Let me get this out of the way: The best brine ingredients should create a strong reaction for your taste buds, otherwise they don’t belong. There is a reason they pickle ginger before serving as a side at sushi restaurants, or dehydrate and grind cardamom seeds. These ingredients, at their basest form, are generally offensive to our palette, but they serve an important role in brines. A great brine is the science of highly concentrated ratios and pure, raw flavors capable of penetrating the proteins of tough wild fowl or other game. It is a rough-and-tumble business, but it gets the job done. Here are some finer points to consider before embarking on your next bird roasting adventure.
Salt is the catalyst for intrinsic flavor, as it serves to unlock taste potential in anything it touches. In a brine, it serves this purpose, in addition to another. Two prominent theories exist regarding how salt functions in a wet brine. Some experts suggest moisture is retained through osmosis thanks to the salt, while others argue salt gets trapped within muscle fibers, denaturing the protein and causing fibers to unwind, thus absorbing more moisture. Whatever theory you believe (or maybe they’re both true in varying degrees), there are some key details to keep in mind when brining your birds.
- Because all salts are not the same size and therefore vary in volume, the same cup measurement of one type of salt will affect your brine differently compared to another. For example, the granules of kosher salts are larger, therefore they fill a measuring cup differently than table salt (think pebbles versus sand in a jar).
- In some instances, table salt in 1-cup measurements can weigh twice as much as some kosher salts, meaning, if your recipe simply calls for “salt,” and it actually meant “kosher salt,” should you use table salt, you just doubled the salt in your brine.
- Non-iodized table salt remains the best salt for brines since its weight remains the most uniform. While kosher salts vary in weight per cup (Morton Kosher: 7.5 ounces per cup versus Diamond Kosher: 5 ounces per cup), the tiny granules of table salt are fairly consistent.
- Before adding any other ingredients to your brine, make certain your salt and/or sugar is completely dissolved in the water by either stirring vigorously or bringing to a slight boil (then cooling again) to dissolve salt and/or sugar.
- Finally, but most IMPORTANTLY, thoroughly rinse off your birds after brining, otherwise you are adding a few extra tablespoons (at minimum) to your recipe.
For some brine ingredients, the essence of its flavor resides within its oil. Because oils cannot absorb salt, the salt-water brine will continue to affect proteins normally while oils adhere and penetrate autonomously.
- Cracking the exteriors of many ingredients is necessary in order to release oils into brine. For example, a brine with smashed garlic cloves will produce a better garlic-y flavor for the bird versus a brine with uncracked cloves.
- The spice in peppers (jalapeños, habaneros, etc.) resides in the oil of the seeds and pulp; therefore, when adding peppers, make certain to slice beforehand.
Pulpy, often edible, these compact bits of flavor offer a wide array of choices for your brine.
- Dehydrated berries, such as peppercorns, all-spice and even juniper, bloom with flavor when soaked in water and exude spices otherwise not possible when ground forms are added to water.
- Should you add sliced fresh fruit, remain aware that fruits vary in pH levels, meaning some are more acidic than others and will penetrate fowl flesh quicker than others.
Seeds are where it all begins. Since water is the life-giving agent for seeds, it should be no surprise soaking seeds in water extracts inherent flavor.
Below is a quick and simple recipe employing these brining techniques.
Makes four servings.
- Fresh ingredients for certain brine recipes, such as rosemary sprigs or lemon grass, are always a fantastic addition, but sometimes the seed form of these herbs is a great way to infuse a slightly different taste perspective.
- When spice shopping for your brine, try to avoid ground forms, as some flavor gets lost in translation. For example, whole coriander seeds present a different profile—one that is both lemon-y and floral—compared to plain ol’ ground coriander.
- As is the case with dehydrated berries, the ground forms of many spices fail to provide the concentrated taste found in their basest forms.
- Some seeds, because of their size and texture, will stick to proteins after removing proteins from the brine. Make certain to thoroughly rinse off seeds, otherwise they will add extra, perhaps unintended flavor.
1 whole pheasant, approximately 2-1/2 pounds, plucked and brined
1/2 gallon hickory wood chips, soaked in water for 15 minutes
1 gallon cold water
1/2 cup non-iodized salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 bulb garlic, peeled and smashed
10 ounces ginger, smashed
1/4 cup black peppercorns
1/2 cup all-spice dried whole berries
Brine whole pheasant for no longer than 10 hours. Thoroughly rinse before cooking. Truss pheasant with kitchen twine when ready to cook. Because this recipe is only meant to add a subtle smoky flavor, setting up two-zone heat sources in your grill is not necessary. If using a propane grill, before pre-heating grill, soak hickory chips for 15 minutes then bundle in aluminum foil. Poke holes for ventilation and place bundle between two heat deflectors under grill grate. For charcoal, make certain to use a chimney starter to start coals (preferably no lighter fluid) and add coals to grill once partially gray. Do not place grate overtop. When ready to cook, sprinkled soaked hickory chips over coals and mitigate oxygen flow to avoid flare-ups.
Sear pheasant on all sides, covering grill between turns for an even cook. Avoid burning and lower heat once pheasant is browned. Continue to cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 1 hour, until internal temperatures reach 160 degrees. (If necessary, to avoid burning, once pheasant has nice seared exterior, you can finish in oven at 350 degrees.)
Jack Hennessy is a freelance outdoors journalist based out of Minneapolis and the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.