Dry brining is a popular technique used to season and tenderize meat before cooking. It involves rubbing salt directly onto the surface of the meat hours or days before cooking. The salt draws moisture out of the meat while also dissolving and penetrating deeper into the meat. This results in a juicy, evenly seasoned and tender product. While table salt is the most commonly used salt for dry brining, many cooks wonder if other types of salt can be substituted. The short answer is yes, you can dry brine with any salt, but the type of salt used will impact the outcome.
How Does Dry Brining Work?
Dry brining relies on a process called osmosis to both season and tenderize the meat. Osmosis occurs when two solutions containing different concentrations of solutes and solvents are separated by a semi-permeable membrane. Solutes are particles like salt that are dissolved in the solvent. Solvents are liquids like water. To reach an equilibrium, the solvent will flow across the membrane from the less concentrated solution to the more concentrated one.
In dry brining, the semi-permeable membrane is the meat’s cell membrane. The brine solution is the layer of salt rubbed onto the meat’s surface. The salt draws moisture out of the meat cells through osmosis. As the moisture migrates out, the salt migrates in, dissolving and dispersing throughout the meat. This seasons the meat while also causing the muscle fibers to swell and become more tender.
Factors That Impact Dry Brining
Several factors impact the dry brining process and the end results:
Salt Crystal Size
Smaller salt crystals dissolve and penetrate the meat faster than larger crystals. Fine salts like table salt or kosher salt work best. Sea salts and rock salts contain larger, coarser grains that take longer to breakdown.
Longer salting times allow the salt to migrate deeper into the meat to season it more throughout. Typically 12-48 hours of dry brining is recommended depending on meat size.
Denser meats with less moisture like beef or pork are ideal for dry brining. Wet meats like poultry or fish benefit less.
Drier environments pull more moisture from the meat during dry brining. Brining meat uncovered in the refrigerator works well.
The type of salt used impacts flavor and brining efficiency. Salt substitutes contain less sodium chloride so they are less effective at brining.
Common Salts Used for Dry Brining
Here are some of the most popular salt choices for dry brining:
Table salt, also known as common refined salt, is the classic choice. It consists of tiny, evenly sized grains that dissolve rapidly. This efficiently draws moisture out of meat. Table salt is 100% sodium chloride without any minerals. The pure saltiness can overpower flavor in large quantities. Use in moderation.
Coarse-grained kosher salt is another top choice. The larger flakes provide a satisfying crunch and mild saltiness. Diamond Crystal and Morton brands work well. Kosher salt adheres to meat’s surface instead of dissolving too quickly.
Sea salt is made by evaporating seawater. It has a grayish tint and larger, irregular crystals. The larger grains take longer to dissolve. Sea salt contains trace minerals like magnesium and potassium that add subtle flavors. Use for a mellow brining experience.
Pink Curing Salt
Pink curing salt, or Prague powder, is table salt mixed with sodium nitrite. It has a pink tint and is used for curing meats like sausage, ham and bacon. While it can be used for dry brining, it is not required or recommended since the nitrites provide no benefit for short dry brines. They are only needed for long wet brines.
Rock salt has very large irregular crystal sizes. It sometimes contains impurities or clay. The coarse texture causes an uneven brining effect. Stick to finer salt or crush rock salt before using.
Finely ground pickling salt dissolves quickly. It works well for dry brining but can easily over-salt the meat. Use half the amount of pickling salt compared to table salt. The small grains distribute faster.
Kala Namak (Black Salt)
Kala namak is a Himalayan rock salt with a strong sulfurous flavor. It can be ground into a fine powder. Use it combined with regular salt for a more complex flavor. Because of its potency, use sparingly.
Flavored salts like lemon pepper, garlic salt or onion salt add kick and aroma. Use them combined with regular salt. Relying solely on flavored salts won’t properly brine or season the meat. The flavorings dilute their salting power.
Low Sodium Salts
Salts with reduced sodium contain added potassium chloride. They don’t brine as effectively because of their lower sodium content. You may need to use larger quantities for proper dry brining.
Can You Use Salt Substitutes?
Salt substitutes like Nu-Salt or NoSalt contain little to no sodium chloride. Instead, they are made with potassium chloride which provides a salty taste but does not actually brine. You could coat meat with a salt substitute for flavor before cooking but it would provide minimal brining action so the meat would not get as seasoned or tenderized. For best results, stick with real sodium chloride salts.
Tips for Dry Brining with Different Salts
|Salt Type||Tips for Use|
|Table Salt||– Use half as much by volume as coarser salts
– Mix with other salts to balance flavor
|Kosher Salt||– Add 1.5x as much by volume compared to table salt
– Provides a mild, balanced saltiness
|Sea Salt||– Use up to 2x as much by volume as table salt
– Provides a mellow, mineral-rich flavor
|Pink Curing Salt||– Do not exceed recommended limits
– Use only for long wet brines/curing, not dry brining
|Rock Salt||– Crush into smaller pieces before using
– Combine with finer salt for even distribution
|Pickling Salt||– Use half as much as table salt
– Use for light, quick brines only
|Flavored Salts||– Mix with normal salt to properly brine
– Add last to prevent flavor loss while brining
When it doubt, you can always combine salts for great results. Kosher salt delivers mild brining power coupled with table salt’s intensity and sea salt’s complexity. Just adjust the proportions to suit your preferences.
While table salt may be the standard for dry brining, common culinary and gourmet salts can also be used with delicious outcomes. The key is understanding how factors like crystal size, mineral content and sodium levels impact brining power. With the right techniques, you can dry brine effectively with any salt. Focus on finding the flavor and texture you prefer. Kosher salt, sea salt and mixed blends provide the flexibility to make each brined meal perfectly seasoned.