• Some of the links on this forum allow SMF, at no cost to you, to earn a small commission when you click through and make a purchase. Let me know if you have any questions about this.

Comparing chicken home brining methods. Is it a science or an art?

wade

Master of the Pit
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Group Lead
3,863
269
Joined Apr 12, 2013
Brining chickens before you smoke them is supposed to give them better texture and to leave them more moist after cooking. Several times I have tried bring chickens before smoking and on each occasion I have either not noticed any difference in the end result or they have come out too salty. None of these brines though have been true comparative tests and so I thought it was time to directly compare a number of common home brining methods. As well as any texture and moisture improvement, one of the things I was hoping to establish was whether some of the published methods of scientifically calculating the brine update process were accurate (or even possible). Also whether brining chickens was actually more an art than a science.

After looking at the various methods other people have been using successfully (on here and on other forums and chefs sites) I decided to directly compare the following three brining methods.
  1. Dry brine
  2. Gradient brine
  3. Equilibrium brine
There was also a control, where the chicken was not brined at all.

Having reviewed the optimal brine strengths mentioned in different sources, and as we are quite sensitive to salt in foods, I decided to try for an end result of 1% salt in the chicken. This being balanced by 0.5% sugar.

The methods I decided to use for each type of brine were based upon those described on the Stella Culinary site video lectures about the science behind brining.

https://stellaculinary.com/cooking-...cience-behind-brining-four-part-video-lecture

What I describe below is the theory of what is supposed to happen, and where I ran into difficulties I have highlighted these as observations

All of the chickens were purchased on the same day from the same supplier and were of similar weights (approx 1.6 Kg - 3.5 pounds). They had not been pre-processed or previously brined.


The calculations used for calculating the amount of brine and brine concentrations were based upon the meat weights of each chicken as the bone does not readily absorb the brine. The calculation used make the assumption that 40% of the weight of the bird was bone - therefore 60% is meat.

The different brines. Below I am describing the theory as described behind each method.

Dry Brine

This works in the same way as dry curing bacon. The amount of brine/cure is calculated from the weight of the meat which it is applied to the surface and left to diffuse into the meat.

For this the salt was weighed out to give 1% the weight of the chicken meat and the sugar for 0.5%. These were mixed and rubbed over the surfaces of the chicken - both inside and out.

Gradient Brine

This method works by creating a 5% brine (which is stronger than final desired salt concentration) and allowing it to diffuse into the meat. The chicken is removed from the brine when sufficient salt has been absorbed from the brine so that when it has been allowed to rest the salt concentration will equalise at the final desired concentration. This method is supposed to require less time for the chicken in the brine however it requires standing time once it has been brined. The amount of brine absorbed by the meat is calculated by the loss of the salt from the surrounding brine solution. Once the concentration in the brine has reduced by 1% then ~10 g of salt will have entered the chicken and the final salt in the meat should be 1%. The weight of brine used was equal to the calculated weight of the meat. The brining time I intended to use was that recommended by Stella Culinary for whole chickens - 24-48 hours in the brine with an 8-24 hour rest time.

Equillibrium Brine

This method works by creating a brine that is 2x stronger than final desired salt concentration and using the same weight of brine as there is meat. The chicken is removed from the brine when the surrounding brine concentration has reduced by 50% indicating that 50% of the salt has diffused into the meat. The weight of brine used was equal to the calculated weight of the meat.

Control

This was bought, stored and cooked under the same conditions to see if simply storing time would affect the chicken 

Chicken weights and brine concentrations
ChickenBrine typeInitial
weight
(g)
"Boneless"
 weight
 (g)
Water
(g)
Salt
(G)
Sugar
(G)
estimated
Time in
brine
Rinse
after
brining
Weight
after
brining

%

weight
increase
StandSmell
after
brining
1Dry brine 1%1,6871,012010536 hoursNO1,724212 hoursNone
2Gradient 5%1,642985911492536 hoursYES1,740624 hoursNone
3Equilibrium 2%1,6499899602010?NO1,680212 hoursNone
4Control1,57894700  n/aNO1,5770  Faint pea smell
 
