Why is my brining giving varied and usually poor results?

James Wilson
  • Why is my brining giving varied and usually poor results? James Wilson

    I am trying to brine a chicken and then cook it in a soup. I just can't seem to do it properly and have noticed varying results for reasons I cannot figure out. My basic method is: add 1.5l spring water to pot, add 30 grams of sea salt and mix until dissolved, add 1kg whole chicken (whole or small pieces), refrigerate for 6-12 hours (usually 12), then cook. I have noticed the following things, please kindly explain why I may be getting varying results and what I may be doing wrong.

    1. I notice that if I cut the chicken into eight small pieces these do not brine well at all compared to a 4 piece cut or a whole chicken. This is even after using high salt and plenty of time. When using high salt parts of the chicken come out extremely salty however other parts do not and these parts look raw/red/pink which I think suggests the brine didn't go far enough. I am guessing this is because brining works on chicken surfaces (perhaps this is where the pores are) and with small pieces the inner chicken is exposed. Having said that, most recipes say you can brine small pieces in 1-2 hours. Why doesn't it work for me?

    2. Even when I do a whole chicken or 4 pieces, despite giving it 8-12 hours, sometimes there are raw looking parts in the leg pieces, any idea why? Also although the rest of the chicken seems to have been reached i.e. is white although it is not juicy and tender. Any idea why?

    3. On one day I brined a chicken with 17 grams salt and only 5 hours, a leg piece came out perfectly, another leg piece OK and the breast didn't. Why on this day did one piece come out great whereas other pieces didn't? Even on other days I double or triple the salt and time yet I haven't been able to get the same result.

    In thinking about the cause for the above I wondered:

    1. does the container need to be air tight to brining to be effective?

    2. does water temperature(room/refrigerator/0c) make a difference to actual brining itself?

    3. does there have to be plenty of space between chicken parts in the brine or if they overlap a bit?

    4. If I use higher salt and what more salt absorption, should I simply leave it to brine longer i.e. longer then 12 hours?

    5. Suppose I do a high brine chicken, I then throw away the water and make a new pot with water and say 4 grams of salt, I then add the chicken and cook the soup. Will salt come out of the chicken and go into the water or will it stay in there?

    Apologise for so many questions, I'm just trying to give as much info as possible. Hope somebody will kindly answer. I brine everyday and can hardly seem to get a good brined leg on any day.

    In response to peoples comments*

    Thank you for your responses. To clarify a few things, firstly I am brining and then cooking as a soup(boiling then simmering). I have to do this because I have a stomach ailment and I am intolerant to greasy foods(grill/oven) and stews(due to onion and vegetable intolerance). Strange as it sounds, my stomach is so weak that I am also intolerant to proteins that haven't absorbed a lot of salt e.g. chicken in chicken soup. The only food I can tolerate is protein that is salted quite well e.g. salted, plump, tender and juicy as with brined chicken. This is why I am doing brined chicken soup only!

    There are no red spots rather after cooking the soup I notice areas/flesh where discoloration(brown, purple,red) is present throughout parts of the flesh. I am sure the chicken is being cooked well(have cooked a lot of soups) however the colours seem more like flesh which the brine hasn't penetrated otherwise it would become white like the rest of the chicken. I have noticed this to be more present when in pieces e.g. small cut chicken or leg pieces rather then breasts.

    On the next try I will boil my salt first, however I had been stirring with a spoon until all salt visibly dissolved so don't know if this is the cause.

    I have increased salt for testing purposes, on such days the brining does improve however I still notice the raw looking flesh in certain parts of the chicken. When doing a whole chicken, the problem is present usually in the leg rather then the breasts which come out good.

    The chicken I use are actually quite small 1kg or slightly above and these are covered by 1.5l of water.

  • I suspect that the biggest problem here is that your brine isn't anywhere close to being strong enough. Cooks Illustrated has a good guide to the entire process but in a nutshell:

    • Sea salt is expensive and inefficient for brining; the impurities actually make it more difficult to dissolve and disperse properly. Kosher salt is generally recommended, although table salt is also fine.

    • A typical brine is 1/4 cup table salt and 1/2 cup sugar per quart, which translates to about 70 g and 140 g respectively per L. For very high-heat methods (grilling/broiling), you halve the amounts. Also, for kosher salt you need to double the volume (no change if measuring by weight). Even the lower, high-heat cooking concentration is almost twice as concentrated as what you're doing.

    • You also need to scale the amount of brine with the weight of the bird itself. The rule of thumb is 1 quart or L per pound (2.2 kg) of meat. For a whole chicken, which is generally around 6 or 7 pounds, 1.5 L of brine is nowhere near enough, especially if you're brining in a pot as opposed to a bag (does your 1.5 L even cover the chicken?).

    • It doesn't really matter if you butcher the chicken first (although most people don't). You're exposing slightly more surface area that way but not really enough to matter.

    • Make sure you are actually dissolving all the crystals! From what you're describing, you're getting high concentrations of salt in some areas and none in others. That means you didn't get proper dispersion. You really need to make sure that all of the salt (and sugar, if you're using any) is completely dissolved, otherwise you don't have a "brine", you have water with a bunch of little piles of salt. Some people will suggest heating or even boiling your brine to ensure proper dissolution; just make sure you let it cool off afterward if you do this, before submerging the bird.

    In answer to your specific questions:

    1. The container should be well-sealed to prevent evaporation, not to mention off-odours in your fridge. However, I've used pots with loose-fitting lids and had no problems. It doesn't make a huge difference as far as the efficacy of the brine.

    2. Fridge temperature is ideal. Do not even think about using room-temperature water, that is highly unsafe for storing raw meat for 6-8 hours at a time.

    3. As long as you don't overcrowd the vessel and do disperse the crystals properly, the actual amount of space is not a major issue. If it's exposed, it's exposed.

    4. Longer than 12 hours is not recommended. Actually, according to CI, longer than 8 hours is not recommended. Don't overdo it - you're brining, not marinating.

    5. No matter how you cook any piece of meat, it will give up a certain amount of water and therefore a certain amount of salt (from the brine). Left unstated is why you would even consider boiling a brined chicken; brining is primarily a technique for dry-heat cooking (roasting/grilling), and if you want to boil/poach/braise/whatever then you should be focusing more on flavouring the cooking liquid than the meat itself. I wouldn't bother brining if you're making chicken soup, there are better ways to flavour that.

  • @Aaronut provided an excellent answer addressing all of your points about brining, but as his comment on #5 indicates it doesn't sound like brining is your problem. If your method of cooking the chicken is boiling it for a soup then brining isn't necessary. The purpose of brining is to keep the meat from getting dried out during cooking, which will not happen if it is submerged in broth and simmered gently until done. A secondary purpose of brining is to bring out flavors, but again in a soup your broth should have salt, vegetables, and spices, so the brine is unnecessary.

    Brining does not cook the meat, nor will it significantly change cooking speed (whatever the cooking method), so if "there are raw looking bits in the leg pieces" you do need to cook it longer, but your brine is not the problem. If I'm misinterpreting, please do edit your question to indicate (a) your cooking method, (b) how the results are disappointing (flavor, saltiness, done-ness, texture, moisture level?).

  • The brine in the above scenario is too weak however even if you made it stronger you would not see the results you wanted. The reason for this is because brines do not work when cooking soups because the salt comes out with boiling. Brines work for dry heat methods e,g grilling, roasting.

    The reason you are seeing different results is because your chicken is absorbing salt due tp a dfferent factor. It could be the chicken had a lot of ice crystal damage to start with.

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