My first brush with brining came a few years ago while watching an episode of the beloved Good Eats, watching Alton Brown was brine a turkey. In my mind, I was thinking this was an earth shattering way of cooking. Why haven’t I heard of this before? I made a brined turkey for a thanksgiving dinner with my college friends. This was by far the juiciest turkey I’ve ever had. I was determined to keep this culinary method my exclusive secret.
But as time went by, I started reading more about brining as a cooking prep method. I’m not sure if it’s because I was reading more about food or if it was a food trend that was picking up. Either way, it seemed like it was the talk of the town to me especially during thanksgiving. I believe that one of the top search terms on Google was ‘Alton Brown brined turkey’ or something to that effect. And while I do enjoy certain brined applications (my favorite being duck in orange juice, another Alton Brown inspired recipe,) I probably do not do it more than a few of times a year. I just find that it takes up too much time and fridge space.
As some of you know, I’ve been involved in this blog movement Charcutepalooza. In the past month, it was all about brining beef and so I guess it was time to revisit this cooking technique.
So what is brining?
Brining is basically a process where meat is left in a salt solution for a period of time before cooking. The time the meat is left in the brine might vary from a few hours to a week depending on the process.
The reason why brines work is two-fold.
The first is because of osmosis. Water from the surrounding liquid gets absorbed by the meat that’s being brined. In theory, this makes the meat juicier.
The second, which I think is a more important contributor to the process, is that the salt in the brine changes the proteins structure within the muscle. This results you get is kind of like ham, where you get a tighter and less stringy texture.
Generally, brines are used on white meat such as chicken, seafood and pork (is that really a white meat?). Other notable popular brined items are beef (corned beef) and cow tongue.
WTF am I Brining?
While the Charcutepalooza challenge was to brine beef, I did not source a piece of brisket or cow tongue that I was happy with in time (those items are currently curing as we speak.) However, one of my favorite brining applications is the duck. I’ve recently been enthralled by Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating and in it is recipe for brined duck with lentils. He writes to brine the duck legs for a whole week, a really long time compared to the 2 hours I’m used to. Worth a shot.
I bought two whole ducks (head still intact by the way) from the Asian grocery store. Then it was off to butchering, utilizing the breast for duck prosciutto (didn’t go well by the way. Bad mold), necks for a future stuffed duck neck application, the carcass for a stock and the legs for our brine.
After ten days, the brine was discarded, legs were rinsed and poached in the basic mirepoix (carrots, celery and onions) along with a few other basic aromatics for an hour and a half. (Henderson suggested an hour but I found it better with an additional half hour.) In the mean time, I paired it with a very simple lentil dish.
The brined duck legs turned out extremely flavorful and succulent. (There are only so many terms I can use to describe how something tastes, so bear with me.) The skin was a little on the gooey side, not a bad thing at all as that was expected from poaching. I’m also used to textures like that since I grew up eating tons of Singaporean Chicken Rice (cold, boiled chicken served with piping hot rice. Doesn’t sound great but it’s oh so good.) However, what I found surprising was I wasn’t the only one digging the skin; my friend commented that he really liked it too.
While the duck was really really good, I liked the lentils even more. This is surprising considering I never cared for lentils. I am left to conclude that the lentils I was exposed to as a kid were very poorly made. They were usually in curry and cooked to mush. These however, were fantastic and paired extremely well with the slightly salty duck.
WTF am I doing with Brined Leftovers?
So yeah, I’m left with leftovers, not because the duck wasn’t good but because I can only eat so much food in one sitting. What do I do with the leftover brined duck leg?
Well, I could reheat it and treat it the same way I did with that dinner. Or I could try something else.
Crisping the Skin
Duck skin in the bomb. I mean, there is a whole dish dedicated to perfecting the skin of a roasted duck aka Peking Duck. While the skin in the poached brined duck legs were good, crisp skin is even better. So to turn up the dish even more, I put a quarter of the leg under the broiler for a few minutes till crisp. Verdict: all the deliciousness of poached brined duck legs but with the crunchiness of roasted duck skin. How is that a bad thing?
Or a Pizza
And yes, there is the pizza. Crisp brined duck on a pizza. Sounds good to me already.
I haven’t made pizza since I was 10 (well, really it was my mom) but with my recent adventures into baking bread, I had none of the intimidation and felt really up for the task. I already had some lean dough sitting in the fridge for a batch of bread so I decided to use it for some pizzas instead. Yeah, it’s probably not the ‘ideal’ pizza dough for the ‘ideal’ pizza but trust me, lean dough works just fine. You could also use whatever dough recipe you’re used to or even get dough from your local pizza place. Oh yeah, and since I don’t have a pizza stone, I used the cast iron skillet of making my pizzas. It works great.
I topped the pizza lightly with a basic tomato sauce (I make my own or you can use stuff from a jar), basil leaves, mozzarella balls and a little bit of duck. On one of them I added an egg. In another some home cured guanciale. Crispy duck, fatty pork, and runny egg an overkill? I think not.
Brine (adopted from Fergus Henderson)
200g (7oz) sugar
200g (7oz) kosher salt
6 juniper berries
6 whole cloves
6 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 liters (2 quarts) water
Combine the ingredients and bring to a boil for 5 minutes.
Let it cool and refrigerate overnight.
(Alternatively, use 1 quart of water to make the hot brine and use the equivalent of a quart of ice to cool the brine down)
Poached Duck (Henderson’s)
4 Duck legs
1 head of garlic
2 whole carrots, peeled and cut to 1 inch pieces
2 stalks of celery, cut to 1 inch piece
2 onions, quartered
2 bay leaves
12 black peppercorns
Place the duck legs in a pot with the other ingredients
Fill with water till it just covers the ingredients and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for an hour and a half. (Temperature of the liquid should be about 185-200 F degrees, bubbling gently with small bubbles.)
The duck legs should be fork tender.
Extra virgin olive oil
1 onion diced
5 cloves of finely chopped garlic
2 carrots, diced
1lb (2 ½ cups) lentils
One sprig of thyme
4 cups water
Coat the bottom of the pan with extra virgin olive oil on medium heat.
Add the chopped vegetables and cook till tender but not colored, about 5 minutes.
Add the lentils and stir for a minute or two to coat, then cover with water with the thyme. Bring to a boil then a simmer till lentils are soft, about 40 minutes.
Roasted Poach Duck
Prior to serving, put the poached duck legs on the top rack of the oven, under a broiler for about 5-10 minutes (depending on your broiler). Serve on top of lentils.