Brining is a form of marinating. Brines always contain a fair amount of salt, but never any fat.
The "standard" salt to water ratio for brine is one cup of table salt to one gallon of liquid, or about twice the salinity of sea water. If you use kosher salt, or some other salt less dense than table salt, the standard ratio is adjusted accordingly. For instance, two cups of Diamond kosher salt is about the same amount of actual salt as 1 cup of table salt.
As a rule, you don't want to brine any a solution less saline that sea water. So, think of half a cup of table salt per gallon of water as a minimum.
Converting everything to quarts from gallons, the standard ratio is 1/4 cup salt per quart of liquid; and the weak ratio is 2 tbs table salt per quart of liquid.
No matter what you use for your other cooking and for your table, keep some table salt around for brines. It's a great deal cheaper, tastes the same once its dissolved in liquid, and you can control your ratios according to (most) recipe standards. Whoever recommends kosher salt for brining is clueless. Was it Alton Brown?
Use non-iodized salt. Iodized salt won't do any harm from a taste or health perspective, but it leaves a sort of purplish cast after long brining. Get your dietary iodine from some other source besides brined foods.
Kosher salts are not equal. Morton is denser than Diamond. Getting back to your particular brine, if you used Diamond kosher salt the ratio made your brine a "strong" brine. If you used Morton kosher salt, your ratio was roughly 50% stronger.
Brining is "powered" by a chemical process called diffusion. Whether or not osmosis is involved, and if so to what extent, is a matter of conjecture and some controversy. Trust me on this. Trust me also that by and large it's a mistake to expect good chemistry on cooking sites.
The rate of diffusion controls how fast the meat brines, or you could say it controls how completely it brines over time. The rate of diffusion will largely depend on the density of what you're brining, the concentration of salt in the brining solution, and the temperature of the brining solution -- as long as you use enough brining solution. The presence and amount of sugars and/or acids in the brine will increase the rate somewhat.
Always use enough solution. Always (or almost always) brine in cold solution. As long as I'm throwing around the term "solution," now's a good time to say that brining solutions do not always have to be built around water. You could use buttermilk or fruit juices. When I brine chicken, I frequently one or the other of those two, or combine them, or mix fruit juice into water. I find that commercially prepared lemonade and/or limeade are real time savers -- and of course they bring sugar and acid to the party.
Brining makes the meat cook moister by allowing the meat to hold more moisture before its cooked. It depends somewhat on the particular food, but brined meats should weigh about 20% more after than they did before brining. Some, but not all of the difference cooks away. In order to achieve the liquid (and weight) gain, the meat will have to absorb a great deal of salt along with the water. As long as diffusion is incomplete, the meat will not have absorbed the maximum amount of moisture it can. Once diffusion is complete, the meat will not get any saltier no matter how long it's left in the brine.
That's a lot of information to get to a fairly simple conclusion, but I find a decent understanding of what's going on helps you adjust techniques to particular situation and gives a lot more room for improvisation.
Now that you've got a little bit of a basis in the basics, let's get down to the specifics of chicken pieces. As a rule, chicken pieces will take on the all the liquid they can within two hours in a weak brine. So yes, your brine was too strong and your time too long.
In my experience whether the chicken is skin-on, skin off, boneless, or on the bone doesn't make a big difference. It's primarily a matter of weight. Obviously, Berndy's experience is different. Experiment and see what's right for you.
- Add a half cup of table salt, one onion sliced very thin, one orange sliced thin, two crushed garlic cloves, and a sprig of rosemary into a quart of store-bought or homemade limeade;
- Put on the stove and heat until the salt dissolves;
- Remove from the stove and allow to cool for thirty minutes;
- Add a quart of cold buttermilk, the juice of a lemon and the chicken pieces;
- Put the chicken and brining solution into a large plastic bag or a covered bowl,
- Allow to brine in the refrigerator for two hours.
- Reduce the amount of salt to one quarter cup;
- Follow the other directions as above; but
- Allow to brine for at least four hours and as long as overnight.
Adjusting concentration and time in brine allows you to control how salty the meat will be when it comes out. But there are practical boundaries. If the meat's been brined long enough in a solution strong enough to make a difference, it's going to be salty. Always adjust your post-brine seasonings to eliminate or at least minimize additional salt. Pepper -- whether black pepper, chili powder, hot sauce, etc. -- helps to balance the saltiness of brined meats. So does sweet.
There's no free lunch. If you don't like salty meat, don't brine.
Edited by boar_d_laze - 11/1/12 at 9:15am