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When the subject of brining comes up, people ask what kinds of containers can be used to hold the brining solution and meat. The usual answer is a non-reactive container made from plastic, ceramic, glass, stainless steel, or anodized aluminum (not regular aluminum). Plastic containers are most popular because they are widely available in sizes large enough to hold a whole turkey, a commonly brined meat.
But are all plastic containers appropriate for contact with your food during brining?
Plastic is made from hydrocarbons derived from petroleum or natural gas. The hydrocarbons are formed into chains called polymers, or plastic resins. By combining hydrocarbon molecules in different ways, different types of plastic can be created.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) requires that plastics used in food packaging be of greater purity than plastics used for non-food packaging. This is commonly referred to as food grade plastic. Plastics used to package pharmaceuticals are held to an even higher standard than food grade.
Food grade plastic does not contain dyes or recycled plastic deemed harmful to humans. However, this does not mean that food grade plastic cannot contain recycled plastic. The FDA has detailed regulations concerning recycled plastics in food packaging.
Another aspect of food grade plastic is matching the appropriate type of plastic to the food in question. Foods that are highly acidic or that contain alcohol or fats can leach plastic additives from the packaging or container into the food. As a result, you should only use plastic containers that are FDA approved for the particular type of food the plastic will come into contact with.
Finally, it should be noted that a plastic container can no longer be considered food grade if it has been used to store non-food items like chemicals, paint, or detergent.
In the United States, the following codes represent the seven categories of plastic used in nearly all plastic containers and product packaging:
Another important type of plastic is polycarbonate, a clear shatter-resistant material used in restaurant food storage containers and the Rubbermaid Premier line of stain-resistant home food storage containers.
Why do we need different types of plastics, anyway? This excerpt from the American Plastics Council website explains it well.
There is a common misconception that all containers made of white plastic or HDPE plastic bearing the symbol are food grade containers. This is not true.
If you are considering the purchase of a container from some place other than a kitchen or restaurant supply store, and the container is not clearly labeled as "food safe" or being made of food grade plastic, then you should assume that it is not food grade and you should not brine in it—unless you line it with a food grade plastic bag.
Any food grade HDPE, PP, or polycarbonate container is appropriate for brining. These materials can withstand the salt, acids (e.g. orange juice, Coca-Cola), and alcohol (e.g. beer, booze) used in flavor brines.
As a general rule:
When in doubt, ask the seller or manufacturer if the container is made of food grade plastic.
Here are some examples of plastic brining containers you can use:
Sometimes brining in a food grade plastic bag is more convenient and takes less space in the refrigerator than using a bulky plastic container.
Regular Ziploc bags can be used safely for brining (Photo 7). The one-gallon size can be used for small cuts of meat like pork chops, chicken pieces, while the two-gallon size will accommodate a whole or butterflied chicken. Just put the meat in the bag, add the brine, zip the top, and place in a mixing bowl in the fridge for support and to catch any leaks (Photo 8).
For items like a whole turkey, large food grade plastic bags will do the trick. One such product is Ziploc Big Bags XL (Photos 9-11). These thick, sturdy bags are designed to store anything, including food, and are made of the same food grade plastic as regular Ziploc bags. They measure 2' x 1.7' and hold up to 10 gallons. They include built-in handles and a pleated bottom that allows the bag stand up on its own.
Another product is Reynolds Oven Bag for Turkey (Photos 12-13). These bags can be used as a liner inside any non-food grade plastic container. In fact, you can add plain water outside the bag to displace some of the volume of the container, thus reducing the amount of brine needed inside the bag.
Both Ziploc Big Bags XL and Reynolds Oven Bag for Turkey are available in stores alongside regular Ziploc bags.
Some kitchen supply stores and catalogs sell disposable plastic bags designed especially for turkey brining. They are made of food grade plastic, but tend to be very expensive compared to the bags shown above.
If you know that a plastic container or bag is not made of food grade material, you should not use it for brining. If you cannot determine the food grade status of a container or bag, you should not use it for brining.
Since HDPE buckets are somewhat porous, they can hold odors and stains from foods like pickles or barbecue sauce. If you score a free bucket from a restaurant, try this cleaning routine suggested by USA Emergency Supply. It has worked pretty well for me.
To learn more about the brining process and brining recipes, read All About Brining.