Brining - the practice of soaking food in salted water - is an age old technique that was originally done in order to preserve meat. In ye olde brining times, the mixture would have been very salty – and the resulting effect was very salty meat. In more recent times, brining is used less for preservation purposes and more for the effect that it has on the texture and taste of the meat. Modern brining liquids are not as salty, allowing the natural flavour of the meat to shine through.
Ok, I’m not a food scientist, but from my research here is what I’ve discovered - by soaking meat before cooking in a brine mixture of salt, sugar and water, the cells of the meat are hydrated via osmosis. During the cooking process, the brine causes the protein in the meat to coagulate, which in turn traps water molecules within the cells. This stops the meat from dehydrating – the cause of dry, stringly meat. After brining, the result is moist, tender, juicy flesh. Sounds awesome.
In the interests of my own culinary education, I decided to experiment with brining a whole duck on the weekend. The process I used was to brine it prior to cooking and then roast it over coals on the BBQ. A lot of the material I read about brining mentioned that one of the effects of the process is to make it harder to achieve a crisp skin on meat such as chicken, turkey or duck. It was suggested that after the brining is completed, the poultry should be placed in the fridge uncovered for a few hours, to allow the outer skin to dry a little so that it will crisp up properly later. That seemed to make sense to me, so I followed this advice. A big part of the joy of well cooked poultry is a crispy skin and I wasn’t going to forego that.
I chose to add some extra flavours to my brine mixture - juniper and fennel seed. After the brining process, the duck was cooked over coals for just over an hour and a half. I filled the cavity of the bird with about 15 cloves of garlic and bay leaves before cooking. Here is how the duck looked as it was resting, waiting to be carved -
One brined and roasted duck
The result was really beautiful. The flesh was moist and had a lovely soft texture - duck can sometimes be a little stringy if not cooked well or allowed to dry out. I definitely think that the brining had the desired effect. The flesh was succulent and had great flavour. The fennel and juniper were very subtle, and the meat was not in the least salty. Lots of the formulas I researched for the salt/water ratio in the brining mixture were very different and I erred on the side of caution. Next time I will use slightly more salt to see if the effect is different. So here is the finished product, served as a Sunday night roast with baked potatoes, pumpkin and zucchini, peas and a cauliflower and fennel gratin. I made a gravy from the juices of the duck (poured off after resting). Gorgeous.
Sunday Roast - with brined duck
So, the great brining experiment was a great success. I will be trying it with chicken and red meat very soon. So, how did I do it? Here is my brining recipe for duck -
To brine a chicken or duck you will need: (For the basic brine) 1/4 cup Maldon Sea Salt, 1 tablespoon white sugar, 10 cups water.
To this, I also added 1 tablespoon roughly crushed juniper berries and 1 desssert spoon of fennel seeds (optional)
Method: First, dissolve the sugar and salt in 1 cup of warm water. Once dissolved, add the rest of the water and the juniper and fennel.
Place your meat in a bowl and then tip the mixture over the top. If it does not completely cover the meat, top up with a little more water.
Put the bowl in the fridge and allow the meat to soak for about 24hrs, or overnight.
Drain the meat and pat it dry before cooking it. After patting the inside and the outside of the bird dry, truss it ready for cooking (tuck the wings under and tie up the legs) and put it uncovered in the fridge for at least a couple of hours so that the skin can dry out further. This will ensure a nice crisp skin once it has cooked.
I cooked the duck for 1 1/2 hours, basting it from time to time. I rested the duck, covered in foil for about 25 minutes before carving.
The best way to carve a duck is to remove the breasts whole and then cut them into reasonably thick slices. Then cut the legs and the thighs of the bird from the carcass. Pick off any meat that is left from this process.