Do You Have To Brine Chicken Before Smoking Or Not?

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do you have to brine chicken before smoking

Even if you’ve never brined a cut of meat before in your life, you’ve probably heard about the technique. Proponents of the method swear by it, while other chefs claim that it’s an unnecessary step.

Do you have to brine chicken before smoking it? And what happens if you don’t? Can you brine frozen chicken, or do you need to thaw it first? Let’s find out what all the fuss is about.

Do You Have To Brine Chicken Before Smoking?

When you expose chicken—or any meat—to a saltwater solution before cooking it, you’re inviting the muscle fibers to retain more moisture. This helps to ensure that the bird will be moist and succulent when it’s time to eat. We would recommend trying it once to see if you’re sufficiently pleased with the results.

About Brining

Before it became popular to brine meat before cooking it, the word brine was used mostly to refer to food items like pickles and feta cheese. In these cases, the brine acts as a preservative, keeping the product from spoiling during storage.

When we brine meat, we’re seeking a different result. The brine solution is made mostly of water and salt, although it’s become common to add other flavorings to the mixture. While this does preserve the meat to a certain extent, something else is taking place.

The salt in the brine alters the meat’s natural protein structures. In addition to breaking down the tougher muscle fibers, it encourages the cells to retain more moisture. Meat always loses moisture as it cooks, but brining helps to keep it juicy.

This means that brined meat may be more moist and tender than it would if you’d skipped this step. Since chicken is prone to drying out anyway thanks to its lean texture, brining becomes an especially appealing option.

The Dry Brining Alternative

Most of the time, when people say they’re planning to brine their chicken, they mean that they’ll be soaking it in a solution of salt and water. While this is a popular method, it’s not the only one.

As we’ve just established, it’s the salt that causes the meat to hold onto more fluid as it cooks, not the water itself. Therefore, you can achieve similar results just by salting the meat prior to cooking it.

When you sprinkle salt over the surface of the meat, liquid will begin to emerge within minutes. After a time, the liquid will dissolve the salt, which creates a concentrated brine solution that’s drawn back into the meat.

In addition to being more convenient, dry brining takes up much less room in the fridge. If you’ve ever attempted to wet brine a whole turkey, you’ll know how difficult it can be to rearrange the contents of the fridge in order to accommodate the brining container.

Dry brining is also more sanitary. When you plunge a whole chicken into a wet brine solution, you risk spreading salmonella and other potentially hazardous bacteria all over your kitchen.

If you opt to dry brine your chicken, be sure to use kosher salt. Its coarse texture makes it less prone to clumping, and therefore easier to distribute. Kosher salt also has a less concentrated salt flavor than table salt.

You can mix other ingredients in with the salt if you’d like, but it’s not necessary. After the dry brining process, you can season the meat as you normally would.

Also, make sure to cover the entire surface of the chicken with salt. You want the concentrated brine to be evenly distributed. There’s no need to use exact measurements—just sprinkle on enough salt to fully cover the meat.

Once you’ve added the dry brine, let the chicken rest uncovered in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours. You don’t have to rinse the bird when you’re ready to start cooking. Simply dry the skin thoroughly using paper towels, then add your chosen seasonings.

Be aware that the concentrated brine could give the meat a salty taste, especially if you brined the chicken for longer than 12 hours. You might want to cut back on the amount of salt you use for seasoning if you’ve dry brined the meat.

Do You Have To Brine Chicken Before Smoking?

You don’t have to do anything—except make sure that the chicken has cooked to a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees. As long as you’ve followed the basic rules of food safety, there are very few absolutes in the world of barbecue.

Brining chicken can give it an improved texture and great flavor. It’s fun to experiment with different ingredients for the brine, and it makes the entire prep and smoking process feel more like an adventure and less like a chore.

do you have to brine chicken before smoking

But if you don’t have the time or space, or simply prefer to season your chicken without brining it, that’s fine too. We would suggest that you do whatever you can to avoid overcooking the white meat, since that’s usually the culprit when you’re dealing with dry chicken.

Remove the chicken from the heat when the breast meat has cooked to 160 degrees. It should come up to the safe temperature of 165 as it rests.

When you’re smoking a whole bird and the dark meat still needs to cook longer (we suggest 180 to 185 degrees for the legs and thighs), carve off the breasts and allow them to rest while you return the remainder of the bird to the heat.

Can You Overbrine Chicken?

Yes, it is possible to leave chicken in the brine mixture for too long. While the salt does act as a preservative, you should try to cook chicken off within 2 days of bringing it home.

Overbrining has a couple of other drawbacks as well. First of all, it can make the meat taste overly salty once it’s finished cooking. This isn’t usually an issue if you’ve followed our recommendations for timing and seasoning, but it’s something to be aware of.

More importantly, leaving meat in a saltwater solution for too long can cause the protein strands to break down to the point of mushiness. The first time we attempted to brine a chicken, we made this mistake and were rewarded with spongy meat.

Our suggestion would be to leave a whole chicken in the brine for 12 hours, or overnight. A few hours more or less shouldn’t make any difference, but try not to go past that 24-hour threshold.

Can You Brine Frozen Chicken?

If the chicken is still frozen or partially frozen, can you still begin the brining process?

This is absolutely acceptable. In fact, it can help you get dinner on the table sooner, since the cold water will allow the meat to defrost more quickly.

The chicken might not absorb much of the brine at first, especially if it’s completely frozen when you begin. But as the meat thaws, the brine will do its work as it normally would.

How To Brine A Whole Chicken For The Smoker

1. Start by making the brine. Use about 1 cup of kosher salt per gallon of fluid. You can also substitute other liquids, such as apple juice, beer, or chicken stock, for some of the water.

2. Add other ingredients to the liquid as desired. A small amount of brown sugar will help the chicken skin turn nice and brown. Other popular additions include whole peppercorns, bay leaves, fresh herbs, garlic cloves, and citrus fruits.

3. Bring the brine mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the salt. Once the salt is fully incorporated, remove the mixture from the heat and set aside to cool.

4. Set the brine mixture in the refrigerator until it’s very cold. It’s important not to add the chicken to the brine when the solution is still warm—this invites the types of bacteria that cause food poisoning.

do you have to brine chicken before smoking

Pro Tip: You can speed the cooling process along by adding a few ice cubes to the mixture. If you go this route, you might want to start with a bit less water—you don’t want to dilute the brine too much.

5. While you’re waiting for the brine to cool down, remove the chicken from its packaging and pat it dry using paper towels. Don’t let it sit at room temperature for longer than two hours (or one hour if it’s a particularly hot day).

6. When the brine is cold, carefully submerge the chicken in the mixture. You might need to transfer the brine and the chicken to a different container if the first one isn’t large enough to hold them.

7. Cover the container to prevent any debris from falling in while the chicken is brining. Refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours.

8. When you’re ready to start cooking, remove the chicken from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Season and smoke the meat according to your chosen recipe.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to smoked meats, you can experiment with various techniques to find out what works best for you.

Since brining promotes moisture, it doesn’t hurt to try it at least once. If you don’t notice any real difference in the results, there’s no need to repeat the process the next time you fire up the smoker.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar

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