How to Dry Brine Meat – Salt Tenderizes, Increases Moisture in Meat

How to Dry Brine Meat - Salt Tenderizes, Increases Moisture in Meat

I was perusing one of my favorite websites the other day, looking to see if I could find any more hints to make my ribs just a little bit better. We had friends coming over to do another taste test on my rub recipes and I wanted make sure the ribs were the best they could be! I happened upon an article about how to dry brine meats and read it with great interest.

I've read before that salt is the only seasoning that really penetrates meat and when we put spices and herbs on meat it basically coats the exterior of the meat, but does not penetrate it. Of course, one could say that salt could carry the spice flavors into the meat, but that is beyond the breadth of the experiment I was about to do.

Before dry brining I wanted to understand something; what is the difference between curing and brining? Both are processes involving meat and salt. I've always thought of salt curing as a process of removing moisture, so how could I use salt to enhance the moisture content of meat?

Brining relies on salt (in wet brining a salted liquid) to drive fluid exchange across and into meat tissue. It does affect moisture, but the low concentration does not cure meat, it simply affects the meat in a way that is often beneficial to the end result.

Curing with salt removes moisture by osmosis, thus both drying out the meat as well as killing bacteria. Meat is place in a container of salt or the salt is heaped on the meat. It is allowed to set for a period of time, until the meat is cured and can then last for a long time with no refrigeration.

The difference is the level of salt concentration. Curing requires a salt concentration of 20% or more, whereas brining uses a very small amount, maybe 1% by weight, to take advantage of the first stage of what salt does to meat, but not allowing it to continue through to what would amount to curing by using a high salt concentration.

Salt, made of sodium and chloride ions, carries electrical charges that attack meat proteins and cause it to relax, a process called denaturing. The altered protein retains retain more water and so the meat stays moister during the cooking process. The salt does not go deep into the meat, but does allow the meat proteins at the surface of the meat. This is helpful because the exterior of the meat is exposed to the most heat and has the tendency to dry out the most.

The recommendation, and one I followed, was to use 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt per pound of meat. If regular table salt is substituted use 1/4 teaspoon salt per pound of meat. One could also argue that if the meat you are dry bringing has bones in it, you may want to cut it back even more. I used 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt on ribs for my test. Following are some pictures and explanations of what I did.


Dry brining with salt

Start out by drying the meat of any moisture, patting it dry on top and bottom after rinsing it under cold water.


Dry brining with salt

As you can see in this picture, the rib meat looks "normal". When trying this yourself, take before and after pics to learn the process.


Dry brining with salt

Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp of kosher salt or 1/4 tsp of table salt per pound. Only salt the top of ribs, other meats possibly both sides.


Dry brining with salt

The salt begins to draw the moisture out of the meat and begins to melt in the moisture.


Dry brining with salt

The salt continues to draw out moisture and melts allowing it to be drawn back into the meat.


Dry brining with salt

The meat looks slightly "engorged" with moisture. It was fairly evident across the 6 racks I brined.

After letting the ribs set in the cool garage (around 40 degrees on the day I tested) for about 2 hours, I could no longer see salt or moisture on the surface of the ribs, but I did see what I perceived to be slightly engorged rib meat. I was excited for what I the end results would be after smoking the ribs.

I use a stick burner for smoking meats. For those of you using other methods, simply use what works best for you.

  • Unwrap St Louis ribs, rinse under cold water.
  • Trim any excess fat and/or meat to make ribs as consistent of size and thickness as possible. You may even want to cut off an end bone if it is small or has little/no meat on it.
  • Pat the racks dry with paper towel.
  • Sprinkle 1/2 tsp kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp table salt) per pound of meat. Ribs, only on top, other meats both sides.
  • Let set for 2-3 hours in fridge or cold room.
  • Prepare smoker and preheat to 225°.
  • Coat ribs liberally with Jack's Blend Meat Rub or your favorite rub, top and bottom. I personally like a heavier rub coating, trial and taste will determine your preferred amount.
  • Load ribs in smoker. If using a stick burner, follow your normal process for maintaining temperature. If using a charcoal or electric smoker, add one chunk or multiple chips of seasoned hickory when putting ribs in smoker. Do not soak the wood prior to adding to charcoal or in smoker box.
  • If desired, spritz ribs with apple juice or beer or other sugary liquid every hour.
  • Smoke for approximately 5.5 hours, until meat pulls up and reveals bottom of rib bones.
  • Remove from smoker, cut into rib sections and enjoy!

