Dry Brining – How I Used Salt To Improve My Ribs

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Dry Brining

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 dry brining meats and read it with 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.

Salt Curing or Salt Brining

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.

The Science

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.

Process

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

After Brine Results

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.

My smoking process

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!

After Eating Results

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.

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