The Science of Injecting Meat: No Wait, No Waste, More Flavor
"I think everybody should have a great Wonderbra. There's so many ways to enhance [breasts]." Christina Aguilera
You don't need a Wonderbra to enhance chicken and turkey breasts or any other meat for that matter. Rubs, mops, marinating, brining, and sauces can deliver a lot of flavor to the surface of meat, but if you really want to enhance meat, to get flavor deep into it, the solution is injecting (see my articles on marinating and brining).
Many meat processors routinely inject meats like turkey, chicken, and pork at the factory. Injecting, or enhancing as food processors call it, is a sure fire way to get the flavor and juiciness down deep. And it is the only way to get fats, herbs, spices and other large molecules deep into meat. You don't have to worry about oversalting, there's no waiting -- you can do it at the last minute, you have less waste, no huge containers are needed, there are no refrigerator space problems, and there are few safety issues.
The secret to injecting is to go easy. A good guideline is to shoot for 1 to 2% salt and skip the big flavors like garlic, pepper, and herbs that mask the natural flavor of the meat. I have judged pulled pork and brisket at barbecue competitions where the meat was gushing juice, but it didn't taste like meat. It tasted like apple juice and garlic. I want pork that tastes like pork, beef that tastes like beef, and turkey that tastes like turkey.
The best solutions are salt water, salted butter, or stock. And you don't need much. Muscle is 75% water and it is saturated. There isn't much room in there for more liquid. Your injection will go in between the muscle fibers and bundles, not within the fibers, so you won't need much.
To inject, you need a gizmo, and something to put in it.
There are a number of injection gizmos on the market ranging from simple hypodermics to pumps that look like something used by the Orkin man. For home use, a good sturdy specialty meat injector hypodermic will do.
The needles for this purpose are different than normal hypodermics. They aren't open at the tip because a large opening at the tip gets clogged with meat easily. Meat injectors have holes in the sides of the needles, and the tip is a sharp point.
A good injector has a really sharp tip, and a sturdy connection between the needle and the body, but the needle should be easy to remove. The plunger should have a sturdy connection to the body of the syringeand a good tight gasket between it and the interior of the syringe. I prefer a silicone gasket. It should be easy to break down and clean, and you should be able to store the needle inside the syringe. It should be at least two ounces capacity and made of stainless steel. The inexpensive plastic syringes I've owned lastic tended to crack with age or burst under pressure. Brass, copper, and aluminum are not good for this purpose since they can react with the salt.
Butterball 2-Ounce Stainless Marinade Injector
This heavy stainless steel injector (above) holds 2 ounces of fluid and has a 2 1/4" needle with two staggered holes on the sides. This is a good all purpose injector and the one I use the most. It works for thick meats like turkey breasts as well as thin meats like chops. There is a comfortable three-hole finger grip, and a removable lid to make cleaning easy. The silicon gasket provides a really good seal.
Spitjack Injector Gun
This is a serious tool for competition barbecue. It comes with two 5.5" heavy-duty needles, one with numerous holes in the sides. It has a 2 ounce capacity and you can adjust the dose of injection with a dail. With this one you can just insert it into thick meat and squeeze, you don't have to pull it out slowly as you squeeze as you do wit the others.
NoCents 1 Gallon Injector
Many competition cooks and caterers use big pumps like this one (at right). They are especially useful for injecting whole hogs or injecting lots of food for the concession booth at the state high school soccer championship tournament.
The Pork Injector
This motorized "Auto Pump Injector System" is the state of the art and can really save you time and hand cramps if you have a lot of meat to inject. You make up your injection, pit it in a bucket or bottle, and lower the intake tube into the liquid. Then just insert the needle, squeeze the trigger gently, and slowly withdraw the needle to disperse the fluid. In minutes the whole job is done.
