This week many people will be soaking their traditional Thanksgiving turkeys in a salt solution prior to cooking—a process called brining—to help ensure the meat stays soft and moist. The basic structural component of meat (i.e, muscle) is the myofibril, which is made up of myosin-containing thick filaments (shown in the image in red) and of actin-containing thin filaments (shown in blue). Myofibrils are normally arranged in a tightly bound molecular lattice. Brining increases the salt and water content of the muscle cells by absorption and osmosis. It also dissolves and denatures some of the myofibril proteins causing them to unwind and swell, resulting in the expansion of the protein lattice and allowing even more water into the muscle cells. But there are limits. Brining can help make the meat juicier and saltier, but the turkey will still end up dry and tough if it’s overcooked!
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Hand-drawn water-color illustration based on data from X-ray diffraction and high-resolution light and electron microscopy studies of muscle.
David Goodsell, PhD., Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA