Saturday, July 29, 2006

Salt, Water and Phosphates

Welcome to my 100th post! To celebrate, I'm going to defend McDonalds for once. Okay, not exactly. But I couldn't help but notice Arby's current advertising campaign. It features a guy in a room with what looks like a bunch of executives, with the golden arches logo on the wall. The guy is trying to convince the execs that McDonalds needs to stop putting salt, water and phosphates into their chicken and start serving all-natural chicken.

Well, I'm all for all-natural. And I'm not saying I'm a big fan of phosphates. But the salt and water, I'm not exactly complaining about. See, there's this beautiful thing that was all the rage in the culinary world a couple of years ago called "brining". The biggest proponent was and still is Alton Brown, who uses it all the time. What is brining? Well, a brine refers to salt water. Technically, those are the only two ingredients necessary. But there's a lot more to it than that.

If you salt meat and let it sit for a while, what happens? Depending on how much salt and time you have, the salt will eventually start to pull moisture out of the meat. But that's not the whole story. In order for salt to pull out that moisture, it actually has to penetrate the meat. And it doesn't all come out when it's done. In contrast, if you were to stick a hunk of meat in some water, some of the water would likely get into the meat, but not a whole lot of it. It might get waterlogged, but there wouldn't be anything there to keep the water in.

Now, if you mix salt with water and then dunk some meat in it, something interesting happens. The salt gets into the meat like before, but it takes some of the water with it, and doesn't let go of it very easily. You see, now there's more moisture on the outside than the inside. There's also more salt on the outside than the inside, mostly because there's basically no salt on the inside. Now, all the poor meat wants to do is achieve equilibrium. It wants to be the same inside and out. So it lets salt in, along with as much liquid as the salt can take with it. If you leave the meat in there long enough, it would probably take in as high of a concentration as the water around it.

The advantage of this is that when the meat cooks, the salt will still want to hang onto that water. I have actually had pork cooked almost to the texture of shoe leather (not quite, but you know what I mean), that was still moist because it had been properly brined, if not properly cooked. Another really cool byproduct is that since the meat now has a decent amount of salt, and salt is known for its preservative powers, the meat has just a little bit better shelf life. If one were to add phosphates, also known for preservative powers, then you would have a hunk of meat that was moist, even when overcooked, and had a killer shelf life. No wonder McDonalds adds salt, water and phosphates! I doubt they brine their meat, though. With the 30% salt, water and phosphates the commercial claims, they probably inject it. But that's for another post.

Back to brining. Let's say you take that brining solution and make some changes. First of all, no phosphates. If they add any flavor, then I'm sure it's not the best. And instead of using water, let's use a more flavorful liquid. Let's say vegetable broth. Now a humble hunk of chicken is moist, well seasoned, and has just a little extra flavor, as if it had been roasted on a bed of vegetables. If you want more flavor, use a more highly concentrated flavorful liquid. If you want more salt, leave your meat in the brine longer.

I'm not saying that I'm going to head down to the clown shop and pick up a McChicken sandwich. But I'm also definitely not heading to Arbys for one anytime soon either. I'm going to buy my own chicken, brine it myself, cook it myself, and enjoy it myself or with friends. But I will have a little more salt and water than Arbys "100% natural chicken". And it'll taste 100 times better too.

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