When to Treat Chicken: Before or After Freezing?

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2015

Brining or salting chicken before cooking not only seasons the meat but also subtly changes its protein structure, which enables it to retain more moisture as it cooks. We know that many of our readers buy poultry in bulk and freeze it for later use, so we wondered: Is there any advantage to treating chicken prior to freezing and, if so, which method is preferable?


We soaked three boneless, skinless chicken breasts in brine for 45 minutes, sprinkled three others with salt and let them rest for 1 hour, and left nine breasts untreated before freezing all of the samples for one week. After thawing the samples, we brined three and salted three of the previously untreated ones. We then cooked the chicken breasts using a sous vide machine and measured their moisture loss by comparing their cooked weight to their original weight prior to treating and freezing.


We found that salting the chicken before freezing worked best, resulting in chicken that was well seasoned and that lost only 11 percent of its weight when cooked (the samples that were brined before freezing lost 15 percent). Chicken that was salted or brined after thawing did not fare as well, losing 16 and 20 percent of its weight, respectively. The frozen chicken that was never treated lost 22 percent of its original weight.

Salting Before Freezing 11%
After Freezing 16%
Brining Before Freezing 15%
After Freezing 20%
No Salt or Brine n/a 22%


Treating the chicken before freezing works better than after because it gives the salt additional time to do its job—while the meat is freezing and then again while it is thawing. Salting the chicken before freezing works better than brining since salting creates a more concentrated brine at the surface of the meat, allowing more salt to travel into the meat. A higher concentration of salt within the meat allows it to hold onto more moisture (up to a point, at least; concentrations above a certain amount can actually have a negative effect).


Salting chicken breasts before freezing is the best choice for well-seasoned meat that will retain the maximum amount of moisture. And happily, salting a bulk batch of chicken breasts before freezing is also more convenient than salting each smaller batch after thawing. To do it, sprinkle both sides of the chicken breasts with kosher salt (1½ teaspoons per pound) and refrigerate for one hour so that the salt can do its job. Pat dry, wrap, and freeze.