How to measure the brine concentration

As we are trying to measure the salt uptake be measuring the salt depletion in the brine it was important to be able to accurately measure the brine salt concentrations. I have two different ways of measuring this - a Sodium ion salt meter and a salt refractometer


Firstly I wanted to check their accuracy on the brines and also whether the sugar would effect the salt measurements. I therefore measured the brines as they were being made, before and after the sugar was added.
 WaterSaltCalculated
Salt %
Measured %
Salt meter
Measured %
Refractometer
 SugarMeasured %
Salt meter
Measured %
Refractometer
5% brine911495.105.205.20  255.207.40
2% brine960202.042.162.11  102.203.80
The first thing I noticed was that with just the salt the Salt Meter was measuring within 2% and within 6% of the calculated concentrations. The refractometer was measuring within 5% and 9%.

Whilst, adding the sugar to the brine only had a minimal effect on the Salt meter, the effect on the refractometer was was significantly greater - nearly 50% for the 5%/2.5% brine and nearly 90% for the 2%/1% brine.

Observation - Unless the brine only contains salt (i.e. contains no sugar) you cannot use a refractometer to accurately measure the actual brine salt concentration. It may be possible if you are only trying to monitor relative concentrations - though I cannot tell from this whether the inaccuracy is in linear proportion to the sugar concentration, and so this would need more testing.

The brining process

The brines needed to completely cover the chickens and so as volumes of brine were quite small this was done by brining them in plastic bags in the fridge. The bags containing liquid brine had all of the air removed and were sealed using a zip lock. Approximately every 6 hours the bags were opened and the bags rotated vertically to ensure that the brine in the chicken cavity was thoroughly mixed with the brine surrounding the chicken. The air was then removed from the bag, the bags sealed and then placed back in the fridge.


Approximately every 9-12 hours a small sample of the brine was taken and the salt concentration measured
Time
Time in

Brine

hh:mm
Salt meter
5%
Refractometer
5%
Salt meter
2%
Refractometer
2%
23/10/2016 14:00  4.87.42.113.8
24/10/2016 08:3018:30471.873.2
24/10/2016 17:3027:303.86.81.83
25/10/2016 08:3042:303.76.251.713
25/10/2016 18:4552:453.56.21.673
26/10/2016 07:4564:453.56.21.673
26/10/2016 17:3073:30    1.63

Although in the graph I have included the results from both the Salt Meter and the Refractometer, we should ignore the refractometer results due to the affect of the sugar. The only lines to look at in the graph are the red line (meter reading for 5% salt) and the yellow line (meter reading for 2% salt).

Observations

Both of the Gradient brining and equilibrium brining methods relied on measuring the reduction in salt in the brine to determine the uptake of salt into the chicken.

This would have required the 5% brine to have reduced in absolute concentrations by 1 % - which it did after 27 hours. This actually supports the recommended 24-48 hours in the brine. 

The 2% brine also only needed to drop in absolute concentration by 1%, however after over 70 hours it was in the brine it had only dropped by 0.44%

When brining chicken it would appear that one of two things is happening, Either the salt does is not diffused throughout the chicken in the way that was described or there is something that is being released from the chicken that is interfering with both the Salt Meter and refractometer readings. It is likely that the difficulty with the equilibrium brine is that it is generally recognised that meat comprises of 75% water and this would need to be taken into account when calculating the required brine strength.

Due to the inability to adequately measure the uptake of the brine into the meat in the 2% brine and also the duration over which the brining occurred it was difficult to tell whether we were actually reaching the "equilibrium" brining - as defined by Stella Culinary.


Chicken and brine sample after time in brine

The cooking and eating

The chickens were smoked at 300F (150 C) in my FEC using hickory pellets until the IT of the birds reached 160 F (72 C)



One of the breasts was taken from each for the blind tasting panel to judge.


5% and 2% chickens


Dry Brine and control


The tasting panel were then asked to rank the samples on the following 3 criteria
  1. Saltiness
  2. Moistness
  3. Overall eating experience
The main thing to report was that ALL of the chickens were enjoyed and that variations in ranking were purely down to minor differences in each.

