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.
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