Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Brine Leading the Brine: Make the Right Salt Solution

Not all salt is the same: Korean course salt flakes (left) and Japanese fine sea salt (right)
Napa cabbage ready for salting

Sodium chloride (NaCl) is better know as common table salt, although its history is far from common. Aside from its use as a seasoning for food it was once an important part of world economy—used for trade and as currency (hence the word “salary”); wars were fought (El Paso Salt War) and political agreements (Gandhi–Irwin Pact) reached over this white gold. Salt technology has long been essential to medicine and science; it’s responsible for most of our bodily functions.

On average the human body is composed of .4% sodium chloride. Thus a person who weighs 110 lbs (50kg) is composed of 7 oz (200 g) salt; that’s 13.33 tablespoons, but some people are saltier dogs than others. About 3.4% of our oceans’ weight is attributed to dissolved salts, though less than that in the polar regions due to melting ice... but that's a whole other topic.

Long before refrigeration, salt was ubiquitous to food preservation; fermented vegetables and cured meats extended food long after the harvest and the hunt. In an airless, saline environment, most microbes will not survive with exception for some—mainly lactic acid bacteria (LAB). As the bacteria establish and colonize, they create an acid environment which preserves food.

LAB is beneficial to our bodies, processing food into micro nutrients and synthesizing sugar and other compounds into amino acids. Given the correct conditions it also combats pathogens such as the microbes that cause botulism. To create an environment that best suits LAB fermentation, it’s recommended to make brine that’s anywhere from 2 to 10% salt—by weight, not volume. Not all culinary salts are the same as they vary in flavor and mineral content. For fermentation I use a combination of sea salt and kosher salt; these are free of anti-caking agents (sodium aluminosilicate, potassium ferrocyanide) and iodine. These salts are readily available in grocery stores and are of relatively consistent quality.

When I make kimchee, I salt and rinse my vegetables first to break down the cellulose in thick stems, followed by resting in 1% brine for 8 to 12 hours to further condition the cabbage. In an aqueous solution the salt molecule (NaCl) breaks down into sodium and chlorine—sodium is the active ingredient in brine. Sodium penetrates cell walls which catalyzes osmosis—internal liquids are drawn out then replaced by brine. Although 2% brine is recommended, I account for pre-salting and the salt content in my chili paste. Here is how I arrived at my 1% brine solution by weight and estimated volume.

Let’s Mix a Gallon of Brine!
Water: 139.2 oz (8.7 lbs) / 3.946 kg by weight is roughly equal to 1 gallon / 3.78 liter by volume.
Salt: 1.4 oz / 39.5 g by weight is roughly equal to 5 tbsp / 37.8 ml by volume.

If you use a very course salt, dissolve it in hot water first and let it cool and do account for the total weight and volume of the brine. For a 2% solution double this amount of salt; for 3%, triple this amount, etc. Preserving meats, cheeses and other non-plant foods calls for salinity of 10 to 20%; a salt environment above this would kill all microbes and spores and eventually you. Consuming foods with high sodium levels may lead to health problems such as heart and vascular diseases. Although lacto-fermentation will transform starch and sugar into beneficial acids, the level of salt that you establish stays the same, so be mindful of the food you make and eat. Share this knowledge, eat right and stay healthy.

After salting and curing Napa cabbage in a 1% brine solution a dramatic transformation has been achieved.

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