Properly preparing food prior to it going into a smoker or on the grill is of the utmost importance. There are many methods, but at the core is either brining or marinating before applying heat. This not only imparts flavor, it also ensures that your food doesn’t dry out over the course of a long time in the dry heat of a smoker. Properly marinating or brining your meat before cooking is the difference between dry, tough meat, and melt-in-your-mouth, fall-apart meat.
How does it work? While scientists do not have a consensus for what the exact chemical reaction is, the gist of it is that by using one of these methods that salt gets drawn into the food and help trap water, as salt is hydrophilic.
So, what are the options?
On the wet side of things:
- Brining: This is the process of soaking your food in a solution of water and salt (I prefer to use sea salt, but really any salt will work). You will need a vessel large enough to contain your food and enough water to submerge it. Generally, I use a ratio of 1 cup of salt for every half gallon of water, but you can adjust this based on your taste. The upside to this method is that it is super easy (and relatively inexpensive). The downside is that you need to have a larger vessel for larger items, such as turkeys or pork shoulder, and you need to find room in the fridge if you intend to brine it for more than 30 minutes. Larger cuts should brine for longer, so this can be problematic. A bucket full of water and meat can also be very heavy.
- Marinating: The same process as brining, only using other flavors as well. This can be as simple as buying a bottle of marinade off the shelf, or making one of your own; either are valid options. Get your food coated in the marinade, allow to soak for at least 30 minutes (again, larger cuts of meat will take longer). This could be a good use for one of the Saint Brian’s BBQ sauces; a friend of mine soaks beef roasts in Sweet Victory prior to slow cooking them. The result: a super-flavorful dish that melts in your mouth.
In either case, make sure to rise off any excess liquid before cooking so that the food isn’t over seasoned, and in the case of a marinade to get the sugars off so that they don’t burn. Also, discard any of the liquid remaining after you take the meat out, as it is not safe for consumption.
On the dry side:
- Dry Brine: coat the entire outer surface of the meat with kosher or sea salt. And I mean cover it. Not a light sprinkling. Wrap it in plastic wrap or seal it in a resealable plastic bag, and allow it to sit overnight. This will perform the same function as a wet brine, only without the need of a bucket and water. It’s a space saver. Be sure to brush off the excess salt (or even rinse it lightly) to prevent the food from tasting too salty when you cook it. A variation on this is the Salt Roasted Chicken recipe we just posted the other week.
- Dry Rub: a staple of the barbecue community. Every pitmaster has his or her own secret blend of spices (I’m partial to Dash Cunning Rub myself) that they slather onto the meat for a few hours before cooking. My personal preference is to leave it on when I throw ribs or pork shoulder into the smoker; it forms an amazing, flavorful crust over the hours it spends smoking. Why does this work with a rub, as opposed to a dry brine? Less salt over all.