Did you know that 75% of American adults own a grill or smoker, and that about two-thirds of grill owners are outside grilling year-round, not just in the summertime? No doubt grilling is here to stay, and why wouldn’t it be? The mouthwatering aroma of anything being grilled is hard to beat.
If you’re looking to take your grilling game up a notch, you need to get serious about brines and marinades. These simple processes can add loads of juiciness and flavor to practically anything you grill and require very little effort on your part. Our culinary team in the Swanson® test kitchens has spent a lot of time analyzing the best ways to brine and marinate chicken, pork and beef—let’s take a look at what they’ve found out.
What is Brining?
First, some definitions: Brining is simply soaking meat or seafood in a liquid solution (at its most basic, a mixture of water and kosher salt) for anywhere from one hour to one day. After the soak, the meat is removed from the brine, then grilled, roasted or smoked. During the soaking process, the salt in the brine draws out the natural moisture in the meat; then by osmosis, the meat reabsorbs the brine. In essence, the meat replaces its natural juices with the brine. The result of a proper brine is tender, juicy meat with delicious flavor throughout.
What is Marinating?
Marinating is another type of soak, often in a mixture of liquid (like stock), acid and oil with flavor enhancers such as garlic, ginger and spices added for depth. Marinades don’t penetrate the meat as deeply as brines and don’t help create juiciness, but they add concentrated flavor to the surface of the meat. The acid in the marinade may lightly tenderize, but over-marinating can cause mushiness.
How to Brine
Our Swanson culinary team had heard over and over again from consumers that grilled chicken breasts were really difficult to make “right”—lots of times they were dried out and lacking flavor. So the team got to work and began digging into the ins and outs of brining. After preliminary research they wondered if Swanson broth could itself be used as a brine. After all, it contains salt like a brine. Hmm…. So their first test was to brine boneless, skinless chicken breasts in straight broth and then taste test them alongside unbrined grilled chicken breasts.
The results were striking: The broth-brined chicken was significantly more flavorful, tender and juicy than the chicken that wasn’t brined. That discovery led to additional testing, brining (lots!) more chicken breasts, this time in straight Swanson Chicken stock, and then in mixtures of broth (or stock), sugar and salt.
Here’s what they found out: Chicken breasts brined in a solution of 3 cups broth + 3 tablespoons sugar + 1 tablespoon salt yielded the best results after both grilling and roasting. That said, the chicken was also very good simply brined in straight broth, but the flavor difference was notable with the addition of sugar and salt—worth it, in our opinion, and requiring hardly any additional effort. With that piece of the puzzle in place, the team experimented with flavor enhancers like garlic and herbs (fresh and dried). The additions contributed to the overall flavor of the brined meat and are a great option for expanding flavor profiles, but the brine is solely responsible for the meat’s moisture and texture.
That being said, the length of time in the brine matters: To be effective, a minimum of one hour is required. Six hours is optimal, although you can brine for up to 24 hours. Longer than that could cause the meat to become over-salted and spongy.
The team conducted the same experiments on boneless pork chops and discovered that they, like chicken breasts, benefited from brining. (While pork tenderloin could certainly be brined, the team felt that since it’s so juicy and tender to start with, it didn’t really need to be brined.) Interestingly, brining beef using the same brine formulas as chicken and chops didn’t yield similar results. After consulting with industry experts and assessing our test kitchen findings, we came to the conclusion that marinating benefitted beef much more positively.
How to Marinate
While brining is terrific for enhancing the tender, juicy qualities of chicken and pork, marinades are your go-to for flavor flexibility, especially with beef cuts. (Note that marinades can be used with poultry, pork and vegetables too.) The culinary team got to work again, this time starting each experiment with a base of Swanson beef broth (chicken broth for chicken or pork), an acid (citrus juice or vinegar, typically) and oil (usually olive). After that they added up to four flavor “infusers” such as garlic, ginger, honey, soy sauce, herbs and spices—the list is practically endless and can be tailored to nearly any flavor profile.
Sirloin steaks were then added to the marinade and left for at least one hour and up to six—any less than an hour didn’t provide the flavor punch we were after, and longer times caused the acid in the marinade to turn the meat a bit mushy. (To be safe, we strongly suggest marinating meats in the refrigerator or on ice in a cooler if picnicking or camping.) After removing the steaks from the marinade they were grilled or roasted to medium doneness (about 145°F.) We loved the variety of flavor variations that marinades offered and the intense flavor they gave the steaks, and found that chicken, pork and vegetables (think portobello mushrooms and bell peppers) also benefitted from the flavor boost of a marinade.
Regardless of whether you’re brining or marinating, it’s important to use non-reactive containers such as glass, plastic or stainless steel to hold the solution and meat (actually, heavy-duty plastic bags are great—and disposable!). Be sure, as well, to discard the brine and marinade after taking the meat out of the solution. For food safety reasons, they should never be reused.