The ranking was from 1-4, with 1 being the beat.
 5% Brine2% BrineDry BrineControlComments
Saltiness4*131The 5% brine was mildly over salted but was not unpleasant
Moistness1134All were nice and moist however a slight preference was shown towards the brined chickens
Overall eating4111All were enjoyed however the higher salt in the 5% brine made it the least favourite.
Conclusions

The different brining techniques had little overall effect on the overall eatability of the meat in this trial. The control (unbrined) chicken was ranked equally as enjoyable as the other chickens.

The brining did make a marginal difference to the moistness of the chicken, with the 5% and 2% brines

The 5% brine resulted in a 6% increase in weight whereas the dry and 2% brines resulted in a 2% increase. This additional 4% is likely to additional water taken up into the chicken.

* The additional saltiness in the 5% brined chicken was probably due to the chicken being left in the brine for longer than the 27 hours it actually took for it to reach a 1% salt uptake.

From the observations in this trial, I have to question the scientific explanations surrounding the calculations for both the Gradient and Equilibrium brining. The described reduction in salt from the brine as it diffused into the chicken just did not happen in the equillibrium brine. This is not really surprising as the diffusion assumptions would have to assume that the brine salt will reach an equal concentration equilibrium between brine fluid and the meat. This may be true if the meat was approaching 100% water and the salt could diffuse equally throughout it - however this is not the case.

At least using this methodology the scientific approach to determining when a chicken has been suitably brined was not supported for the Equilibrium brine. It is likely that by better understanding the way that the brine diffuses within the meat we would be able to develop a more accurately predict model for the brining process - but until then I have to conclude that getting the perfect brine in a chicken is more of an art than a science.There is nothing wrong with this and it gives more confidence to try different recipes that have evolved different brining techniques.

There is another method of brining here that I did not cover in the trial, and that is injection brining. This method would likely move the balance back in favour of science and is why it is used in many commercially brined meats.

*** Update - A special thanks to wbf610  who pointed out an error in my 5% brine calculation. The absolute concentration of salt in the brine only needed to drop by 1% for the chicken to reach 1% salt and not the 2% as originally stated. This means that the chicken in the 5% brine did reach the calculated brine reduction after about 27-28 hours. This means that it would actually be possible to use the 5% brine to calculate when the chicken had taken up sufficient salt. This still does not appear to be the case when it comes to the 2% equilibrium brine though. The text of the post has therefore been amended slightly to reflect this.
 
Last edited:

smokin monkey

Master of the Pit
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Group Lead
2,357
275
Joined Oct 27, 2013
Once again Wade, a very thorough exercise, and a good description of the process.

So, if you have time brine your Chicken, if not it will not make a great deal of difference.

Points for the time and effort that you have put into this experiment!
 

wade

Master of the Pit
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Group Lead
3,863
269
Joined Apr 12, 2013
Thanks Steve
 

sqwib

Smoking Guru
OTBS Member
5,963
1,022
Joined Sep 25, 2007
Wade, that is some awesome research.

I would have thought that the dry brined bird would have more flavor due to less water absorbed into the bird, a moister piece of "Brined Chicken" may have less flavor due to the additional water. But that may be a fair tradeoff for some?

With Math aside I think brining chicken does add a tiny bit of a "saltier" flavor and gives the cook a wider margin of error, I personally don't see the benefit for chix but larger birds like turkey I have noticed a significant value to brining.

I have also noticed an increase in flavor (salt) in brining pork loins. This was a test I done on a Brined loin that was sliced paper thin and sampled every inch of the length of the loin, the increased flavor was there definitely, but mostly salt, (think Deli meat).

I think one of the most important things to understand in Brining is, "equilibrium".

For example, brining an already brined bird that was in a solution of 8%  in a 6% solution will actually pull some salt from the bird but leave the water behind, like soaking in ice water and changing the water several times after a cure.

Thanks again, this was very enlightening.
 

crankybuzzard

Smoking Guru
Staff member
Moderator
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
5,245
2,108
Joined Jan 4, 2014
Very nice and good results!

Points for sure.  Great presentation!
 

dirtsailor2003

Epic Pitmaster
OTBS Member
21,606
3,322
Joined Oct 4, 2012
Nice report Wade!

