|Brines often contain high levels of salt.
||To kill bacteria, to retain moisture and to amp up flavor.
|Brines often contain herbs and spices.
||To add aroma and zest.
|Brines often contain acids.
||To help tenderize and preserve.
But what about sugar? Why do so many brines and rubs contain sugar? Is it worth the effort to float a Thanksgiving turkey in an apple cider and kosher salt bath for three days? Or is the inclusion of apple cider a mere affectation of the Fall season?
A bit of kitchen science will help separate tradition from technique.
Sugar molecules are MUCH larger than salt ions- over 10 times larger in cross-section and mass. It takes salt almost 24 hours to penetrate meat by an inch. So you might expect that a huge, lumbering sugar molecule would take its own sweet time. And you would be right.
To validate this intuition, I immersed a pork tenderloin in a brine of pure white grape juice. Tenderloin is a uniform, pale and mostly fat free cut of meat- ideal for this kind of experiment. And white grape juice is sweet (15% sugar) and almost colorless. Plus, it has the advantage that commercially available urine test strips will detect the sugars in grape juice1.
For example, the colors on these double-pad Chemstrips run from yellow to green, and white to blue, as the sugar level climbs from 0% to 5% (the bottom pad is more sensitive at high concentrations, the top pad at lower concentrations). We can assemble these pads into a ladder, so they will spatially record sugar concentration in the tenderloin.
The test procedure is as follows, and is similar to our test protocol for salt diffusion:
- Roche Chemstrips were cut apart, separating out the two little rectangular color chips.
- The chips were double-stick taped onto the remaining plastic applicators.
- I pressed a detector array onto raw meat (top line below). It detected zero sugar levels.
- Periodically, the tenderloin was removed from the juice, washed off, patted dry and then a 1' thick slice of meat was sectioned. (The tenderloin must be washed-off before slicing to prevent the knife from carrying sugar into the center, and thus contaminating the measurement).
- A detector array was pressed face down onto the freshly cut surface, aligning the first detector pad to the brine-exposed edge.
- After 30 seconds, the strip was removed. After two minutes the colors are fully developed.
Here are the results. I drew a dotted red line on the image at the 10% concentration level, indicating that 90% of the diffused sugar lays between the surface and this line.
So sugar is barely absorbed by meat, even after a full day's brining. The diffusion rate is at least 10-20 times slower than salt1.
I also cooked a 24 hour-brined tenderloin, and then tasted 2mm thick slices of the meat sampled from the surface inward. Only the first slice was sweet- unlike salt, sugar does not diffuse faster when heated.
So, even after a day of brining, and cooking in a hot oven, sugar only penetrates a mm or two.
Which again raises the question, why bother brining? If you enjoy eating sweetened meat, like ribs or pulled pork, it's likely they'll be glazed in a thick, sugary sauce before serving. A mm or so of slightly sweet, brined pork bark will go unnoticed beneath this onslaught of herbs, spices and brown sugar.
Except for browning. Thanks to the "Maillard reaction", browned food looks good, tastes great and smells amazing. This essential reaction occurs between proteins and sugars, and ONLY when both are present. Unlike carmelization2 which only occurs above 230F, the Maillard reaction occurs even at room temperature. In fact, the reaction is percolating along inside your sweet, muscular body while you are patiently reading this article.
Fortunately, like most chemical reactions, the Maillard sequence proceeds faster at higher temperatures. So you don't end up smelling like a hot-crossed bun.
To test if a sugar brine enhances the Maillard reaction, I soaked a tenderloin in white grape juice for twenty four hours, rinsed the surface thoroughly, and then sliced off one end. The tenderloin was baked in a 375F oven until the interior reached 155F.
As you can plainly tell, the sugar-brined surface is much darker than the freshly cut end. And its flavor profile was more complex and nuanced:
Brining will definitely accelerate browning, no matter what sugar you choose to use.
Heat and sugar speeds up the Maillard reaction to the point where browning is significant after only 30 minutes in a 375F oven. Without absorbed sugar working in tandem with muscle protein, you would have to overcook the pork by hours to provide enough time for browning to occur merely from the small levels of naturally occurring sugar.
So when you cook meat, add sugar to a brine if:
- You plan on cooking baked or roasted meat without a glaze and want to encourage a uniformly brown and aromatic bark.
- You are cooking thin cuts of meat, like a satay or stir-frys, and the extra boost of sugar and color will enhance the dish.
- Note that an hour in a sugar brine (or under a sugary rub) is adequate to fully infuse the outer surface. Don't waste gallons of fruit juice on a brine when a last minute dusting of sugar will do.
And don't bother with a sugar brine if you plan on cooking under a dark, sweet glaze or rub.