NOTES: St Louis ribs usually take about 5-6 hours to cook, Baby Back Ribs about 4-4.5 hours. St Louis are fattier, Baby Backs are meatier. Some people prefer more "fall of the bone" and some prefer a "bite off the bone" degree of doneness.

Every time you smoke ribs, there are differences in a myriad of variables. Your equipment, choice of fuel, quality of meat, type of rub, even the temperature and humidity all make a difference between my results and yours. Thus  experience is truly the best way to learn, to improve and to excel at smoking meats...and don't let anyone ever tell you your equipment is wrong or whatever. It is what YOU like!! And then keep learning from your process, always improving everything you can, within the budget you have!

Before I tell you about the results, let me clarify by saying that the friends and family who helped eat the experiment have all had my ribs, many times. What this means is they have a pretty good idea of what to expect with regards to the type of ribs I use, the taste profile I typically produce and the way I serve them (sauce on the side).

The People Speak! I had more than a couple of people say these were the best ribs I've ever made. Now, did the dry brining make a difference? Yes, I believe it did and am going to continue to practice it. Were people hungry and just saying that to be nice? Could be. Was the fact that it is spring and I am just starting to use my smoker again this year. Maybe.

To be sure, I'm gonna have to do this process over again real soon...?...you know...just to make sure.

8 thoughts on “How to Dry Brine Meat – Salt Tenderizes, Increases Moisture in Meat”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article, and have a question for you if you don’t mind. After dry brining the ribs, did the seasoning you used after the fact contain any salt, itself? Just started learning how to use a smoker, and I appreciate in advance the advice! Thanks!!

  2. Yes, and with a bit of trial and error you can find that sweet spot. The 1/2 tsp of kosher salt is not a lot, but depending on how much seasoning one puts on their meat it could lead to an overly-salty end result. If you find that this process and your desired seasoning level is too salty, follow the process and then rinse the salt off the meat and pat dry, then add your rub. Another option is to do this process and then use a no-salt rub after (I am working on a no-salt rub now, along with a couple of others).

    Thanks for your comment and best wishes on your smoking adventure!
    Jack

    1. I’ve taken this approach twice now and I think it’s been the missing ingredient for my ribs I’ve been looking for over the past few years. I do believe I have to pull back on the salt in the rub now, as the saltiness level was a bit high this last time around. But overall, a big improvement! Thanks for sharing.

      1. Thanks for the feedback Darrel, I really appreciate it. Glad that it helped with your process. I’m working on a no-salt rub right now and have a recipe I’m gonna test. It uses citric acid (AKA lemon salt) as the “salty” part of the rub.
        Happy smokin’
        Jack

        1. Thanks Jack, I appreciate the advice, this is helpful!

          I have no tried this a couple of times too and believe the quality of the meat combined with the dry brine are key! To kick back on the salt I’ve been using a rub from ‘Meathead’ at Amazing Ribs he calls it Memphis dry rub and does not include salt. It’s a good base start an you can experiment around with it, but it’s pretty darn good as is… thanks again! I’m doing some ribs this afternoon. ?

  3. I’m loosely following this guide to brine my jerky. I believe that my current recipe is lacking that deep down rich, salty flavor. My plan is to use the guidelines of 1/2 tsp per pound of meat and then smoke for 2 1/2 hours at 200 degrees. Nothing else but the salt for the first batch just to see what I’m working with in the end. Once I’ve got a solid basic recipe for my jerky, I will add different spices and flavored rubs. Thanks for the explanation of the function that the salt provides during the process. It makes the planning portion of the jerky process much easier knowing exactly what’s happening at the cellular level regarding the use of salt.

