To Brine or Not to Brine, the polyscience question

Christoph at polyscience posed the question to us in response to comments on our recent New Years Eve post that was attached to the polyscience facebook page. The results were surprising after a few tests. Stephen Weiner ask a question of whether or not anyone had any knowledge regarding brining prior to sous vide cooking. I'm not the world's foremost expert on the subject but the question was pushed in my direction by Christoph so here we go. Before we start, everyone does everything differently. These results are not the end all be all but they are precise and through our sous vide technique using the polyscience thermal bath(insert gratuitous promotional plug here) this is what we found.

We used confit chicken thighs as the example. We took several approaches, one being plain chicken thighs bagged with duck fat. One cured in kosher salt for 30min then rinsed, patted dry and bagged with duck fat. The last one was brined for 2 hours, then patted dry and bagged with duck fat as well. The thighs were cooked at 80C for 2 hours, left to cool at room temp for 1 hour, and weighed at all stages of the experiment. Here are our interesting results

plain thigh, overall 24.73% weight loss after cooking
cured thigh, 4.56% weight loss after cured and an overall 41.66% total weight loss after cooking
brined thigh, 5.01% weight loss after brined and an overall 38.5% total weight loss after cooking

In terms of the finished product's taste and texture the plain sous vide thigh was pretty boring in terms of taste. I am a firm believer of season as you go. The texture was good though, still moist, and shredded easily like a traditional confit.

The cured thigh was a disappointment. It didn't carry the salt for some reason as a traditional confit in the oven does. The texture was drier than the plain and more dense. This had the highest weight loss of after the cooking process was complete.

Now this is where it gets interesting. The brined thigh had the highest initial weight loss after brining but a lower percentage of weight loss than the cured thigh after it was cooked. One of the comments left stated that brining prior to sous vide does not improve the flavor and this is where I disagree. You can add so many different flavor components to the brine and they DO carry throughout the cooking process. I used my go to, all purpose brine which consists of molasses, honey, sugar, kosher salt, soy sauce, water, and orange slices. This is great for chicken and pork, the background flavors really come through in the finished product. This brined thigh had the best flavor, the texture was a little bit more dense than the plain but still super moist. You can really see the difference in the appearance.

All the samples were patted dry with c-folds after cooking, then weighed completely intact and shredded. There are variables here, would the results differ if we used a straight up 10% saltwater brine? Probably, but the flavor wouldn't be as good.

We used this same technique with our berkshire pork belly. We brine it for 24 hours in a Tucher Helles Hefeweizen beer brine, smoke it for 4 hours, then sous vide for 10 hours. You can still smell and taste the "yeasty" flavor of the wheat beer that has permeated the pork. Even with the addition of the smoke it still comes through. It's the basis of what we do, layering flavors, complexity in something very simple.

So in terms of brine or not to brine, I say brine. You can manipulate the flavor in so many ways with a good brine to really compliment the rest of your dish. That is if your thinking that far ahead, and you should be.


  1. Thanks for this detailed post on our question! It's amazing how you can see the difference on the pictures you presented. I'll definitely try the Berkshire pork belly. That sounds very delicious.

  2. If your are attempting the pork belly, we make our brine with Tucher Helles Hefeweizen, honey, kosher salt and infuse with caraway. Smoke @ 180F for 4 hours, cool completely and sous vide at 82C for 10 hours.

  3. Thanks for this info, Chef. Coincidentally, I've been testing chicken confit for a menu now. In my case, I was curing thighs, then rolling them up in their skin with plastic wrap, then vacuum-sealing the logs and cooking 80C for 2.5 hours. Then I chill, take them out of the plastic, skewer with a toothpick, lightly deep fry to render the skin, then chill and hold for service. At service, the roulades (with toothpick still in them) are breaded with usual buttermilk batter and deep fried until crispy and warmed through.

    After reading this post, I tested brining instead of the normal dredge. I did find that the chicken was more succulent, and the brine delivered the cure flavors much better than a dry cure. On the other hand, it's much less like the normal duck confit, if that's what you're going for. But my main concern is that the dry cured chicken had a more intense chicken flavor than the brined. It makes sense that part of what makes traditional confit (with a dry cure) so delicious is the moisture loss itself--it intensifies the flavors in the product that's left. Do you have any thoughts on this? Did you notice this effect in your test?

    Weighing the textural differences against the flavor differences, it turns out that brining is still better for my application. The end product is juicier and more succulent while still having some of the flavor benefits of the confit cure. Thanks again.

  4. On top of these results we did confit a chicken thigh with the traditional method, cure, duck fat, and 180F oven for 2 hours. The % of moisture loss after curing was consistent with our sous vide product, and a surprising result was less % of total weight loss after cooking traditionally in the oven than the cured sous vide thigh.
    The brined and sous vide thigh had the closest comparable flavor and texture out of our 3 sous vide test thighs when they were put against the traditional confit. I agree that the moisture loss, a direct result from the cure, intensified the flavor in our traditional confit but not as much in the cured and sous vide thigh. There are other factors to think about as well. What is the application of the finished product? Depending on the application of the finished product, a traditional confit could be a better way to go if you want super crispy skin, great flavor, and your not overly concerned with the shape, but if you are trying to mold the thigh like you are doing during the cooking process then sous vide is the best option. I don't discount the cure method, I would just stick to a traditional cooking method with it.If I were shredding or shaping the product then I would prefer the brine method. That's just my opinion.

  5. Whats up Chris, I was reading something about brining meats before you cook them a couple weeks ago, since then i started brining all of my meats in a 8% brine, for 1 hr per pound, then rinsing them with fresh water then letting them air dry in the walk in uncovered. Depending on what meat I am preping out i just change the spices and herbs. then sous vide it for it alotted time. I have found that all of my meats have been much better since i started this. HOw you do you pork belly sounds awesome, i might have to try that sometime. talk to you later