I compare wet-brined chicken breasts with dry-brined chicken breasts to find a winner.
I am one of those that prefers dark meat, so I gravitate towards thighs and legs when it comes to chicken or turkey. The meat is more flavorful, moister, and yes, not quite as healthy.
BUT, many of our dinner guests prefer healthier white meat. So, I recently decided to try to learn how to cook chicken breasts that were juicy. My experience to-date is that they usually turn out dry when just thrown on the grill, even if marinated before hand.
In my research, this article by Joshua Bousel describing How to Grill the Juiciest Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts taught me a lot.
Here are my key takeaways:
- Chicken breasts are a lot juicier if you brine them (whether wet-brined or dry-brined).
- Always rinse the brine off before cooking, or they will be too salty. Also, don't salt them after brining - save that for when they're done (if needed).
- Pounding the raw breasts to a consistent thickness keeps you from having thinner areas that overcook and are therefore dry.
- Grill them at medium high (375 - 450F) heat.
- Too low means they won't brown. Too high means they dry out.
- Pull them off the grill at 150F, even though most "safe cooking guidelines" say 165F. Rest them for 5 minutes.
- White meat only needs to be at 150F for 3 minutes to kill all bacteria, and it will stay at or above 150 while resting for a few minutes.
But the article suggested that dry brining was his preference over wet brining. I wanted to see for myself. If dry brining was superior, so much the better, because it's easier than wet brining.
Wet Brine or Dry Brine?
Wet brining involves putting the chicken in a salt/sugar/water solution, sometimes with additional spices added, and refrigerating it for a number of hours before cooking. According to the article, wet brining puts more water into the chicken, resulting in plumper juicier chicken but with somewhat watered-down flavor.
Dry brining is easier. Just sprinkle kosher salt on both sides of the chicken, and put it in the refrigerator for a few hours before cooking. It supposedly results in "less juicy" chicken vs. wet brining, but has more flavor since it is not watered down.
I recently compared wet-brined breasts with breasts that were not brined at all. Hands-down, the wet-brined breasts were better. They were plumper and juicier, and I much preferred them to the drier, non-brined breasts.
I resolved to see if dry brining beats wet brining.
At a local butcher shop, I bought both "normal" chicken breasts and Amish chicken breasts. I split each full breast into two halves. One half from each breast was wet brined, and the other halves were dry brined, for about 9 hours.
The wet brine followed the instructions from the article above: 1/3 cup kosher salt, 1/4 cup sugar, and 2 quarts of water in a ziploc bag, along with the chicken.
The dry brine consisted of sprinkling the breasts with kosher salt on both sides, than putting them on a plate in the fridge.
All breasts were rinsed and patted dry after brining, and no seasoning was added except for olive oil rubbed on them to keep from sticking to the grill.
I cooked them on my Green Mountain Daniel Boone Pellet Smoker at 350F. The Amish breasts were much smaller, so I started them 10 minutes later so that they would reach 150F about the same time as the "normal" breasts.
At 150F (about 25-20 minutes), I pulled them off the grill and rested them for 5 minutes.
After cooking, I could notice that the wet-brined "normal" breast was noticeably thicker than the dry-brined normal breast. However, the Amish breasts were thinner, and I could not tell the difference between the wet-brined and dry-brined halves.
Juiciness / Tenderness
In both the normal and the Amish breasts, those that were wet-brined were noticeably juicier and more tender than the dry-brined breasts.
Although others have said that the wet-brined breasts should have a more diluted flavor than the dry-brined breasts, I could not discern a difference. Sorry (!), but that's the truth. Perhaps someone with a more sensitive palate could . . .
The wet-brined breasts were the clear winner, to me. They were juicier, more tender, and had no noticeable difference in flavor vs. the dry-brined breasts. That's too bad, because dry-brining is easier . . . and I was hoping it would win this contest.
The good news? Dry-brining is still going to be much better than non-brined chicken, and is plenty good. If you're in a hurry and are too lazy/busy to wet brine, just sprinkle some Kosher salt on and throw them in the fridge for a few hours.