Brining Chicken

by Elizabeth Skipper | May 26th, 2015 | Ask the Chef

chicken (400x400)I’ve read that brining chicken keeps it moist when grilling. Some of the recipes seem to have a lot of salt, and I don’t want to have chicken that is too salty. Is there a specific ratio of water to salt and sugar that I can follow?

With very little fat, chicken needs something else to keep it moist. Brining does more than keep it moist when cooked. It also seasons the meat better than salting the surface, and tenderizes it, especially helpful when you have a free-range bird. So brining this lean meat is an excellent choice for more than one reason.

Soaking meat in plain water does nothing. Thanks to the process of osmosis, adding salt to the water causes the flesh to draw it in. The question is how much salt is required. When you read directions that call for ½ cup or 1 cup of salt, it sounds like a lot. Remember, though, that the salt is in solution, and the chicken isn’t going to take in a large amount of it.

Studies done by Cooks Illustrated found that brining adds about 1/8 teaspoon salt per serving in poultry. Given that you’ll need less salt, possibly none, to season the meat at the end of cooking, this doesn’t seem an excessive amount.

If a brine is too weak, the meat will be slow to take it up. If a brine is too strong, it will pull moisture out of the meat. The amount of time meat brines is also important – too little, and it’s not effective; too long, and the meat will become too salty.

It used to be that if a recipe called for salt, it was understood that meant table salt. Nowadays, some recipes call for salt, some for kosher salt, some for sea salt. The crystalline structure will be different as well as the size of the grains; these both affect the weight of the salt. Measure carefully or the brine will be too weak or too strong.

Write this down somewhere and keep it handy: 1 teaspoon of table salt = 1 ½ teaspoons Morton kosher salt = 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt. It’s unlikely you’ll want to be as lavish as to use more costly salts for brine-making; so these equivalents should allow you to make any substitutions required.

You mentioned sugar. It’s not necessary and it won’t make the meat sweet; it’s mostly added to promote browning. Use an amount equal to the amount of salt if you want to include it. Either way, dissolve one or both completely before the meat goes in, and keep the meat well submerged. A properly-sized Ziploc bag works well, as will a bowl or shallow baking dish. If you use a bag, put it inside a container in case it leaks.

For 1 whole chicken or 3-4 pounds of bone-in chicken pieces, use ½ cup table salt to 2 quarts water. Brine whole chicken for an hour, chicken pieces from ½ to 1 hour. For up to six boneless, skinless chicken breasts, use 3 tablespoons table salt to 1 ½ quarts water, and brine from ½ to 1 hour.

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