Brining Chicken Thighs Is an Easy Technique, With Tasty Results
Soaking your meats in a salty brine for a few hours can work wonders for lean, easily overcooked cuts such as pork loin and turkey or chicken breast. They'll stay much moister when cooked, even if they're slightly overdone, and brine leaves them tasting nicely seasoned. Chicken thighs are naturally juicy and don't need much help on that front, but brining them briefly can definitely enhance their flavor.
Salt and Science
Salt brings out the savory flavor of meats, but when you brine chicken or any other meat you're changing it in ways that have little to do with the taste. That's why a slice of ham is usually juicier than a slice of roast made from the same cut, and why it's more tender as well. Meat that's brined absorbs moisture from the brine, and then retains some of that moisture after it's cooked. Brining also causes the proteins in the meat to break down slightly or "denature," which is why it's more tender and why cured meats have a slightly denser texture than their fresh equivalents. The stronger the brine and the longer you leave your meats in it, the more pronounced the effect becomes. Becausechicken thighs are already tender and juicy, and are rather small as well, they require only brief brining.
How Long to Brine Chicken Thighs
A basic brine for chicken pieces calls for about 1/2 cup of large Diamond Crystal kosher salt dissolved in 1 quart of water, or 2 tablespoons less if you're using Morton's kosher salt with its smaller, denser crystals. Many recipes call for additional ingredients, and suggest boiling the brine to dissolve the salt and infuse it with flavors from the other ingredients, but that adds a substantial amount of time to the process – first the time needed to boil up the brine, then the time needed to chill it again to a refrigerator temperature. It's easier just to rub the salt onto the thighs, put them in a container or heavy-duty zipper-lock bag, and add the water. Thighs will take about 2 hours' brining in your refrigerator at this level of salt concentration. If you're in a hurry, you can double the salt and cut the brining time in half.
Brining chicken thighs doesn't even need to involve water, if you're inclined to think of a big bag of liquid in your fridge as an accident waiting to happen. Many experts prefer a process called "dry brining," which skips the water and simply uses salt or a combination of salt and sugar. Just sprinkle the same quantity of salt over your chicken thighs top and bottom, then leave them to sit on a plate in your refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours, depending how much salt you've used. At the end of your brining time, just brush away any loose salt, and cook the thighs according to your recipe.
A Couple of Important Details
If you're planning to brine your chicken, be sure to buy chicken that hasn't already been enhanced or "seasoned" with a brine at the packing plant. Doubling down on salt by brining it again would give you a remarkably salty meal. Brining chicken thighs also means you might need to exercise some care if you'd planned to make a sauce or gravy from the drippings. Taste them before you add any thickening or seasoning, and judge whether they're too salty to be palatable. If so, add low-sodium chicken broth until the juices taste right, and then go on to make your sauce or gravy.
- Do not reuse brine, especially when used for chicken, due to the risk of salmonella poisoning.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.