I wonder what the results would've been if you'd smoked low and slow. That seems to be where most have issues with the birds drying out.

Points
 

wade

Master of the Pit
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Group Lead
3,863
269
Joined Apr 12, 2013
Thanks for the comments 


With regards to the flavour in this test I deliberately tried to keep the chickens as "natural" as possible. Where I think the brine would add a lot more value is with when additional flavours are added. 

Squib - yes I think there mat be more effect with the larger birds, like turkey. I was trying to keep costs under control with this trial - I would have loved to use turkeys - and I may still do. I have been asked to smoke a couple of turkeys for Thanksgiving - one for a friend and the other for a customer. If I have room in the fridge for another one I may give it a try. I already have plans to repeat the trial with pork loin as this will build upon another trial I did a while ago regarding whether it is actually possible to use the gradient brine method to determine the 10% uptake method for bacon curing.

Yes - the appreciation of equilibrium is important. The results from this trial suggest that (in chickens anyway) an equilibrium does not necessarily mean an exact equalization between equal weights of meat and brine. As you say, you also need to know whether a bird has been previously brined before you consider brining it yourself.

Dirtsailor - Yes that may make a difference. I can retry this with just two birds - 2% brine and control. One variation I did not try was to use a fresh bird that had not been in the fridge 74 hours. There may be an effect on the juiciness simply from the effect of the natural enzymes.

One major lesson for me was the accuracy (or lack of) when measuring the strength of the brine using the refractometer where sugar had also been added. When trying to make any meaningful measurements it is important to use a Sodium ion Salt meter - and even this was affected slightly by the sugar addition.
 

sqwib

Smoking Guru
OTBS Member
5,963
1,022
Joined Sep 25, 2007
 
Thanks for the comments 

 
One major lesson for me was the accuracy (or lack of) when measuring the strength of the brine using the refractometer where sugar had also been added. When trying to make any meaningful measurements it is important to use a Sodium ion Salt meter - and even this was affected slightly by the sugar addition.
Your talking about measuring the strength of the brine "AFTER" the brine period, is this correct?

Any suspended solids in the brine will affect the refractometer and a Hydrometer, but is there a way to read each on its own?

I'm wondering how much sugar actually passes through, we know that salt does to the point of equilibrium, but does sugar do the same equally.

I know its not as easy as taking a specific gravity  (OG, Original Gravity) at the beginning and a Specific Gravity (FG Final Gravity) after the brine.

Will a sodium Ion Salt meter be affected by other solids? I am not versed on these
 

wade

Master of the Pit
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Group Lead
3,863
269
Joined Apr 12, 2013
 
Your talking about measuring the strength of the brine "AFTER" the brine period, is this correct?

Any suspended solids in the brine will affect the refractometer and a Hydrometer, but is there a way to read each on its own?

I'm wondering how much sugar actually passes through, we know that salt does to the point of equilibrium, but does sugar do the same equally.

I know its not as easy as taking a specific gravity  (OG, Original Gravity) at the beginning and a Specific Gravity (FG Final Gravity) after the brine.

Will a sodium Ion Salt meter be affected by other solids? I am not versed on these
No I am talking BEFORE the brine went anywhere near the chicken. I suspect that after brining the blood, protein and other solids would also affect the readings - but by how much I am nor sure

If you look at my table (just below the picture of the meters). These were measurements taken as the fresh brine was being made 
 WaterSaltCalculated
Salt %
Measured %
Salt meter
Measured %
Refractometer
 SugarMeasured %
Salt meter
Measured %
Refractometer
5% brine911495.105.205.20  255.207.40
2% brine960202.042.162.11  102.203.80
With the "5%" brine I initially added only the salt to the water. As the sugar had yet to be added the brine strength would technically calculate at 5.1%

The measurements using both the Salt meter and the refractometer were consistent - showing 5.2% so far so good.

As soon as you added the sugar (to give the final 5% salt solution) the Salt meter still showed 5.2% however the refractometer showed 7.4%. That is almost a 50% error. The difference cannot be put down to errors in brine weights either as they were both measuring exactly the same brine solution.

