Cooking

Wolfgang Ban's Secret Weapon

How to make everything taste better with a brine
Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table
Wolfgang Ban's Basic Brine

Wolfgang Ban of Seäsonal, an Austrian restaurant in New York City, is obsessed with finding ways to elevate his cooking. And during this festive time of year, when showstopper dishes take center stage, Ban uses one simple technique to amp up the flavor of those big, impressive pork shoulders or whole snappers: brining.

You hear a lot about brining during Thanksgiving as part of the path to a better bird, but the technique is useful year-round: Soaking meat, fish or vegetables in a wet brine (a combination of water, salt and sometimes aromatics or spices) before cooking plumps them with moisture and flavor, ensuring a juicy, tender end result.

Ban began his foray into brining (see the recipe) with lean meats like chicken breast and pork tenderloin but soon started experimenting with tougher cuts, like leg and shoulder joints; these he soaks for days at a time before cooking into tender roasts. He also began to brine fish, describing the effect as "seasoning from the inside out," allowing him to prep in advance and save much-needed time when festivities (such as the Feast of the Seven Fishes) are in full swing.

Now grab some salt and get to work.

Meat: Expecting a large holiday crowd? Ban suggests staying away from richer cuts like rib eye steak, which don't need extended tenderizing or seasoning, and brining shoulder or leg meat instead. For a leg of lamb, he uses the standard 5 to 6 percent saltwater solution, but he increases the amount of spices, adding in warm flavors of clove, cinnamon and star anise. Let the meat sit, fully submerged, for two to three days, then dry it thoroughly before cooking. Keep in mind that the additional weight from the water will require a slightly longer cooking time.

For turkey or other large birds, Ban suggests using a brining bag as opposed to trying to find a container large enough to fit in a home fridge. The bags require less brine, and the bird will stay completely submerged for the 48-hour bath it needs.

For smaller cuts like pork chops or chicken cutlets, Ban uses about a liter of brine, adding two crushed garlic cloves, two sliced shallots, 10 black peppercorns, 15 coriander seeds, the peel of a lemon and a handful of fresh parsley. He submerges the meat in the refrigerator for 12 to 15 hours, then dries it with a paper towel before cooking. Post-brining, Ban doesn't add any extra salt or seasoning before cooking, but he does sprinkle the finished product with a pinch of coarse finishing salt.

Fish: Unlike meat, most fish flesh is already so delicate it doesn't need to be tenderized. Before brining, Ban recommends removing anything from the fish you won't eat, like the bones or skin. If you choose to keep the skin on to eat later, just make sure it's cleaned well and residual oils are dried off, so that the spices can penetrate. Ban brines fish fillets in a quick 30-minute bath at room temperature to season them throughout, drying the filets off before cooking. For a classic Austrian flavor pairing, add chopped garlic cloves, white peppercorns, coriander seeds and fresh dill to the liquid.

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Roasting whole fish for the holidays? Avoid particularly large or thicker-skinned fish like whole tuna, salmon or halibut in favor of branzino or trout. If your whole skin-on fish is on the smaller side, let it soak 30 minutes. Up the time to 90 minutes for several-pound specimens, then dry the fish off and grill or roast away.

Vegetables: Brining ripe produce enables Ban to preserve the fresh flavors of seasonal herbs and vegetables for the long winter months, a staple in the Austrian cuisine he's known for. The salt in the brine brings out the lactic acid in the vegetables, causing them to ferment.

Ban uses different flavor combinations to best preserve in-season vegetables for future dishes. For green tomatoes, he might add crushed garlic, fresh basil, whole peppercorns and coriander seeds. Cucumbers are always paired with fresh dill.

No matter the vegetable, make sure it stays fully submerged in the brine, since lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process (meaning it happens without oxygen). Ban uses an inverted plate to make sure the veggies stay under, curing them evenly and diminishing the risk of accidental bad bacteria, which shows up as a thin layer of white mold or yeast. Refrigerate for one to two weeks; you'll know the vegetables are ready when they look a bit gaseous or bubbly, and taste pleasantly tangy.

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