Brining meats is amazing. How much sodium does it add?

Ask the food geek! Today: Brining meat makes it wildly juicy. Here's how to figure how much salt it really adds

Topics: Food Advice, Cooking techniques, Food,

Brining meats is amazing. How much sodium does it add?

Dear Salon Food:

My doc told me to “watch my salt intake.” If I brine a chicken or a turkey or a rack of ribs, how much is the normal salt content increased?


Dear Alan,

I feel you. Brining is one of those things that’s easy to pick up and hard to put down. I mean, all you do is drop what would be dry, mild meat — chicken breasts, say, or lean pork, or, of course, turkey — in some salty water, let it hang out for a bit, and it comes out juicy and flavorful. Magic! It takes maybe two minutes of your time and a little forethought, and your dinner goes from sucky to succulent. There are few better cost-benefit deals in the world, let alone in cooking. (For an interesting overview of how it works, including revisiting old high-school chemistry terms like “diffusion” and “osmosis,” click here.)

But there is a cost, as you suggest, in terms of sodium intake (and sugar, since many brine recipes call for sweetness to balance the saltiness). So I dusted off my pencil for you to see how much salt (and therefore sodium) ends up getting into meat you brine. Yes, it’s word problem time, kids! I’m not the sharpest pencil in the bookbag, so if I can handle this math, so can you. So: A plane carrying a cup of table salt takes off heading west at 12 p.m. going 1,002 km/h…

Since Cook’s Illustrated is who turned me on to brining lo this many years ago, let’s go with its OG all-purpose brine recipe from the November/December 2001 issue:

(by weight; volumes are in parentheses):
32 ounces water (1 quart)
2.5 ounces salt (½ cup Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt; ¼ cup table salt)
3.4 ounces sugar (½ cup)

Add these up, divide, and you’ll find that salt is 6.6 percent of this solution, which is a little on the intense side of the 3 percent-6 percent salt in brines Harold McGee discusses in his classic of food science, “On Food and Cooking.” So an effective brine can be made with nearly half the salt and sugar cut from this recipe (though Cook’s doesn’t recommend it).

Properly brined meats can soak up about 10 percent of their weight in brine, which is to say that if you have 1 pound (16 ounces) of meat in our brine, it will absorb 1.6 ounces of the solution.

So, 1.6 ounces x 6.6 percent (the percentage of salt) = .11 ounces of salt, or 3.25 grams, which is how much salt you add to your pound meat by brining it according to this recipe. Depending on your perspective, of course, this might seem like a lot or not much at all. If just seasoning meat superficially, I might use a little more than half this amount of salt.

But let’s convert that salt to sodium and see where we stand. Remember that salt is not pure sodium, but rather, chemically, only 40 percent. So, accounting for that, 3.25g salt = 1300mg sodium, or just over half of the U.S. RDA of sodium, 2,400 milligrams. But that’s in a whole pound of meat, and if you’re regularly eating a whole pound of meat in a sitting, you might have bigger nutrition problems than what’s in the brine.

Cook’s Illustrated, the ever-lovable geeks that they are, went my homespun math a step further and just sent their samples off to a lab for sodium analysis. Their findings pretty much jibe with mine (pork = 1,161mg sodium per pound), but with an interesting twist. In their test, chicken absorbed significantly more brine, up to 1,673mg of sodium per pound. Which means that brining might be more effective (yum!) — and therefore more sodium-intense — for chicken than pork.

But more important, it highlights that there’s no real good way to answer Alan’s question, because there are always so many variables involved: even controlling for the brine recipe, one meat might absorb somewhat more or less than another; lean muscle might absorb differently than fatty tissue; bones might affect the way you weigh, etc., etc., etc.

Still, I hope this helps as a general guideline, or you may want to do the math for yourself according to your own cooking if you’re really diligent. But I have to say this: I’m not the brightest mathematician on the block and a worse chemist, but I am good enough of a lawyer to tell you that if you have health or diet issues, you should talk about them with your doctor or nutritionist. I mean, how can you believe anything important you read on the Internet?

If you have any food or cooking questions we can sleuth out for you, send them to food[at]salon[dot]com. 

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>