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What Is Brining?
Brining is a technique that involves submerging meat in a salt solution prior to roasting or grilling. The brining process adds an extra hit of flavorful moisture—always a plus when dry, tough meat is a risk—and the salt water goes to work on the muscle fibers and proteins in the meat itself, separating them and creating more space to trap water. Osmosis!
Why Brine a Chicken?
Since chicken is a lean meat, it is easier for it to dry out when cooking, especially if you plan on roasting it in the oven. By brining your chicken first, the chicken's juices will get locked into the meat during the cooking process, keeping it moist and flavorful all the way through. You can brine the entire chicken, or even cut up into pieces for a quicker brine if you are short on time.
3 Ways to Brine a Chicken
- Wet Brine: A wet brine is usually what we think of when we hear the term “brining”. It results in an evenly juicy and moist bird, packed with flavor. Use this basic brine ratio: ¼ cup kosher salt to 4 cups water (or, for larger projects, 1 cup salt to every gallon of water). You can also add in whichever spices and aromatics you’ve got kicking around—think whole peppercorns, bay leaves. While a larger piece of meat like a whole turkey might take a full day to properly brine, with smaller individual cuts you can usually get away with 1 hour prior to cooking. (A good rule of thumb is 1 hour for every pound.)
- Dry Brine. You don't need to plunge an entire bird into a big pot of saltwater and take up all the space in the fridge when brining meat. Dry brining uses all the same ingredients—salt, sugar, and seasonings—minus the water. Everything is rubbed directly onto the chicken skin and left on for an hour at room temperature and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Whatever flavors you use for seasoning will likely come through stronger with a dry-brined chicken, since the spices are applied directly to the surface of the meat and not diluted in water. Rinse off the brine and pat dry with paper towels before cooking. The dry brine method is easy and will give you extra crispy skin.
- Buttermilk Brine: The acid in buttermilk helps to tenderize the meat and give it extra flavor. The chicken skin will appear darker after roasting, but it will be unbelievably tasty. Make a buttermilk brine with salt, pepper, and a few aromatics, such as fresh herbs, lemon, and garlic, then submerged the chicken in the brine and stored covered in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours to overnight. Drain before using.
3 Tips for Brining Chicken
- Cut Up Your Chicken: Cutting your chicken into pieces can save space in the refrigerator. Instead of submerging it in a large pot, you can use a large resealable plastic bag for storage. Smaller pieces also brine faster.
- Use Kosher Salt: Make sure to use coarse kosher salt for brining, since table salt measures differently and can leave your chicken tasting overly salty.
- Use a Light Hand When Seasoning After the Brine: Remember that the chicken has already been absorbing the salt from the brine while it's brining, so salt your chicken skin only lightly before cooking.
Chef Thomas Keller's Chicken Brine Recipe
Chef Keller starts with a whole chicken, which he cuts into 10 pieces and sets for 12 hours in an herb-lemon brine. You can get away with brining for less time—8 hours will suffice in a pinch, but no less. You certainly do not want to brine for much more than 12 hours, as overbrining will affect the texture of the chicken, potentially giving it a cured texture.
Once you’ve brined your chicken, try Chef Thomas Keller’s fried chicken recipe here.
- 2 ½–3 lb chicken
- 5 lemons, halved
- 6 bay leaves
- ½ bunch (115 grams) flat-leaf parsley
- ½ bunch (30 grams) thyme
- 85 grams clover honey
- 1 head garlic, halved through the equator
- 14 grams black peppercorns
- 1 cup (10 ounces) kosher salt
- 3 ¾ liter or 1 gallon water
- Container (for brining)
- Mix all of the brine ingredients into 1 gallon of water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, remove from heat and let cool; then pour into a container large enough to hold both the brine and the chicken pieces and cool in the refrigerator until chilled.
- Using poultry shears, cut out the backbone of the chicken. Pull out the breastplate and trim the excess fat. Make sure to reserve the bones and fat for use in a stock and schmaltz. Cut the first half into 5 pieces: separate the thigh from the breast and the drumstick, remove the wing, and cut the breast in half. Repeat with the other half of the chicken. You should end up with 10 pieces: 2 chicken wings, 2 chicken legs, 2 chicken thighs, and 2 chicken breasts cut in half.
- Place the cut chicken in the cold brine and let it sit for 12 hours. (If you’re short on time, you can brine for 8 hours; but do not brine for more than 12 hours or the chicken will become too salty.)
Learn more about culinary techniques in Chef Thomas Keller’s MasterClass.