Most meats when overcooked will have an inferior texture and taste, but this is especially true with chicken breast meat, the most favored part of chicken in America. Did you know that in 2013 chicken became the most popular meat in America, surpassing beef the first time in over 100 years? Fortunately, soaking chicken in brine will help to achieve a moister and juicier product. In this post I will share my experience on how to brine chicken. Trust me, after trying brined chicken you will never go back.
Another equally as important benefit of brining chicken is that it allows even flavor distribution throughout the pieces of meat. If you just rub chicken meat with spices or put sauce on it, it will be flavorful on the outside, but bland on the inside. If you brine, the meat will have the same flavor from surface to center. Brining is also known to improve browning of the chicken meat.
What is brine?
At its core, brine is a strong solution of water and salt. To give the brine more flavor sweeteners (such as brown sugar, maple or corn syrup, molasses, etc.) and spices are usually added.
The verb “brine” means to treat with or steep in brine. The salt has two effects on poultry, reports Dr. Alan Sams, Executive Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A & M University. “It dissolves protein in muscle, and the salt and protein reduce moisture loss during cooking. This makes the meat juicer, more tender, and improves the flavor. The low levels of salt enhance the other natural flavors of poultry.”
Making the chicken brine
With salt everyone’s taste is different, and recommendations on how salty the brine should be vary from source to source.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture recommends the following: ”To prepare a brine solution for poultry, add ¾ cup salt to 1 gallon of water, or 3 tablespoons of salt per quart of water. For best flavor use sodium chloride-table salt”.
Similarly, Stanley Marianski in his well-known book titled Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages recommends the following brine formula:
A typical brine solution (no Cure #1 added)
- 1 gal. of cold water
- ¾ cup of salt
- 3 oz. (85 g) sugar (brown or white)
A typical brine solution (with Cure #1)
- 1 gal. of cold water
- ½ cup (146 g) of salt
- 3 oz. (85 g) of Cure #1 – corresponds to 79 g of pure salt
- 3 oz. (85 g) sugar (brown or white).
Note: Cure #1 is required for brining products that will be smoked at low temperatures (below 200F).
To prepare a brine dissolve salt in cold water by mixing it thoroughly (salt dissolves much faster in hot water than in cold water). Cover and refrigerate before adding the chicken.
The above formulas are a good start, but will lack in flavor. My preferred formula for chicken brine inevitably includes vegetables and spices to add complex flavor to the otherwise bland chicken meat, especially the breast meat. The chicken brine recipe below is what I have been successfully using and perfecting over the past 10 years. It’s exceptionally flavorful and reminds me of a tasty homemade chicken stock.
The improved brine solution
- 1 gal. of cold water
- ¾ cup / 219 g of (kosher) salt
- 3 oz. (85 g) sugar (brown or white)
- 2 large carrots, peeled and cut into pieces
- 2 medium onions, peeled and cut into pieces
- 6-8 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 Tbsp black pepper corns
To prepare the brine, bring 1 quart of water to boil, add salt and sugar and stir to dissolve. Add chopped vegetables and spices and remove from heat. Cover and let cool. Mix with the rest of the water and refrigerate before adding the chicken.
Dry chicken brine
Brine does not have to be liqiud. Dry brining is simple yet just as effective alternative to traditional wet brining methods. Dry brining involves seasoning the meat with salt and spices and refrigerating for two days. This two day process drains moisture out of the poultry, creating a flavorful brine, which is then reabsorbed into the meat without adding additional water.
Poultry is typically brined by a wet method as it is very easy to end up with a product that is too salty. My solution for dry brining is to use the exact amount of salt that is needed to make the meat perfectly salted. This way the chicken meat will never get over-salted. Let’s say I am going to brine 4 lbs of chicken breasts. My definition of perfectly salted meat is 6 grams (1 heaping teaspoon) of kosher or sea salt per pound of meat. With that in mind, I will dry brine my chicken breasts by rubbing them with exactly 4 heaping teaspoons of kosher salt.
Wet brining process
Brining should be done at a refrigerator temperature (below 40F), with the starting brine temperature also being below 40F.
Brining time depends on the size of the product. Whole chicken will need about a day of brining. Chicken breasts, depending on size, require from 2 to 4 hours to be fully brined, based on Stanley Marianski’s recommendation for poultry brining times:
Cornish Game Hens 1 – 2 hours
Chicken Pieces 2 – 4 hours
Whole Chickens (2 lbs.) 1 day
Whole Chickens (4 lbs.) 1 – 2 days
Turkey Breast 4 – 8 hours
Whole Turkeys (up to 10 lbs.) 1 – 2 days
Whole Turkey (over 10 lbs.) 2 – 3 days
It is safer to brine on the low end of the time range on the first attempt and keep notes for future reference as it’s easy to fix an under-salted product than over-salted one. You can always brine longer the next time if required.
The meat should be placed in a stainless steel, clay or food grade plastic container and covered fully with the brine. You may want to use a weight plate if needed.
My preferred method is to use a Ziploc bag large enough to hold the brine and the meat. It works especially well with large amounts of meat when you cook for a larger party. A jumbo Ziploc bag will even fit a turkey with the brine and won’t require a huge foot print in the fridge.
Draining and Drying
After brining, chicken meat should be rinsed in cold tap water for 5 minutes to remove any crystallized salt from their surface, then it should be left to drain.
Chicken breast meat
I’ve seen many comments, arguments and discussions on which is better – boneless, skinless chicken breast or bone-in, skin-on chicken breast.
Boneless vs. bone-in
Let’s start with the bone. If you can, use bone-in chicken breast. No, the bone does not make the meat any more flavorful. Period. I’ve experimented with this and found absolutely no evidence of the bone in the chicken breast enhancing the flavor of the meat. If you roast the bone over open fire, yes, it will acquire a nice toasty flavor. But, as soon as you remove the bone, the flavor will be gone. Seriouseats.com came to the same conclusion: “the flavor exchange theory is completely bunk—the completely intact piece of meat tasted exactly the same as the one with the intervening aluminum foil.”
Seriouseats.com did find, though, that the bone in the meat “insulates the meat, slowing its cooking, and providing less surface area to lose moisture.” So, there you go. Bone-in is better then boneless, but not for the reason most commonly referenced.
The down side of using bone-in chicken breast meat is that you will have to mess with all those bones on your plate. Personally, I like and stick with the boneless version. Even if I buy a bone-in version I remove the bone before cooking.
Skinless vs. skin-on
The choice here really depends on a number of factors, primarily on how the breast will be cooked. Rule of thumb – if cooking over open or high fire, keep the skin on. It will protect the breast meat from drying out and losing moisture quickly. Crisped up skin will also add flavor and great taste to the final product.
Whenever I bake chicken breasts, I use skinless version. When baking the meat does not come in contact with extremely high temperatures and skin’s protective value is reduced. On top, baked chicken skin just doesn’t taste great.
Curing and smoking chicken for extra flavor
Brining will benefit the chicken regardless of how it’s cooked. It will make it juicier, more tender and more flavorful. In my recipe for baked chicken breast I successfully skip brining and still end up with a very tender, juicy and flavorful breast meat. I think this the result of using lower cooking temperature, adding butter and chicken stock, and cooking to the exact internal temperature of 165F. In all other cases I brine the breast meat if I want the best results.
For added flavor, add Cure #1 in the brine and smoke your chicken. Curing and smoking imparts a unique, delicate flavor and pink color to poultry meat and increases its storage life. A light smoke will add to the delicate flavor of the poultry, a heavy smoke will add flavor similar to smoked red-meat products.