A perfectly cooked bird is a beautiful thing, flavorful throughout and juicy in both the white and dark meat. Unfortunately, that ideal is difficult to achieve in the real world, in large part because breast meat cooks more quickly than the dark meat of the legs. Brining your chicken can help address that problem, by improving the bird's ability to retain moisture throughout the cooking process. Brining isn't difficult, but it does require a bit of planning and preparation.
Preparing Your Brine
Bring a gallon of water to a gentle boil on your stovetop, and add a pound of salt. That's roughly 1 cup of table salt, or up to 2 cups of coarse sea salt or pickling salt. Heating the water is optional, but your salt will dissolve more easily and rapidly. If you need a larger or smaller quantity of brine, add salt and water in the same ratio of one part table salt to four parts water.
Add other flavorings such as wine, lemon juice, sugar, spices or fresh herbs, if desired, and simmer the brine for 5 to 10 minutes to help infuse the flavors.
Strain out any large pieces of herbs or other flavorings, so they don't change the flavor of your brine as it sits. Cool the brine to room temperature; then refrigerate it until it reaches a food-safe temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Your brine itself is not perishable, but it should always be at a food-safe temperature before you immerse your chicken in the liquid.
Brining the Chicken
Open your chicken and pour out any liquid that's accumulated inside the packaging. Remove the giblets if they're present and any thick pads of fat from the body cavity. Blot the chicken dry with clean paper towels.
Place your chicken in a foodsafe container, and pour in enough brine to cover it completely. If the bird bobs to the top, hold it down with an overturned plate.
Transfer the chicken in its container to the refrigerator, and brine it for 3 to 4 hours. When you're finished, discard the brine and blot the chicken dry.
Cook the chicken as you ordinarily would, by roasting, slow cooking or any other method. Remember that the bird will already be well salted, so don't salt it while cooking or use salt-heavy condiments, rubs or sauces.
Your chicken will be well-seasoned throughout, but most of the salt will be concentrated near the surface. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because this is also where the breast meat is most likely to overcook. If you'd like to reduce that surface saltiness, "debrine" your chicken in cold, fresh water for about 20 minutes after it comes out of the brine. This will leach some of the surface salinity from the bird, leaving a more balanced flavor.
If the benefits of brining appeal to you, but you don't have time to invest in doing it yourself, shop for a kosher chicken or one that says it's "pre-seasoned," "pre-basted," "extra-juicy" or some variation on that theme. Those are almost always brined already, giving you the benefits without the work. On the other hand, avoid those same birds if you plan to brine your own. Double-brining will yield a chicken that's inedibly salty.
Brining isn't always a positive. It can make the resulting broth or pan juices too salty for soup or gravy, and it extracts some of the chicken's own flavor and replaces it with -- what else? -- salty water. A large roasting chicken will retain enough of its own flavor to stand up to the brine, but a small, tender fryer might not.