Most of you are probably familiar with brining, even if you’ve never tried it before yourself. The question is, will this process benefit your pork ribs, or is it a waste of time? The choice is yours, but it’s always better to make an informed one.
Brining Ribs Before Smoking
Brining, or the process of exposing meat to a salt solution before cooking, is a process designed to promote tenderness and moisture. It also imparts flavor, though this isn’t the main objective. Since ribs are naturally juicy when they’re cooked right, brining is helpful but not necessary.
When you brine something, you’re exposing it to a generous amount of salt. In addition to boosting the natural flavor of the meat, this process allows the muscle fibers to retain moisture, giving the finished product a prized juicy texture.
Here’s how it works. The salt dissolves some of the muscle fibers, which imparts tenderness. At the same time, the meat’s proteins are denaturing, allowing water to work its way between them to promote moisture.
There are two basic types of brining: wet brining, or submerging the meat in a saltwater solution; and dry brining, which consists of rubbing the exterior of the meat with salt. In either case, you can experiment with additional liquids and spices.
Both brining methods work as described above, but wet brines have one additional benefit: The meat absorbs a small amount of liquid. Although plenty of moisture is still forced out during cooking, brined meats will still be juicier as a result.
Are Brines and Marinades the Same Thing?
Not exactly. Brines and marinades are both intended to boost the flavor of the meat, so they have that in common. However, there are a couple of subtle differences.
For one thing, marinades typically include an acidic ingredient that helps break down the proteins in the meat. Citrus juices and vinegar are the most popular options. While this also promotes tenderness, it doesn’t work exactly the same way a brine does.
If you leave meat in a marinade for too long, these acids will break down the protein strands to the point of mushiness. Over-brining can give the meat a spongy texture, but in general, you can leave meat in a brine for longer than you can a marinade.
Brining is a technique that’s often reserved for larger cuts, like whole chickens or turkeys. If you’re grilling up a batch of chicken thighs, on the other hand, you’re probably better off using a marinade.
Essentially, you brine a cut of meat for moisture, while you marinate for flavor. Once you understand that difference, you should have no trouble deciding which method to use.
What Types of Ribs Would Benefit From Brining?
As we’ll discuss further in the next section, brining is a method that’s best reserved for leaner cuts of meat. Ribs are a naturally fatty cut, so they have plenty of moisture on their own.
That said, not all pork ribs are the same. Some types are leaner than others. Spare ribs, for example, are cut from the belly region. As such, they have enough fat to keep the meat moist during the long smoking process.
If you want to experiment with brining ribs, save it for the next time you buy a rack of baby backs. These ribs, also known as loin back ribs, are taken from the area around the hog’s spine. While delicious, they’re noticeably leaner than spare ribs.
St. Louis-style ribs aren’t easy to find on supermarket shelves, but if you can find them, know that these are spare ribs with the tips and cartilage trimmed off. Although you can certainly brine them if you wish, it’s not really necessary with this cut.
Should You Brine Ribs Before Smoking? Pros & Cons
Brining is a largely hands-off process that yields marvelous results. As such, we would recommend it when grill-roasting whole chickens, turkeys, or pork roasts. Even smaller cuts like pork chops and pork tenderloin would benefit from a brining treatment.
When it comes to pork ribs, however, we don’t think it’s necessary. Ribs are meant to be slow-cooked for several hours, during which time the fat will render and the meat’s fibers will relax. As such, the meat should be tender and juicy even without the brine.
In our opinion, the whole point of brining is to keep meat from drying out when it hits the grill. Leaner cuts benefit from this because they’re often cooked quickly over high heat.
That solution won’t work with pork ribs. The only way to achieve the proper texture is to cook them low and slow. You might be able to speed up the process by turning the heat up a few degrees, but no brine will magically alter their texture.
It’s fine to make a brine out of just salt and water. However, most chefs prefer to add other wet and dry ingredients to their brine. In essence, anything that would improve the flavor of pork would make a fine addition to a brine for ribs.
Try mixing a generous measure of apple juice or cider in with the water when making a wet brine. Apples and pork are a classic combination. This works well in the fall, when you can find delicious local ciders in abundance.
You can also add handfuls of fresh herbs. We recommend rosemary and thyme, but sage is a good option as well. There’s no need to remove the herbs from their stems—you’ll be discarding the brine as soon as it’s done its work.
While you’re at it, cut a couple of onions in half and put them in the brine as well. Whole garlic cloves will add a more subtle flavor, but you can boost their potency by crushing them before adding them to the mixture.
If you want your ribs to have a sweeter flavor profile, add brown or white sugar to the mix. Maple syrup is another possibility. For a savory kick, add whole black peppercorns and bay leaves.
How To Brine Ribs
For wet brines, the basic formula is 5 to 8 percent salt versus 92 to 95 percent liquid. Depending on the size of your rib rack, you can use either 1/4 pound of salt in 1/2 gallon of fluid, or 1/2 pound of salt per gallon.
Find a nonreactive container that’s large enough to hold the ribs along with the brine. Glass, stainless steel, and food-grade plastic are all suitable options.
Most brine recipes suggest boiling the mixture to dissolve the spices. To speed things up, add the salt to 2 cups of hot water, then add the remaining cold water and other flavorings once the salt has dissolved.
Refrigerate the brine mixture until very cold, then add the ribs. Brine in the refrigerator for 2 to 6 hours. It’s important not to do this at room temperature, or the meat will attract hazardous bacteria.
Remove the ribs from the brine and pat them dry. Season and cook as usual.
How To Dry-Brine Ribs
Dry-brining is even easier than wet-brining, and a nice way to experiment with the technique. Just sprinkle a generous amount of salt on either side of the rib rack, set it in the fridge, and wait a few hours. When you’re ready to cook, wipe off the salt with paper towels.
It’s permissible to add other spices to the dry brine as well. Try using sweet or smoked paprika, chili powder, cumin, coriander, or garlic powder. Brown sugar will impart sweetness and create a nice balance with the other flavors.
The Bottom Line
Although we don’t think it’s necessary, brining ribs before smoking won’t do any harm—that is, as long as you don’t overdo it. If you have the time and the inclination, go ahead and give it a try.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!