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Barton, You're Such a Briner

A quick swim in brine does great things for grilled mahi-mahi. Keep reading to get the recipe. (Dominic Bracco II for The Washington Post)

If only we’d had room to run chef Barton Seaver’s recipe for Grilled Mahi-Mahi With Nectarines and Watercress in the print edition today, along with Jane Black’s profile. It’s simple, it tastes like summer and it uses Seaver's favorite technique for fish: brining.

“It’s one of the simplest ways to ensure that you get the best-tasting, most succulent fish you can possibly cook,” he says. “I brine almost every piece of fish I serve because it not only seasons the fish throughout, thus accentuating the natural flavors, but it also gives you a lot of flexibility in the cooking time.” (Maybe you’ve caught his video.)

The chef has figured out that different fish call for varying amounts of swim time in a flavored salt-water solution, based on their different textures. Seaver says when you brine a fish fillet, water-soluble proteins are drawn toward its surface. Once the fillet is removed from the brine, the proteins dry and form what’s called a pellicle. When the fish is grilled, that pellicle absorbs smoky flavor and helps create a rich brown exterior. This Fine Cooking article by Shirley O. Corriher explains things further.

A brine can be flavored with sugar, molasses or honey; a little sweetness tempers the saltiness. A brine can be simmered with herbs or a spice, but it has to be cold when the fish fillets go in. Unless you have health concerns about your sodium intake, don’t worry too much about the salt imparted by a brine, the chef says. But be careful not to add too much salt to the brine itself or the salt will cure the fish rather than flavor it. (For 20 to 24 ounces of fish, try a basic brine of 2 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar.)

Here’s his short list of fish and their brining times:

* Amberjack: about 1 hour
* Arctic char/salmon: 35 minutes
* Mahi-mahi/wahoo: 35 minutes
* Catfish (for frying): 35 minutes
* Halibut/sablefish: 25 minutes
* Rockfish/bluefish: 25 minutes
* Cod/hake: 20 minutes
* Tilapia: 20 minutes
* Mackerel/sardines: 12 to 15 minutes
* Plaice/sole/flounder: 5 to 10 minutes
* Rainbow trout: 7 minutes (NOTE: The chef says rainbow trout is always a fun one to brine because the slime on the skin turns the water murky and viscous. “Strange, I know,” he says. “This is a fish to mess around with different brine flavors, as trout is particularly amenable to many strong flavors.”)

The chef’s brined mahi-mahi recipe calls for lightly seasoning the fillets with salt before they hit the grill, but I found the brine had done its job so well that no seasoning was necessary. The fish stayed moist even with a few extra unintended minutes of cooking.

Go fish!

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  May 13, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes  | Tags: Barton Seaver, Bonnie Benwick, seafood  
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I love the idea of brining, but my husband is on a low-sodium diet. Anyone have any thoughts?


Posted by: jhershelredpuppy1 | May 13, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

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