.25 % of pure nitrites in the TCM. That leaves .112 pounds of TCM. About a tenth of a pound of TCM, or roughly 1.6 ounces.
.007 pounds TCM/.00625 pure nitrites= .112 lbs. TCM
Now convert everything to grams. Since there are 16 ounces in a pound and 28 grams in an ounce:
.112 lbs. TCM X 16 ounces, X 28 grams = 50.176 g TCM (a bit shy of two ounces)
.91575 lbs. salt = .91575 X 16 ounces X 28 grams = salt
.6105 lbs. = .6105 X 16 ounces X 28 grams = 273.504 grams sugar
Back it Out
But don’t stop there. Because that TCM is 93 percent salt, that’s going to be too much to add to the already fixed amount in the brine. Deduct the amount of salt in the TCM from the total amount in your brine.
50.176 g TCM X 6.25 % .0625 nitrites = 3.136 grams pure nitrites
50.176 g TCM - 3.136 pure nitrites = 47.04 grams salt
Now subtract the amount of salt in your TCM from your total salt:
411.04 grams - 47.04 TCM salt = 364 grams salt total
Put it all together:
3 gallons of water
364 grams salt
273 grams sugar
50 grams TCM
8.5 pounds pork loin
“Over time, with the process of osmosis, nature abhors imbalance,” says Briwa. “If you have a higher concentration of salt outside a piece of meat, and a lower concentration inside, all the salt on the outside will say “Hey, it’s not so crowded over there. Let’s go.’ Ultimately you get the same concentration of salt inside and outside. It penetrates about an inch a day.
“This is just taking a piece of meat and making it taste like a well seasoned piece of meat. This does not address all the tricks that chefs have. You could make this taste like a Mexican piece of brined pork, Mediterranean, southeast Asia, or anything by introducing herbs, spices, and so on and so forth. But this is where it begins. This is foolproof.”