They sent me one to test, and it worked great, but I don't cook as many pork butts and briskets as competition cooks do, so I promptly passed it along to Scottie Johnson of CancerSucksChicago.com, a team AmazingRibs.com co-sponsors. He has won the Jack Daniels World Championship Barbecue, no small accomplishment. He said "It's awesome. I fumbled around a bit at first, just because it was such a new procedure for me. Once I had it going, the ease of the flow and not having to refill a major plus. Normally your hands get wet and slippery during the process but this device eliminated all of that. No grabbing paper towels to dry my hands during the injection process. I can see where it would be really super for doing a whole hog or in a restaurant or catering situation."
The problem everyone has with injectors is filling them. Most of us mix the injection and stick the needle into it and suck it up. But the position of the holes in the needle insures you don't get it all, and this can be aggravating when you are using just a half stick of butter for a turkey breast.
My friend, social media consultant Alex Hambrick, of Ngage Inc. (a barbecue competitor and a very inventive problem solver), sent me this solution: Make the injection and pour it into a plastic water bottle. Shake it all up to mix it. Take a lighter, heat up the end of the injector needle, and slide it through the cap of the water bottle. Pull the plunger on the injector all the way back so the injector is filled with air. Put a piece of electrical tape over the hole and poke the needle through the tape into the hole. The tape acts like a gasket. Push the plunger down injecting air into the bottle. This pressurizes the bottle slightly and counteracts the vacuum effect making it much easier to withdraw liquid. Now turn it upside down, and withdraw the liquid, just like the nurse did when she gave you your flu shot. This bit of cleverness lets you pull all the fluid out.
What to put in them
Many BBQ champs use commercial products such as Butcher BBQ Brisket Marinade whose ingredient lists include flavor enhancers monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium inosinate, and guanylate. Papaya extract tenderizes, sodium phosphate is good at improving the ability of proteins to hold water during heat stress, and xanthan gum is added as an emulsifier to hold them all together for injecting uniformity. Some traditionalists think this is way too Barry Bonds. But Butcher's Blends win trophies, and I've tasted the product and been impressed.
When I inject I use a brine that no more than 2% salt by weight. It will diffuse to a lower concentration within the meat, enough to enhance flavor and bind water, but not enough to give the meat a cured flavor. If I add flavor, I try not to go crazy. You can add oils, herbs, spices, sweetners, syrups, sauces, stocks, broths, colorings, pretty much anything. But be thoughtful. Do you really want your turkey to taste like Dr. Pepper? If you use herbs or spices, grind them fine. Don't use dark liquids like soy sauce or Worcestershire on light colored meats like chicken or turkey. Don't go crazy with sweeteners. Here are the recipes I use.
Makes. About 1 quart
Serves. This makes enough to inject about 30 pounds of meat
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 cup apple juice or low sodium pork, chicken, or beef stock
3 cups water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons Worcestershire
4 cups water or low sodium beef stock, or a mix of both
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups water or low sodium chicken stock, or a mix of both
Add herbs and spices. You can add herbs and spices such as garlic and pepper, but they can overwhelm the meat's natural flavor.
Add oil. After you have used a brine injection, if you want you can go back and inject a small amount of oil. You can't mix the oil with the brine since it floats to the top. If you don't have canola you can use another neutral flavored oil like corn oil. Olive oil can be strong flavored. You can try butter, but it tends to coagulate and gather in blobs. The blobs disperse somewhat during cooking, however.
1) Mix all the ingredients in a bottle and shake vigorously before injecting. Pour into a narrow container so you can suck fluid in through the needle. In a wide bowl it is hard to get the holes below the water line and you then need to unscrew the top, pour it into the syrings, spill it everywhere, screw on the top, inject, and repeat. I bought a V-shaped flower vase for the job.
2) Insert the needle and go all the way to the center. Press the plunger slowly and ease the needle out. Insert the needle about every 1.5" apart and leave behind about 1 ounce per pound. A little liquid will follow the needle out of the hole, but if it comes spurting out, use less pressure. We want to avoid pockets of liquid.
3) You can cook right away, but if you let the meat rest for an hour or more, even overnight, the injection will disperse more evenly through the meat. Then dry the surface with a paper towel and apply your rub and cook.