Chicken Breast Face-Off: Wet Brining vs. Dry Brining

I compare wet-brined chicken breasts with dry-brined chicken breasts to find a winner.

Bottom line: The wet-brined breast on the left was plumper, juicier, and overall more pleasing than the dry-brined breast on the right.  If it's any consolation, the dry-brined breast is still a lot juicier than a non-brined breast, and is super easy for those times when you don't feel up to wet-brining.

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.


The Test

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.


The Results

Plumpness

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.

Flavor

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 . . .

Overall

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.


More Photos

The Amish breast (left) at 0.7 lbs was much smaller than the butcher shop's normal breast at 1.6 lbs.

I pounded the !@#$ out of them!  Not really . . . just a gentle pounding using wax paper on the thicker sections until they were a consistent thickness for even cooking.

The "normal" breast on the right has not been pounded yet. The breast on the left has. Notice the size difference after pounding.

Four breast halves (Amish on the left), ready for brining.

Dry Brined - Amish breast on the left, normal breast on the right. Just sprinkle with kosher salt on both sides, cover with saran wrap, and place in the refrigerator.

Wet brined - add salt and sugar to some water in a zip-loc bag, then refrigerate. I usually put the bag into a plastic container in case it leaks.

I smoked them at 350F. The large breasts (right) took 30 minutes, the smaller Amish breasts (left) about 25 minutes. The dry-brined breasts (front) cooked a little faster than the wet-brined breasts in back, reaching 150F about 5 minutes faster. You can see the probes for my Thermoworks Smoke inserted into the two dry-brined breasts to give me early warning when they were done.

Here are the normal breasts after reaching 150F and resting for 5 minutes. The wet-brined breast is on the left, and is still slightly larger than the dry-brined breast on the right.

In this cross-section of the normal breasts, the wet-brined cut on the left is slightly taller than the dry-brined cut on the right. It is also juicier.  I did not notice any real degradation in flavor vs. the dry-brined breast on the right.

Here are the thinner Amish breasts, wet-brined on the left, dry-brined on the right. It's hard to see any difference in thickness, however the wet-brined breast was juicier and more pleasing overall.

This test was a little boring, since I limited the seasoning to enable an unbiased comparison. To make things a little more interesting, here's a wet-brined breast that was also marinated in olive oil, garlic, thyme, oregano, and lemon zest.   yummy!