Cure or Brine – What’s the difference?

We’ve all heard about how brining and curing are the best ways to impart flavour, and make meats and poultry tender and juicy. But what’s the difference between brining and curing, and when do you choose one over the other?

Both brining and curing are traditional methods of preserving food, and both have the added advantage of giving you the option to infuse flavour into your food and can sometimes help tenderize the product.

Cure

A cure is a method of preparing meats or fish for preservation by salting. When most people refer to curing food they are referring to a “dry-cure” as a “wet-cure” is in fact a brine. For the purpose of this blog when I say cure, I mean dry-cure. Curing food imparts a unique “cured” flavour to food and can also be a mean to impart other flavours into the food such as herbs and spices. However the main application for curing is to preserve food. Packing meat or fish in a dry-cure pulls all of the water out of the flesh to avoid spoilage from bacterial growth (the principle is no water, no bacteria can survive). In its simplest form a cure is just salt, but most often some sugar and/or herbs will be mixed to create more complex flavours.

There are a few recipes, such as gralax, where fish or meat is packed in a dry salt cure and then consumed immediately. But most modern uses also involve the added steps of fermenting and/or hot or cold smoking after the curing, such as cold-smoked salmon, pepperoni or salami.

Here are a few great smoker recipes that use a good old fashioned dry-cure:

Brines

A brine is a liquid saturated with salt. Technically speaking, a brine is a “wet-cure”. Brining is more so used for imparting flavour and tenderizing, and less commonly used for preservation. While it does have the ability to preserve food when combined with other preservation techniques such as smoking, it is less commonly used than dry cure, and is sometimes argued as less effective as it relies entirely on another preservation method. Brining is often compared to marinating, which is a fairly accurate comparison except that brines rely on salt to drive fluid exchange across and into the meat tissue, while marinades use acid to break down meat tissue. The simplest brine is just salt and water, but the addition of ingredients such as fresh herbs, crushed garlic, brown sugar, mustard seeds, lime or even beer can bring your meal to the next level.

There are many different ways to add brining to elevate everyday recipes such as chicken and turkey. Here are some excellent smoker recipes that turn out oh so tasty with a little brining beforehand.