With the 2% brine the error was even greater comparatively - almost 80%

It shows that, unless you are using a brine that also contains sugar (and probably other additives too) you should not rely on measurements using a salt refractometer

I am not sure about the effect of other solids on the salt meter. It was obviously not affected by the addition of sugar, and because it is not an optical device it probably is not affected by coloured or opaque liquids. In its instructions it describes using it for measuring the salt content of things like soups and broths - and even mashed potato - so it probably is OK.
 

sqwib

Smoking Guru
OTBS Member
5,963
1,022
Joined Sep 25, 2007
 
No I am talking BEFORE the brine went anywhere near the chicken. I suspect that after brining the blood, protein and other solids would also affect the readings - but by how much I am nor sure

If you look at my table (just below the picture of the meters). These were measurements taken as the fresh brine was being made 
 WaterSaltCalculated
Salt %
Measured %
Salt meter
Measured %
Refractometer
 SugarMeasured %
Salt meter
Measured %
Refractometer
5% brine911495.105.205.20  255.207.40
2% brine960202.042.162.11  102.203.80
With the "5%" brine I initially added only the salt to the water. As the sugar had yet to be added the brine strength would technically calculate at 5.1%

The measurements using both the Salt meter and the refractometer were consistent - showing 5.2% so far so good.

As soon as you added the sugar (to give the final 5% salt solution) the Salt meter still showed 5.2% however the refractometer showed 7.4%. That is almost a 50% error. The difference cannot be put down to errors in brine weights either as they were both measuring exactly the same brine solution.

With the 2% brine the error was even greater comparatively - almost 80%

It shows that, unless you are using a brine that also contains sugar (and probably other additives too) you should not rely on measurements using a salt refractometer

I am not sure about the effect of other solids on the salt meter. It was obviously not affected by the addition of sugar, and because it is not an optical device it probably is not affected by coloured or opaque liquids. In its instructions it describes using it for measuring the salt content of things like soups and broths - and even mashed potato - so it probably is OK.
Could you do the brine in two parts, take your measurements, one with salinity using a refractometer and the other for Brix using a Hydrometer, then do a bit of math prior to mixing?
 

wade

Master of the Pit
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Group Lead
3,863
269
Joined Apr 12, 2013
Not sure. I will give it a go and see what I get. I may need someone more skilled than me in optical physics to interpret the results though - 
 

sqwib

Smoking Guru
OTBS Member
5,963
1,022
Joined Sep 25, 2007
Not sure. I will give it a go and see what I get. I may need someone more skilled than me in optical physics to interpret the results though - :biggrin:
Well if anyone can figure,it out it, it would be you!
 

chef jimmyj

Epic Pitmaster
Staff member
Moderator
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Group Lead
19,064
3,442
Joined May 12, 2011
Interesting test and results. As a guy that has been brining for decades, I like my result...BUT...The stars don't always align and sometimes I don't have the time. In this situation, and as Case has pointed out many times before, don't overcook the bird and it will be perfectly juicy. I also agree with SQWIB. I have had brined birds get overcooked, Breast at 175-180 and still got a great juicy bird, You don't get that wiggle room with all natural chicken...JJ
 
Last edited:

disco

Epic Pitmaster
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
10,459
4,213
Joined Oct 31, 2012
Interesting test and thread. Point.

Disco
 

GaryHibbert

Legendary Pitmaster
OTBS Member
★ Lifetime Premier ★
8,043
1,349
Joined Jun 20, 2013
Very interesting experiment, Wade.  

Since I cook everything low and slow, I was always unhappy about my chicken after smoking.  It was always dry.  Since I started brining, the breast meat is almost as moist as the dark meat.  It was, however, always, what I would consider a tad too salty.  Since I reduced the amount of salt in the brine to about 50%, I'm very pleased with the results.

Great post.



Gary
 

wade

Master of the Pit
OTBS Member
SMF Premier Member
Group Lead
3,863
269
Joined Apr 12, 2013
Thanks Disco and Gary 
 

Latest posts

Hot Threads

Top Bottom
  AdBlock Detected

We noticed that you're using an ad-blocker, which could block some critical website features. For the best possible site experience please take a moment to disable your AdBlocker.