Brining is a popular technique, which means an increasing number of amateur chefs and pitmasters are attempting it for the first time. But it’s important to do the job properly, or you might end up with disappointing results.
Can you brine chicken too long? What are the recommended guidelines for timing, anyway? Our ultimate guide has the answers.
Can You Brine Chicken Too Long?
When meat is exposed to a brine mixture—whether wet or dry—for too long, the protein strands will denature past the point of tenderness. This results in meat that can have a mushy or spongy texture. Since chicken meat is less dense than beef or pork, it’s especially susceptible to overbrining.
Brining means soaking a cut of meat in a solution of salt and water. Many chefs will also add other ingredients, such as sugar, herbs, spices, and aromatic vegetables. The process contributes flavor, but its primary objective is to preserve moisture.
That’s right: the salt makes its way into the protein, attempting to make the salt concentration in the meat equal to that of the brine. This has the effect of relaxing the proteins, which allows the meat to retain more moisture as it cooks.
Brining is an old technique. In fact, it’s been used for centuries, although back in the days before refrigeration, it was essential for food preservation. These days, we use it to improve the flavor and texture of the meat, even though it’s not strictly necessary.
We should also point out that water isn’t the only liquid you can use, although it typically makes up the bulk of the moisture in a wet brine. Apple juice or cider, beer, wine, stock, or even vinegar can be added to the mixture.
The Dry Brine Distinction
Did you know that you can brine meat without adding any liquid at all? This process is called dry brining, and it’s a neater and faster alternative to wet brining.
To dry brine meat, you simply add a generous layer of salt to the meat—kosher salt works best—and refrigerate it until you’re ready to start cooking. As with a wet brine, it’s also permissible to add other herbs and seasonings to the salt mixture.
Most of the salt should dissolve during the dry brining process, mixing with the meat’s natural moisture and making its way into the fibers. If there’s any left when you’re ready to cook, just brush it away and season the meat as desired (see below).
Can You Brine Chicken Too Long?
Now that we’ve discussed the reasoning behind the method, it’s time to address the main question: Can you over brine chicken?
The answer is yes. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and overbrining stands as a classic example. Excess exposure to salt can cause the protein strands to break down to the point of mushiness, giving the chicken a spongy texture.
Since you should cook chicken off within 1 to 2 days anyway, you shouldn’t have any trouble following our recommendations for maximum brining times. Whenever possible, err on the lower end of the time frame. The meat should have reaped plenty of benefit from the process at this point.
How Long To Brine Chicken
The maximum brining time depends on the size of the cut involved. You wouldn’t brine a boneless chicken breast for as long as you would a whole chicken. It’s important to remember this guideline, or you’ll risk overbrining the meat.
Whole chickens should be brined for a period of 12 to 24 hours. The larger the chicken, the longer it can stay in the brine mixture. As a rule, though, we would suggest adding the chicken to the brine in the evening, then cooking it sometime the following day.
Our recommendation for brining bone-in pieces, such as breasts, drumsticks, and thighs, would be about 8 to 12 hours. You can put the chicken in the brine first thing in the morning and have it for dinner that evening.
Depending on the size of the pieces, they may be able to handle a longer brining period. We’ve brined chicken thighs for up to 24 hours without adverse effects. That said, 24 hours is the outside limit of what we would recommend for these cuts.
Boneless and skinless chicken breasts don’t need to brine for as long as their bone-in counterparts. 2 to 3 hours should be sufficient for these cuts.
If you’re pressed for time and can only brine the breasts for 30 minutes, go ahead and try it. The meat is tender enough as it is, but it can still benefit from the extra flavor and moisture.
How To Season Brined Chicken
Since the chicken was already exposed to a great deal of salt, you’ll want to go easy on the sodium when you’re seasoning the meat. It should be packing a huge punch in the flavor department anyway, so you won’t need to use as much salt as you might otherwise.
In fact, it’s not strictly necessary to season chicken after brining. If you’d like to add a low-sodium spice rub (either store-bought or of your own making), feel free to do so. Just be sure to use it sparingly to avoid oversalting.
Some chefs prefer to add their chosen seasonings to the brine mixture itself, rather than adding spices to the meat afterward. While this is an acceptable method, it will result in a subtler flavor than seasoning the meat directly.
A Guide To Wet Brining
- 1 gallon water
- 1/2 cup apple cider
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 10 whole cloves
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
- 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 whole chicken weighing up to 6 pounds, 6 pounds of bone-in chicken parts, or 10 pounds of boneless chicken breasts
1. Bring the water to a boil. Add all the remaining ingredients, stirring until the salt and sugar are completely dissolved.
2. Set the mixture aside to cool slightly, then add it to the fridge. Refrigerate, uncovered, until very cold. If you’d like to speed the cooling process along, add a few handfuls of ice cubes to the brine.
3. When the mixture is cold, add the chicken, making sure it’s fully submerged. Alternatively, you can add the chicken and the brine to sturdy zip-top bags. This will help to ensure that the pieces are completely saturated with the mixture.
4. Refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours, depending on what cuts of chicken you’re using.
5. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat the meat dry using paper towels. Season, if desired, then return to the refrigerator, uncovered. This step is especially important for skin-on poultry, as the skin will crisp up better if it’s allowed to dry thoroughly.
6. Prepare the chicken according to your chosen recipe.
A Guide To Dry Brining
Instead of providing a list of exact measurements, we’re suggesting that you allow for about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt for every pound of chicken, along with whatever other seasonings you prefer. How much you use will depend on what cut of chicken you’re using.
1. Pat the chicken completely dry using paper towels. Set it on a wire rack set atop a rimmed baking sheet. It’s important that the sides of the dish come up high enough to catch the liquid that will seep out of the meat as it sits in the dry brine.
2. Add about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt for every pound of chicken, making sure to massage the salt into all the crevices.
Pro Tip: If you’d like, add additional ingredients to the salt before taking this step. Freshly ground black pepper is standard, but you can also use minced herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, and parsley.
3. Refrigerate the chicken, uncovered, for 2 to 24 hours, depending on whether you’re dry-brining chicken parts or a whole bird. You can place a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil over the chicken, but don’t cover it tightly.
4. When you’re ready to cook, remove the chicken from the fridge and pat the meat dry once again. Season and cook according to your chosen recipe.
The Bottom Line
Although brining can benefit the end result, it is possible to overdo it. In our opinion, it’s better to brine the meat for a shorter period than what’s recommended than to leave it in the mixture too long.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!