Lean meat like chicken, especially the breast, can sometimes dry out during cooking. A brine is an extra-simple marinade that will help maintain moisture in the meat during cooking as well as add flavor. This simple method is faster and less fussy than a typical marinade.
Although it is not absolutely necessary, chicken breasts will turn out more consistent if they are cut or pounded to be similar sizes, especially if the breasts you're using are very different in size to begin with.
A brine works to improve the moisture level of the meat in 3 ways:
- The meat absorbs some water during the brine, bringing its overall water content up.
- The salt in a brine dissolves some of the proteins from solid to liquid, which also increases the overall water content.
- Other proteins "unwind" during the brine, which exposes more areas within the meat with which water can "bind." This traps extra water, which would normally evaporate, in the meat during cooking.
You should brine in a food-safe resealable container that allows for the meat to be fully submerged. Mix the brine solution in the container by using 1/2 cup of kosher salt or 1/4 cup of table salt for every 1 quart of water. Use warm, filtered water, and submerge the chicken in the brine solution once the salt has dissolved. Always refrigerate the meat while it soaks.
Unfortunately, chicken cannot be left to brine overnight. The meat will wind up a mushy texture if it is soaked for too long, and eventually a very dry texture if the soak is extended further, as the salt in the brine will draw all the moisture from the meat. Chicken breasts should brine for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours, while a whole chicken can brine for up to 4 hours.
Once sufficient time has passed, rinse the chicken and cook as desired. Discard the brine solution.
A simple salt-and-water brine will enhance the natural chicken flavor, but you can infuse additional tastes by adding other ingredients to the brine solution. Any aromatic works, such as peppercorns, citrus peels, lemon grass, garlic, star anise and tarragon seeds. Fresh herbs are another great addition and can even be rubbed into the chicken before the brine to strengthen the flavor. You can also try a couple of tablespoons of sugar, honey or molasses to add subtle sweetness.
Some or all of the water in the brine solution can be substituted with any of the following: