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My brother brined a turkey for the first time this Thanksgiving and the breast meat was indeed juicier and tastier. I did a little reading on the process and I couldn't make the osmosis explanation jive with my background in chemistry.

You are dealing with two pots of saltwater (the brine solution and the interior of the cell) separated by a semi-permeable membrane, the cell membrane. Water wants to make things equal in concentration so it will always flow from the least concentrated to the most concentrated. If the brine is saltier than the cell, water would flow out of the bird until the saltiness became equal.

Eventually I found a more reasonable explanation, though it did come from wikipedia. The answer is not the level of dissolved salt, it is the level of dissolved solids. The cell has more total dissolved solids than the brine solution, so it is more concentrated. The water moves from the least concentrated brine into the more concentrated cells. And in brining it carries with it flavors and salt from the brine.

A reverse osmosis filter uses pressure to reverse the process, forcing water to move from the more concentrated dirty water to the least concentrated clean water. Otherwise the clean water would flow back across to dilute the dirty side.

Of course, I have gotten a lot more mileage out of this forum than I ever did from my degree, so I can now dismiss with the science and pursue the art.
Original Post
Thanks for your research and post Twofer. I'm going to post here the Wikipedia paragraph about Brining as it pertains to meat in case others are interested. It is actually a fairly complex process involving denaturation and the eventual coagulation of the resultant proteins within the cells so as to maintain the 'osmosed' liquid throughout the cooking process. I suppose we all might leave it well enough alone to know, 'it works.' And leave it at that, but I, too, find it fascinating and would like to see more empirical research on the subject.

The article reads as follows:

In cooking, brining is a process similar to marination in which meat is soaked in a salt solution (the brine) before cooking.

Brining makes cooked meat moister by hydrating the cells of its muscle tissue before cooking, via the process of osmosis, and by allowing the cells to hold on to the water while they are cooked, via the process of denaturation. The brine surrounding the cells has a higher concentration of salt than the fluid within the cells, but the cell fluid has a higher concentration of other solutes. This leads salt ions to enter the cell via diffusion. The increased salinity of the cell fluid causes the cell to absorb water from the brine via osmosis. The salt introduced into the cell also denatures its proteins. The proteins coagulate, forming a matrix which traps water molecules and holds them during cooking. This prevents the meat from drying out, or dehydrating.

In many foods the additional salt is also desirable as a preservative. Note that kosher meats are salted during the process of koshering so they should not be brined.

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