Brining chicken before it's smoked goes a long way toward making your chicken taste better. If your smoked chicken isn't as plump and juicy as you'd like, brining is the answer!
It doesn't take much time, and depending on the method used, brining chicken can be an easy job. It's definitely worth the effort.
Have you ever bit into a piece of smoked chicken breast and found that it was dry and tasteless? I bet you had to grab your drink and take a quick swig just to get it down.
Overcooking white meat by just a few degrees causes the protein fibers to contract, which squeezes out the tasty juices. It also makes the meat tougher and gives it an unpleasant texture.
Dark meat is more forgiving when it's overcooked. The greater amount of collagen in legs and thighs is the reason, but there's still some loss of moisture and flavor.
Brining improves all parts of the chicken, but its magic is most evident with the breasts. When brined, the muscle fibers hang on to more moisture.
And that translates into more flavorful, tender meat. The dark-meated legs and thighs are plumper and more juicy, too. And tastier!
It comes down to two choices when you decide to brine your chicken: wet brining or dry brining. The names pretty much say it all, but without revealing the important details.
To wet brine chicken, measured amounts of salt and water are combined and the chicken is submerged under the surface. The amount of time the chicken is left in the brine is crucial.
If not soaked long enough, there will be only limited benefit. And if left in too long, the chicken will be too salty to eat.
Since there has to be plenty of liquid-brine around the chicken, an adequately sized container is needed. It has to be kept cold (between 36°F and 40°F) for the duration.
And for that you need space in a refrigerator. At times, this can be a problem.
In lieu of using a refrigerator, chicken can be brined in a bucket or cooler with a sealed contain of ice floating on the top.This will keep the brine at the perfect temperature - until the ice melts.
However, a frozen half-gallon milk jug of water will last several hours, which is plenty of time to brine even a whole chicken.
Dry brining chicken is easy. There's no worry that the chicken will be too salty if it's brined too long. And if it's dry brined for less that the optimal amount of time, there will still be some benefit.
Less space is required with this method, since you're not fooling around with liquid brine. Even if your fridge is packed with leftovers, some rearranging might create enough room.
The procedure is simple.
There's no chance of the chicken becoming too salty. And if brining time is shortchanged, the chicken won't be completely brined but it will be seasoned with the right amount of salt.
I've found that when dry brined chicken is smoked, it's not quite as moist as chicken that's been wet brined. But the dry brined chicken seems to have a little more flavor.
When chicken is dry brined, a small amount of liquid is left in the bottom of the bag or storage container. Not much, but evidently it's enough to affect the juiciness of the cooked chicken. And enough to concentrate the chicken's flavor.
Wet brined chicken does lose some of its juice, proven by the fact that the brine becomes pinkish in color. But being surrounded by salty water, the chicken reabsorbs some liquid, possibly more than the amount lost. And that would account for the less intense flavor.
Hands down, dry brining is easier. It requires less space, much less salt, and there's no chance of the meat becoming over-salted. The meat will be moist, but not quite as juicy as a wet brined bird would be.
Wet brining requires larger containment, more refrigerator space, and a lot of salt - most of which is poured down the drain.
But if you prefer your chicken to be as plump and juicy as possible, wet brining is the way to go, even if the process has a few drawbacks.
For dry brining, the needs are few. With a little high quality salt and a food grade storage container of some type, whether Ziplock or TupperWare, ya got all ya need.
If you opt to wet brine, you'll need much more salt, up to one cup per gallon of brine made. If the water coming from your tap is questionable in quality, you might decide to buy a gallon or two of filtered drinking water to use.
A sturdy food grade container rounds out the list. A large container with a snap-on lid will work, as long as it fits the fridge.
For smaller amounts of chicken I've used good quality gallon size freezer bags. But I still place the bag in a large bowl, just in case of a leak.
Miscellaneous items include measuring spoons, gloves and a knife.
As I mentioned earlier, you don't have to worry about overdoing it when dry brining. Sometimes I'll leave the salted chicken in the fridge for a couple of days. I think that the longer brine period makes the chicken even better.
At minimum, smaller pieces of chicken like the legs (drumsticks), wings and thighs should rest for an hour before being seasoned and smoked. Give chicken breasts and leg quarters a little more time, about and hour and a half.
With whole chickens, two hours will do the trick. And don't forget to sprinkle some salt into the body cavity. It'll work its way from the inside out.
But if you're cooking spur-of-the-moment, don't fret. Just salt the chicken first thing, then do whatever prep work you gotta do - make the dry rub or sauce, light the charcoal, make the salad...
Even if it's salted for just ten minutes before hitting the smoker, some of the salinity will work its way into the meat. And you'll notice a difference.
The amount of time to leave chicken in liquid brine depends on the concentration of the brine solution and the size of the pieces being brined.
Whole chickens take the most time, up to eight hours. Brining time for skinless drumsticks and wing sections can be as short as thirty minutes.