Q: Soaking chicken or pork in a brine of salt and sugar before cooking makes the meat moist and flavorful. But how much sodium and sugar is absorbed into the meat?
A: The meat can absorb a fair amount of sodium, but probably not that much sugar.
Brining is popular these days in many types of cuisines and restaurants as a way to add flavor and moisture to meats (especially lean cuts), poultry, and even seafood. The brine is a salt solution that often has some sugar; beer or other spirits as well as spices and herbs may be added. The meat soaks in it for at least several hours—usually overnight or for an entire day.
The salt carries moisture into the muscle tissue of the meat, thus softening it. The sugar (sometimes honey or molasses) helps mask or balance the saltiness. The meat usually doesn’t taste sweet because the sugar concentration is so low.
Sodium absorption varies, depending on the brine solution, soak time, and the type and quality of the meat. In testing done for Cook’s Illustrated magazine (which has promoted brining for years), a pound of brined pork contained 1,160 milligrams of sodium, and a pound of chicken had 1,670 milligrams (meat is naturally low in sodium, with 100 to 300 milligrams per pound). So a 4-ounce serving would have 300 to 400 milligrams of sodium. That’s a fair amount if you’re trying to limit your intake to the recommended 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams a day, especially since many people eat more than 4 ounces of meat, along with other salty foods.
Similarly, Cooking Light magazine tested turkeys that were each soaked in brine containing half a cup of salt. After 12 hours of soaking before roasting, 4 ounces of white meat had 150 milligrams of sodium and dark meat 235 milligrams; after 24 hours of brining, 4 ounces of white meat had 220 milligrams of sodium, dark meat 260 milligrams.
Those numbers may be dwarfed by the sodium in sauces and condiments often eaten with meats, even if they’ve been brined. On the other hand, the saltiness imparted by brining may encourage some cooks to use less salt elsewhere and may obviate the need for diners to sprinkle salt on the meat themselves.
Keep in mind, too, that processors often inject raw chicken and turkey with saltwater or broth to plump them up, making them saltier than most brined birds. This must be stated on the label (read the small print). Needless to say, such poultry should not be brined.