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Brine a Chicken- Be a Grilling Hero!

Updated on May 28, 2013

It's Science!

Brining: A bit of science in your cooking

A great chicken is a moist, flavorful chicken, and brining is a surefire way to achieve this. Brining, in a nutshell, is floating your chicken in a salt water bath for several hours. Add in some herbs, spices, juices, and other goodies, and it's the basis for your greatest poultry-based achievement to date! Brining works through osmosis. Most folks have heard of osmosis, and here's a great article from How Stuff Works to refresh you on the whole thing.

Done reading it yet? No? Fine...here's instant gratification on the subject: In summary, osmosis means that a solution with a lower concentration of a solute (in this case, water is the solvent, salt is the solute. Solvent + Solute = Solution) moves through a semi-permeable membrane to a solution with higher concentration of solute. Think of it as science trying to balance everything out.

In this case, the solutions consist of: (1) The juices in the chicken and (2) The brining solution. The semi-permeable membrane is the cell wall. Semi-permeable means that the cell walls allow dissolved solutes to come in, but, if they fall out of solution they are stuck. It allows pure water to pass in both directions, This is the key as to why brining works.

Here, the chicken has a much lower salinity than the brine, so that liquid moves out of the cells of the chicken, into the brine. Whoa! I can hear you saying it: "No water in the chicken is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve!" Yes, and if it all ended there, we'd get nothing more than a dried out bird.

That's why we need to add some TIME to this whole formula. You see, as the chicken loses water from its cells, what's left behind are proteins, rising to a high concentration. These proteins (and, in time, flavors) cannot escape the cell walls, and so the cells will quickly become - and then continue on being at - the higher solute concentration level. Now it's the bird's turn to be on the high end of the scale, and our surrounding brine starts to move back in. Now, you have water - along with salt and flavors - pouring INTO the cells. The flavors and some of the salt fall out of solution and are stuck in the cells. More water flows in, packing the cells. Now that this process has started, it will continue until the cells are as full as they can get (the pressure that builds in the cells eventually equals the (osmotic) pressure of the liquid trying to move in)

I hope that it becomes clear that brining must be given enough time to work or you will end up with the "dry bird" stage. As well, at some point, all the liquid and flavor that can move into your bird has moved into it. So, you can under-brine but not really over-brine because the process stops itself.


Won't the chicken be salty?

The answer is "just a bit", but that's a good thing!. It will be salty in that it will be tasty, but it won't be a salty disaster. I've been brining chicken and turkey for at least a decade now and have never had the meat become over-salted. I use high concentration brines (go big or go home!) and leave them sit 12-24 hours. If that doesn't create an issue, then nothing will.

Adding the Magic: Flavor Your Brine

As long as you have a brine solution moving through your soon-to-be dinner, make sure not to waste all that good science action. By adding flavors to the brine, you will infuse the chicken with all kinds of extra goodness. Things like orange, garlic, spices and herbs will kick it into high gear.

Flavors are nothing more than molecular bits from the food kicking around in the solution. These get dragged into the poultry along with the water and salt. In my brine. I add orange juice, lemon juice, fresh jalapenos, brown sugar, thyme, oregano, fresh onion and garlic.



Brining Recipe

I have an amazing brining and gravy recipe here. Don't forget to learn about smoking this bird low and slow on the grill! While this all takes some time, it's a masterpiece that your guests won't soon forget!

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