    1. So a couple interesting things have happened in the last few weeks that have helped to inform my knowledge base:

      ∙ First, getting commercially licensed with a bacon variance (I can now sell retail) taught me the following, “The USDA is responsible for monitoring the proper use of nitrite by meat processors. While sodium nitrite cannot exceed 200 ppm going into dry-cured bacon, sodium nitrite cannot exceed 120 ppm for both pumped and immersion-cured bacon.” (https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/meat/bacon-and-food-safety). So, my limit is 200 PPM (although I currently choose to be at 120 PPM), which means weighed green weight (raw) pork belly and weighed nitrite (not “a teaspoon” or the like).

      ∙ Second, I asked my MDARD (Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development) inspector the following: “Question for you, my bacon brining recipe, like everyone else’s, is based on 2 things; proper curing and taste. Being that bacon derives a good part of its satisfaction from saltiness, the length of time a pork belly cures may increase/decrease saltiness. The question I have is on the cure. My recipe is for a 10-day dry cure (proper curing and desired saltiness). If I wanted to adjust the saltiness by adjusting the time of curing what are the recommended short to long cure times? Kind of a “no less than ___ days and no more than ___ days” kind of thing. My understanding of cure is that it typically penetrates meat at about 1/4” per day, so typically bacon would be no less than 4 or 5 days. On how long, I have no idea.” To which I got this response from MDARD, “There isn’t really a standard. This is all I could find.” and then the link above.

      ∙ I did some research on Amazingribs.com and found a calculator that shows cure time based on meat thickness. Here is what I found, “1.5” thick, 2.8 days of cure time; 2″ thick, 5.0 days of cure time; 2.5″ thick, 7.8 days of cure time; 3″ thick, 11.3 days of cure time.” Now, this is not from my MDARD inspector, but from Meathead (the founder of Amazingribs.com) and I believe is pretty accurate…especially when I compare it to what I have learned, the info from MDARD, and the lack of clear guidance from MDARD.

      ∙ My recipe is now (legally) guided by a “cure calculator” spreadsheet (from MDARD), which I use each time I smoke bacon. I enter the green weight of the pork belly and the amount of my dry rub with nitrite (by weight) and it gives me an exact PPM. I then know that I need to use all of the dry rub I made to cure all of the pork belly I have.

      ∙ I will be on vacation for the next couple weeks, but when I return I am going to experiment. I am going to brine about 60-80 lbs. of pork belly. While the majority of it I will age my usual 10 days, I am going to pull some at different days to smoke and test (depending on the thickness of the meat and the above brine times). I want to test the saltiness and flavor at differing lengths of cure time with my recipe. I am also going to brine some at 120 PPM and some at 200 PPM and document the differences in curing time and end result.

      ∙ I am also going to experiment with the process after the meat is cured and before it is smoked. I typically leave the pork belly wet from brining, leave any of the brine/seasoning on the bacon and then smoke. On at least one piece I am going to rinse the pork belly and then coat it with my recipe, just with no nitrite. I may try another rub or two also.

      ∙ SORRY for this long response…especially with stuff that is not necessarily relevant to your comment. I’ve been wanting to update this thread and hope this is helpful.

      ∙ NOW, on to jerky. I am not licensed, nor am I going to be, for jerky. It is another meat variance I would need to obtain, and because of the humidity that remains in the meat there are more restrictions (and testing) on the process. BUT, my wife began making jerky a couple of years ago and does it for our own consumption and for friends and family. She played around with recipes for about a year and has hit on the recipe she now uses all the time. Can I say, she knocked it out of the park!! I have a group of guys I get together with every week and they all love jerky. A couple of guys said her jerky was the best they ever had…and they’ve had a LOT. Then, she tried it with some of my venison (Thanks Nick D.) and it was excellent. I am going to do a blog post or Youtube video on her doing jerky sometime next year, but if you would like her recipe now, shoot me an email (for anyone).

      Thanks everyone for your comments and feedback!!

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