Don’t Brine Water-Chilled Chicken

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2014

When chicken are chilled in water rather than cold air during processing, does that affect their ability to soak up a brine?

Chicken absorbs water as it soaks, so it does raise the question of whether water-chilled chicken can absorb a brine as well as air-chilled chicken.

When we brined both air-chilled and water-chilled boneless skinless chicken breasts for 45 minutes, we found that the air-chilled chicken absorbed 3 1/2 times as much brine as the water-chilled chicken did. After cooking, the air-chilled samples retained 25 percent more moisture and were notably juicier and more well seasoned than water-chilled samples.

Why? Since the chicken with retained water is limited in its ability to take up brine, it is also unable to absorb much of the brine’s salt, which not only seasons the meat but enables it to retain more moisture during cooking, too. The water absorbed during processing simply drains off during cooking, leaving the meat almost as dry and unseasoned as chicken that isn’t brined at all.

Our favorite chicken, from Bell & Evans, is air-chilled, so we prefer brining because it’s very effective and it takes only 45 minutes for parts. But you aren’t out of luck if only water-chilled breasts are available: Opt to salt rather than brine. Sprinkle the water-chilled boneless, skinless chicken breasts with kosher salt (1 1/2 teaspoons per pound) and refrigerate for 1 hour. During that time, some of the excess water in the chicken will be drawn out of the meat, where it will dissolve the salt on the surface, and then be reabsorbed as brine. The chicken will not take on additional moisture, but salting will ensure that it loses less moisture during cooking and will season the meat.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Our testing proved that salting water-chilled chicken for an hour will deliver meat that retains just as much water as brined air-chilled chicken.

OPT TO SALT: Treat water-chilled chicken breasts with kosher salt (1 1/2 teaspoons per pound) for 1 hour.