Learn how to brine chicken and you will greatly improve its flavor, texture and moistness. This single step makes a big difference in the quality of your smoked and grilled chicken.
The salt and sugar in brine make changes to protein that improves its texture and enhances its ability to retain moisture. And that translates into better tasting chicken come dinnertime!
How Brining Works
When chicken or other meat is put into a brine solution, a two-way transfer begins. Juices from the protein are pulled out into the brine, while the brine (along with any added sugar and flavorings) is pulled in. The end goal is to equalize the level of salt between brine and flesh.
As that's happening, other changes occur. The salt changes the character of the proteins in the meat, breaking them down and loosening their grip on each other. In a way, it causes them to somewhat gel, and makes it harder for moisture to escape when the chicken is cooked. Sugars that are absorbed into the flesh hold on to water, which helps keep the meat even more moist when cooked.
First, let's start with a basic poultry brine recipe:
1 gallon cold water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
Spices, herbs and other flavors (chopped onion, garlic, celery, etc.) are all fair game. Use your favorites, use your judgement, and don't overdo it. Find a good recipe for more guidance.
Bring 1/2 gallon of the water, the salt and sugar to boil, stirring until both are completely dissolved. Remove from heat, add flavorings, cover and allow to cool completely. Add the remaining 1/2 gallon of water. Refrigerate to below 40 degrees Fahrenheit before adding chicken. You can cut the recipe in half, or double it as needed, depending on how much chicken you'll be brining. Make enough so the chicken is completely covered in the brining container. If you brine in sealable plastic bag, you'll need less brine than if brining in a bowl.
To keep the chicken submerged, place a heavy plate, or a flat-bottomed bowl filled with some water over the chicken in the brine container.
Keep the brine and chicken COLD during brining, between 36-40 degrees Fahrenheit. If there's room, place the brining chicken in the fridge. If not, brine in an insulated cooler, and place a sealed bag of ice in the brine with the chicken. Don't put loose ice in the brine...when it melts, the brine will be diluted and it won't do its job.
Use the following brining time chart for chicken as a guide. Adjust within the brining times to achieve more or less salty flavor.
Whole Chicken -- 4 to 8 hours
Half Chicken -- 3 to 6 hours
Bone-in Skin-on Breasts -- 1 to 2 hours
Boneless Skinless Breasts -- 30 to 60 minutes
Legs, Thighs, Skin-on -- 45 to 90 minutes
Legs, Thighs, Skinless -- 30 to 45 minutes
Always brine in a non-reactive container. Glass, porcelain, crockery, plastic and stainless steel are all OK. Aluminum, copper and wood are not.
After brining, rinse the chicken well in cold, running water. Pat dry with a clean towel.
Now that the chicken is brined, it's ready to be seasoned with your favorite dry rub and smoked or grilled. Brined chicken usually takes less time to cook, which is another benefit of brining.
If you haven't brined chicken before, you'll definitely notice an improvement in both flavor and texture.