Pass the Salt, Please
La Jolla Strip Club. (This IS a restaurant…)
Feast. Rib-eye steak.
I wanted to use this post to self-correct one of my old posts about brining/marinades (did I ever write about brining?…I can’t remember). I (maybe) previously detailed how diffusion works in brines/marinades, but I don’t believe I got it right the first time. The old reasoning was that the brine was at a higher salt concentration, which would tend to equilibrate water distribution by drawing water out of the meat, and then slowly, over time, diffuse back into the meat (taking salt and additional flavorings along for the ride). The first step makes some sense, only because that’s a simple diffusion concept, but then the meat reabsorbing water? Hmm…I’ll admit, a bit of a stretch there, Frank.
My most recent investigation in the writings of Modernist Cuisine (that big ol’ six volume stack of crazy culinary science) taught me that brines and marinades work in similar ways, and it has nothing to do with the direct diffusion of water. In a brine, there’s a high salt concentration. Salt, broken down to its constituent parts, is one part sodium and one part chloride. According to Modernist Cuisine, the chloride ion, (negatively charged), attaches itself to the muscle fibers of the meat; the greater the concentration of salt, the more chloride ions that are able to do this. Subsequently, identical charges repel one another. At one point, there are enough negative charges to push the meat fibers apart, allowing the larger water molecule to find its way into the meat (along with any other flavors present in the water). The salt essentially creates a repulsive charge that “opens” the meat. The sodium in this case, denatures the protein structure and allows it to hold on to the additional water with much more ease.
The premise in an acidic marinade is the same. Acidic marinades have a surplus of positively charged hydrogen ions. Eventually, these positively charged hydrogen ions make their way into the meat, creative a repulsive force between hydrogen atoms, and similarly push meat fibers apart.
So given my basic chemistry knowledge of the periodic table, I figured there would be an element that would create the largest repulsive charge. The mechanics of this are simply that like charges repel like charges. So, at a constant separation of charge (let’s say 10 Angstroms), the larger the element, the better (takes up more space, and their effective charge radius is larger). So instead of sodium, hydrogen, or chloride, we could potentially be looking at rubidium, cesium, bromide, and iodine, which are larger elements (Their repulsive force at a given distance between two like charges would be greater, compared to sodium or chloride). Is this applicable in meat? Can we achieve more juicy meat just by switching up the element?
Possibly, although I’m not too sure or keen on adding things like rubidium or cesium to your meat (I recommend keeping this a thought exercise…), but bromide and iodide seem a bit more plausible? You can source food grade sodium/potassium bromide. Golden question is if using this in lieu of salt would make meat any more juicy (or inimical?), than using salt itself. I did not find any studies supporting or challenging such a notion. An exercise in futility? Not really. It’s a fun mental experiment.
A better experiment would probably be what the difference is between brining using kosher salt and iodized salt is. Kosher salt is traditionally more flaky, and has an uneven, large sort of texture. The increased surface area and relative purity usually lends itself well to curing meats and seasoning food as one cooks. Iodized salt is the traditional table salt that you’d find at the table. It’s usually not recommended to cure meats using this salt, as it may have a slight chemical taste, due to the addition of the iodine component. Most anecdotal evidence suggests that brining with iodized salt is perfectly fine; there are only minor differences in taste, but as far as curing and brining goes, you’re probably better off with the kosher salt, as it imparts a clean flavor. No evidence exists for iodized salt creating a better brine than kosher. In fact, iodized salt is fairly volatile, losing its iodine through oxidation and exposure to air.