How Does Brining Work?
If you’re wondering what the magic behind brining is, there is one very simple answer: salt. Wet or dry, brines work because the salt helps the meat retain moisture. How? By breaking down proteins in the meat. When those proteins break down, the meat won’t contract while cooking which means less water is lost, thus a more juicy plump bird. Plus, the salt does double duty and thoroughly seasons the meat, hence, more flavor.
Now, to wet or dry brine, that is the question. Wet brines, take a bit longer, but will help add moisture. And because they take longer to brine, they have a lot of flavor. Dry brines, however, will retain only the natural juices of the meat without adding in other liquids, which means the flavor is more intense. It’s also faster and the skin will be crisper. Both are delicious, so it comes down to time and preference.
Time is of extreme importance when brining, the longer the brine the better. Dry brines can be left on for just a short time if cooking small cuts of meat or you if are in a hurry, but for a dry brine to really work its magic, leave it on for 12 to 24 hours or up to 3 days. Wet brines should be left for at least 12 hours and up to 2 days.
How to Brine a Chicken
Now that we’ve covered the basics, its time to actually learn how to brine a chicken, both using wet brine and dry brine. Basically, you’ll mix a few ingredients together, add in the chicken, and wait.
HOW TO WET BRINE A CHICKEN
First, the classic wet brine. Wet brining a chicken is easy, but takes a bit longer (don’t worry, the payoff is worth it).
Step 1: As mentioned before, the key ingredient to a brine is salt, and when it comes to wet brines, it’s all about the salt to liquid ratio. For a classic wet brine, use about 1 1/4 cups of kosher salt per gallon of water. Then just adjust the amounts to whatever is necessary to fully submerge your chicken. Again, it’s okay to brine partially thawed meat.
You can also add sugar; although it’s not required, it does help brown the skin when cooking. Any kind of sweetener works (white, brown, honey, or molasses, just to name a few) and you can add about the same amount as the salt, or less if you prefer. Herbs and spices, like peppercorns, bay leaves, rosemary, garlic, and citrus, can also be added to the mix, but aren’t necessary.
Step 2: Bring your brining mixture to a boil and stir to allow the salt (and sugar if using) to dissolve. Then let it cool completely. Do not try to submerge raw chicken into hot or warm liquid. It will raise the temperature of the meat, which could lead to loads of bad bacteria.
Step 3: Once the brine is completely cooled, submerge the chicken into the liquid. You can leave the bird whole, or break it down into pieces first.
Cover the pot with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours or up to 2 days. Some recipes mention brining your bird in an ice filled cooler, but to be sure your brine and bird stay cold enough and avoid any food safety issues, it’s best to keep it in the refrigerator.
Step 4: After the desired length of time, remove the chicken from the brining liquid, dry with paper towels and cook.
HOW TO DRY BRINE A CHICKEN
If wet brines aren’t your things, dry brines are just as good, maybe even better. They’re easier, faster, and result in richly flavored meat due to only retaining its own natural juices. Here are the basics to a dry brine.
Step 1: Use 1/2 cup of kosher salt, two tablespoons of baking power, and any herbs or spices you want and mix together in a bowl.
Step 2: Use paper towels to pat dry your chicken.
Step 3: Generously sprinkle the brine mixture over the entire bird, rubbing it into the skin, until the outside of the bird is completely covered. Depending on the size of your bird, you may not need to use all of the mix; too much and it may end up over salted, so don’t cake it on.
Step 4: Loosely cover chicken with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 12 hours or up to 3 days.
Step 5: Rinse off the brine, pat the chicken dry, and cook. (Make sure the skin is very dry before cooking so that it will get nice and crispy.)
Types of Brine for Different Cooking Methods
Now, what types of brine should you use for the style of cooking? Brining a chicken for smoking, roasting, grilling, and buttermilk brine for fried chicken, all have their benefits, and they’re all good ideas.
How to Brine a Chicken for Grilling
Brining meat before grilling is a worthwhile step because it will help keep moisture in lean cuts of meat that would otherwise dry out over the high heat of a grill. You can use a classic wet brine of water, salt, sugar, and spices of your choice, think cumin, coriander, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, etc.…and get creative with the liquids. Grab a few extra beers and use them in the brine!
How to Brine a Chicken for Frying
It may seem impossible to improve on fried chicken, but the secret to an even more amazing piece of fried chicken is brining. Giving the chicken a brine means the meat is seasoned and juicy, so your chicken has tons of flavor both in the breading and in the meat. You can use a classic wet brine and don’t be afraid to change up the liquid. Try pickle juice or, even better, buttermilk. A basic buttermilk brine of salt, pepper, and buttermilk adds tang and the acidity will tenderize the meat as well.
How to Brine a Chicken for Roasting or Smoking
Brining a chicken for roasting or smoking is much like grilling or frying. Prepare either a wet brine or dry brine to retain moisture and add flavor. Again, a wet brine will contain the classic mixture of water, salt, and any spices you wish to include. Adding sugar will help produce a more golden brown skin due to carmalization.