Why Brining Chicken Is So Important

Chicken has an unfortunate propensity to dry out when it cooks. This is because chicken, especially white meat chicken, is a very lean type of meat, high in protein and low in fat, per Everyday Health. This is obviously good news for your health, but protein contains water, while fat does not and the USDA reports that lean cuts of chicken can lose quite a bit of its water content as it sits in the fridge and is later cooked. 

In order to counteract this loss of moisture, many professional chefs advocate brining your chicken, as well as other lean meats such as pork chops and Thanksgiving turkey. Brining entails treating the meat with salt before cooking it, and there are two basic approaches to doing so — wet brining and dry brining. A wet brine is a liquid solution, typically based on saltwater, but sometimes made using another base liquid such as buttermilk. A dry brine is a salt rub, and both methods typically include additional herbs and occasionally sugar to elevate flavor.

Salt changes protein structure, keeping meat juicy

Brining, like all cooking processes, is built on a chemical reaction. As Cook's Illustrated explains, salt causes the protein strands in the meat to denature. Protein strands typically exist in tight coils, but introducing them to salt causes them to unwind. Once unwound, the proteins take up more space and end up overlapping with neighboring strands, creating a net-like structure that traps water inside the meat. This prevents the moisture loss that usually comes with cooking chicken.

For the juiciest chicken, a wet brine is your best bet, although a dry brine is optimal if you want meat with crispy skin. A report from KQED states that liquid brines can actually raise the moisture content of your chicken through the process of osmosis — the diffusion of water through a semi-permeable membrane such as the cells of an animal. Osmosis occurs to balance water levels on either side of the membrane in question. In the case of your chicken, some of the liquid brine will be absorbed into the meat, making it juicier.