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How to Brine Chicken

First things first: the motivation. There has to be some reason to add an extra step to making dinner, right? Well, there are a few good reasons to brine chicken:

  • Brining chicken not only adds moisture to the chicken, making it nice and plump, it also helps prevent it from drying out when you cook it. The result is a delicious, moist and juicy chicken.
  • Brining not only affects the texture and juiciness of your chicken, it also affects the taste. A few hours in a brine will let salt penetrate deep into the chicken meat, enhancing its natural flavour.

Of course, there is one disadvantage. All the extra water that ends up in the chicken can make it harder to get a crispy skin. Luckily, that’s easy to fix. If you’re going for crispy skin, just let the chicken air dry in the refrigerator for an hour or so. We’ll go over that in a bit more detail in the last section of this article, how to brine chicken.


Now, a word of warning – Brining chicken makes a huge difference in the taste. But everyone is different, and not everyone tastes things the same way. Most people like the taste of brined chicken, but there’s always a chance that’s it’s just not right for you. Try brining chicken a few times. But if you don’t taste the difference, or don’t care for it, then don’t bother! Cooking is all about enjoying the meal, and that should be your goal.

How Brining Works

Brining is a neat little bit of science at work. In this section, we will discuss what goes on when you brine chicken. If you understand what’s going on, it’s easier to modify the technique a little bit to suit your taste, or apply it to a new situation.

There are two major processes at work during brining:

  1. Diffusion. This is when particles move from a region of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. For example, when you’re brining chicken, the brine has a lot more salt in it that the chicken. To balance things out, the salt gets absorbed by the chicken — not just on the surface, but all through the meat (although it does take a bit of time).
  2. Osmosis. This is when water (or another liquid) moves through a membrane from one region that has more water to another region that has less water. When you brine chicken, you’re creating just that situation: the brine has a lot more water than the chicken, so the water moves through the chicken cells, from the brine to the chicken. The result? Moister chicken!

It’s all about keeping things in balance!

On top of diffusion and osmosis, there’s another neat thing that happens when you brine chicken. When the salt gets inside the chicken flesh, it makes some of the proteins molecules unravel. Then, when you cook the meat, the unraveled proteins interact and create a kind of shield that holds the moisture in.

Notes
You can also add some other seasonings to your chicken brine, and they’ll work the same way and diffuse into the chicken. But salt is the most important ingredient when brining chicken. Not only does it help keep the moisture in the chicken, but salt is special. It doesn’t just add saltiness — it enhances the chicken’s natural flavour.

 

How To Brine Chicken

Brining chicken is really easy. Here’s what you need:

  • One container large enough to hold all your chicken and the brine. It should be made of a non-reactive material like glass or stainless steel.
  • Cold water. Depending on the shape of your container, you’ll need more or less water, but you can probably count on using at least 1 litre per kg of meat.
  • Salt. You can use either kosher salt or table salt to brine chicken.
    • Kosher salt: use about ¼ of a cup salt per litre of water.
    • Table salt: use only ⅛ of a cup per litre of water — you can fit a lot more table salt than kosher salt into a measuring cup!

If you don’t have a whole lot of time, you can add more salt to the chicken brine. It’ll help the brining go faster, but the results won’t be as great: the outer part of the chicken might be too salty.

  • Sugar. Sugar is a pretty common ingredient in a chicken brine. It can help moderate how salty the brine tastes, and it also helps the meat caramelise, which will give you a nicely browned chicken.
    • Use at most ⅛ of a cup per litre of water. You can use less, but any more and it’ll probably be too sweet.

If you’re planning on cooking your chicken quickly at high heat, use less (or no) sugar. It tends to make the chicken burn more easily. If you’re planning on roasting the chicken, sugar will make the drippings sweeter, and you’ll end up with a sweeter gravy. It’s up to you whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but you should be aware of it.

