Brined roast pork belly, and some thoughts about brining

Next time you roast a joint of belly pork I would definitely recommend brining it in advance. Brining improves the texture of the meat, keeping it moister, and also seems to help with crackling formation. If you get the brine right you don’t have to worry about seasoning the outside. And you can also add some complementary flavourings which will penetrate within the meat- I chose juniper, bay leaf and garlic, mainly because they were to hand but you can express yourself. I cooked a small belly joint around 1.5kg for around 2.5 hours at 130 degrees C and then cranked up the temperature to around 210 degrees C for 20 minutes to finish the crackling.

My continuing campaign is that all brine recipes are expressed in terms of percentage strength, and include the weight of the thing to be brined. So, if you are aiming for an end-result of 5% salt, and you have a 2kg (2000g) piece of pork and cover it in 3 litres (3000g) of water, then you would calculate (2000g+3000g) * (5/100) = 250g of salt.

Again I am struck by the variability in recipes out there. The venerable Fergus Henderson, suggests in his brine recipe 600g of salt to 4 litres of water and does not specify the weight of pork belly. Assuming a 2kg piece, then this would be a 10% brine. He would have you brine for 3 days. I suspect this will result in something unpalatably salty for most people. This recipe from Anna Hansen uses less salt, but unhelpfully does not state how much water to include just to use enough brine “to cover”, which doesn’t take into account the variability in your pot. As an aside, if whatever I am brining can fit into a Ziploc bag, this is my preferred method. Just be sure to double-bag it in case of any leaks. I can’t even work out the brine strength for this New York Times recipe as they use the insane Imperial system (actually the US customary units system, come on Americans get with the programme – yes, that’s two m’s and a e).

So in conclusion, when brining, consider how salty you would like the result to be, I would suggest a palatable range is between 3 and 5%. I find it neat that sea water is around 3%, a nod to our amphibious past? You can find out what you like through experimentation. However, bear in mind that curing is not particularly efficient and you should consider at least two additional factors: time in the cure, and thickness of the meat. I suspect that explains why some recipes call for such high salt concentrations. There is considerable variability in terms of length of time required to cure and this mainly depends on the thickness of your pork belly. A thin piece should be done in 24 hours, but thicker pieces will require longer.

I am working on a Unified Field Theory of Brining, but still need to figure out some of the formulas involved. Call me Brinestein.

So, a few questions for advanced blog readers:

  • What is the formula governing brine uptake into meat at a certain temperature by thickness? I.e. can we predict the salt concentration at 1cm, 2cm, etc. after N days at fridge temperature if we know the starting salinity of our brine?
  • Why does brining improve crackling? One could argue that it is due to dehydration from the salt, but this would not make sense as it makes meat moister due to uptake of brine into the lysed cells. Is it due to a physical effect of breaking down the skin structure, e.g. forming cracks, perhaps similar to the technique of pouring boiling water over the skin?



15 thoughts on “Brined roast pork belly, and some thoughts about brining”

  1. What a great read. I’ve been meaning to brine something since seeing Thomas Keller extolling its virtues on Saturday Kitchen a while back, but haven’t got round to it yet. I’m going to have a look in McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” to see if he has anything to say about crackling.

    1. Hi Lee, thanks for stopping by and commenting on the blog. I like your blog! Just yesterday, I picked some wild garlic and made some oil with it. Do give brining a try and report back your findings!

  2. Another variable to think about is meat density. Which varies between animals and between different muscle groups within the same animal. I offer no answers just more questions.

    1. A good point. Fish would take up brine more easily than meat I suspect, and probably chicken easier than pork. Another factor with pork belly or shoulder is that the brine will mainly penetrate from the flesh side, not much will make it through the skin or fat layers. Worth bearing in mind.

  3. Nick

    There’s a lot of information on the fourms regarding work that’s been done on home curing (dry and brine), air drying, regulations etc. A lot of it is referenced on by another blogger from your neck of the woods.

  4. Hi Nick, your blog is great, keep up the good work!

    In partial answer to your questions…this is a great website covering some of the science behind brining ( You can certainly assess the brine uptake by using a salinity meter (comparing the original salt content of the brining solution to the final salt content of the brining solution) but I don’t think that there would be a simple equation to gauge the salt concentration at a certain depth of a given piece of meat, except to say that if you use the ‘equilibrium brining’ method then once the salt concentrations have reached equilibrium you might reasonably assume that the salt concentration is uniform within the meat.

    In general the rate of diffusion is dependent on the temperature (diffusion is quicker at higher temperatures because particles have more kinetic energy) but over the smallish range of temperatures that one might store the meat in a fridge I think the differences in diffusion rate would be quite small. (It’s worth noting that if you use the ‘equilibrium brining’ method then you don’t have to worry about the rate of diffusion particularly in the sense that you can’t ‘over-brine’ your meat.)

    I’m not sure about the crackling question although I did find this I’ve not been able to get a hold of the actual article itself yet but I can forward it to you when I do.

  5. A brining formula at last! Brining recipes by volume are like… like trying to describe curly endive with euclidian geometry. Thanks for your campaign and for the good read.

  6. But wait! What about sugar? I was originally searching for a lower salt/higher sugar recipe for a friend who thinks salt is her greatest cardiovascular risk in eating bacon. Any thoughts?

    1. You might want to have your friend read up about sugar being the emerging culprit behind heart disease. (Not to mention increased inflammation and diabetes.) Salt on the other hand has no science backing the idea it is related to cardiovascular issues.

  7. I’m glad someone is working on the ‘scientific’ aspects of brining. Good for you. I go by instincts and taste. Right now I’m brining a 2.27 pound pork belly with a load of seasonings and cider vinegar to cook for St. Patrick’s Day. Did I measure anything? Not at all. I wanted to DRINK the brine. I can imagine how divine this pork belly will be with some colcannon. Vinegar and pork just go so well together! So keep up the good work and I’ll send people your way when they ask me about brininess. They get so frustrated when I roll my eyes and tell them “you’ll know when it’s just right.” Lol. Thanks for blogging!

  8. I don’t believe the weight of your meat in question is relevant here, on the basis that if you were aiming at brining in a 3% solution it would make no difference if you used a small dish, a bucket, or the Pacific Ocean. The end result is the same – i.e, you are brining your meat in a 3% brine solution. So, my advice, ignore the weight and make up a solution of whatever volume takes your fancy. The key factor is simply what percentage brine solution you are after. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent seems to be the prescribed concentration. For an overnight brine I’d be working more towards the 5% end of the scale.

    1. Hi, no, sorry I don’t think you have understood the post correctly. The brine strength should be calculated taking into account the weight of the meat. Whether you want 3, 5 or 10% is a matter of taste.

  9. Fantastic thanks, I will be trying this. Tom kerridge (a 2 Michelin star chef) in his book recommends 200g of salt in 1 litre of water. I followed this not knowing much about brining and it was the saltiest thing I’ve ever eaten, I couldn’t eat it. You may have to correct my maths but by my calculation that is a 20% salt solution! I’m going to follow your formula although I’m not really sure how to reduce the other ingredients, mainly the sugar. There is a copy of the recipe here (the black cabbage salsa is amazing)

    1. I followed this using a 3% brine and matched the sugar weight to the salt. I kept all other brine ingredients the same and it was fantastic. It needed an increase in temp at the end to get the crackling but wow what crackling! The meat stayed really moist too and was a really good level of salt. Still no reply from Tom regarding my tweet

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