  • Other seasonings. You can add anything you like to your chicken brine! Garlic cloves, coarsely chopped to release their flavour, sprigs of rosemary, thyme, sage, slices of lemons or oranges, coriander or fennel seeds, bay leaves… the list goes on and on. There’s no right amount for these. Just use whatever tastes good to you. But if you add extra seasonings, you’ll probably have to use the boiled brine method, otherwise it won’t flavour the meat much.

Now that you have all your ingredients and equipment for making your chicken brine, it’s time to put it all together. We will go over two ways of making the brine: a cold brine and a boiled brine.

Cold Brine

This is the method to use if you’re planning on brining chicken using only cold water, salt, and sugar. Here’s what you do:

  • Mix the water, salt and sugar (optional) until the salt and sugar have dissolved.
  • Add the chicken to the brine so that it’s completely submerged. If you need to, place something heavy over it to keep it from floating to the surface.
  • Soak the chicken in the brine for about an hour per 500g of meat. The chicken should soak for at least an hour, but not much more than 12 hours. If you have several smaller pieces of chicken, the weight of each piece determines how long it should soak for. So, a 1 kg chicken would soak for 2 hours. 4 x 1 kg chickens would also soak for two hours, but a 2kg chicken should soak for 4 hours.
  • Keep the chicken cold while you brine it! It should be in the fridge or in a cooler, or at the very least in a tub of cold water. You can add ice to the water to make sure it stays cold.
  • Remove the chicken from the brine. Rinse it thoroughly, then pat it dry.
  • (Optional) – Let the chicken air dry in the refrigerator, uncovered, for about an hour. This will help the skin get crispy when you cook it.

Boiled Brine

If you’re planning on using extra seasonings in your chicken brine, you’re going to need to boil it. Otherwise, the flavours just won’t penetrate the chicken.

Why? Well, imagine that you’re making tea. If you’re making it with hot water, the tea comes out beautifully. As soon as you add the water, the flavour from the tea leaves goes into the water. If you try making it with cold water, well… not a whole lot happens. You need the heat to leech the flavour out of your seasonings. So, if you have extra seasonings to add to your chicken brine, here’s how you do it:

  • In a large pot that goes on the stove, mix the water, salt and sugar (optional) until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Add the extra seasonings.
  • Over high heat, bring the brine to a boil. Continue to boil for about a minute. Remove the brine from the heat.
  • Allow the chicken brine to cool completely. Never try to brine chicken in warm water or you will create a bacteria farm that could make you sick. Here are a few ways to cool the brine:
    • Let it cool off to room temperature and then place it in the refrigerator until it’s cold.
    • Add ice cubes to the brine until it’s cold.
    • Instead of boiling the whole amount of water, you can boil only a small amount (maybe a quarter of it), and then add the rest of the cold water after it’s boiled. You still get all the flavour out of your seasonings, but it won’t be as hot.
  • Soak the chicken in the brine for about an hour per pound of meat. The chicken should soak for at least an hour, but not much more than 12 hours.
    • If you have several smaller pieces of chicken, the weight of each piece determines how long it should soak for. So, a 1 kg chicken would soak for 2 hours. 4 x 1kg chickens would also soak for two hours, but a 2kg chicken should soak for 4 hours.
    • Keep the chicken cold while you brine it! It should be in the fridge or in a cooler, or at the very least in a tub of cold water. You can add ice to the water to make sure it stays cold.
  • Remove the chicken from the brine. Rinse it thoroughly, then pat it dry.
  • (Optional) Let the chicken air dry in the refrigerator, uncovered, for about an hour. This will help the skin get crispy when you cook it.

A Few Final Notes

  • Once you’re done with the chicken brine, throw it out. Don’t keep it to reuse it for anything. It had raw chicken floating in it and it’s not safe to use.
  • Always keep the brine cool when brining chicken. If you can’t keep it in the refrigerator, it should at least be kept cold by adding ice cubes, and possibly keeping it in a cooler.
  • The proportions and times given here should give you good results, but everyone has different tastes. The main point of brining isn’t to make the chicken salty – it’s to enhance the chicken’s flavour. If it tastes too salty, just soak the chicken for less time, or add less salt to the brine.

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