Wet vs Dry: Which should you be doing?
Years ago, while in culinary school, I suddenly became the center of attention at Thanksgiving. My family had been preparing the typical bland, dry turkey, that ninety percent of Americans had grown so accustomed to serving this time of the year. My uncle Frank had heard about this wet brining technique I had used and wanted to know more. I spoke to him over the phone for a good 30 minutes. He had a list of questions, and hung onto my every word. I felt smart and dignified. Maybe I needed to pump my brakes?
Now for the “briner” things in life. When you dunk a cut of meat into a container of salt water, the water from inside the meat, rushes outside towards the salt. This process is called osmosis. The salt water, on the outside, then travels back inside the meat, until there is an even amount of salt on each side of the protein. The protein then swells up with water and salt, but it doesn’t stop there. The salt works to denature the protein strands in food. The salt creates gaps in the muscle fibers, making it easier for that cut of meat to collect and retain moisture.
For many years, I wet brined everything from pork chops to scallops, and was convinced I was a genius; however, additional research had given me second thoughts, so I decided to conduct a little experiment. In this “salinity struggle” I have pitted wet brining vs dry brining, or “curing”, to reveal what method yields the more moist, better tasting food. Here I used whole chickens, because it’s summertime, and turkey is largely bland and unexciting.
I start by preparing my wet brine. For the wet brine I need a gallon of water, 1 cup of kosher salt, and ¾ cup of brown sugar. The sugar adds a little sweetness, but for the most part it’s there to mellow out the salt. Bring ½ gallon of water to a boil, and whisk in the salt and sugar until dissolved. Then, pour in the other half of the cold water to “shock” or bring down the temperature. It can take all day for a gallon of hot water to cool down all the way; this way you are dramatically speeding up the process.
1 tbsp of paprika
1 tbsp of ground coriander
1 tbsp of ground cumin
1 tbsp of onion powder
1 tbsp of garlic powder
1 tbsp of dried oregano
1/2 tbsp of ground cinnamon
1 tbsp of orange zest
I completely submerge one chicken in the brine. I rub a little olive oil on the second chicken, add 1 1/2 tbsp salt to the spice blend, and rub very liberally all over the bird. My problem with most recipes on the internet is that they never add enough. Really coat the bird well with the spice mixture. Put both birds in the refrigerator and let hang out for anywhere from 8 to 24 hours. Leave the dry bird uncovered so that the skin gets dried out and crisps up later when we cook.
The next day I pull the chicken out of the wet brine and apply the spice rub. I place the chicken back in the fridge, uncovered, to let the skin dry out a little. Before grilling, I place the two chickens on the counter and let them approach room temperature (for even cooking). As you can see in the picture, the skin of the dry brined bird, on the left, is clearly more dry than the wet brined bird, on the right. The result of being left uncovered in the fridge for a day. As you will see below, this will play a key role in the finished product.
Now, time to throw on the chicken! I am using a Big Green Egg (a great company and product headquartered right here in Atlanta, GA), but a household oven or any number of grills/smokers will do just fine. The wet brined bird is on the right, and the dry, on the left. As you can see, I am not a big fan of trussing my birds. Most of these “masters of the butcher twine” will say that trussing helps the bird cook evenly, but I think it does the opposite, particularly in the area where the thigh connects to the rest of the bird. I believe the bird cooks more evenly when relaxed and not tied up like some hostage in a Bond film. I am going to let this rock at 350 degrees for about 1 1/2 hours then check. The internal temp should be 165 degrees F. Keep in mind, these birds are around 3 1/2 lbs.
And here we are again. This time the wet brined bird on the left. The dry bird has a crispier skin as a result of being uncovered and allow to air dry in the fridge. Crispy is good. While still crispy, the wet bird skin was a little soft in some places. The time spent air drying was not enough to counter the effects of soaking in the brine. Although the wet bird was more moist, the dry bird had better flavor. The wet bird still had a good flavor, but the dry bird had a stronger “chicken flavor” to me.
Takeaway: The wet bird was more moist. But the additional moisture came from tap water in the brine, which in my opinion, compromised the natural flavor of the chicken. The dry bird, although not as moist, had a better flavor, and sufficient enough moisture. When the salt was applied to the outside of the bird, the moisture was drawn out, diluted the salt, and carried it back inside the bird. Once inside the bird, the salt loosened up the muscle fibers, and was able to retain more moisture. So while the wet bird took on additional water, the dry bird simply retained it’s own natural juices.
Bonus Points: Functionality
This is really no contest here. If you plan on wet brining, get ready to relinquish a large section of your refrigerator to hold a vessel large enough to contain a whole chicken submerged in water. Also, wet brining contains the extra steps of making the brine, letting it cool down, and letting the chicken air dry for a period of time after it soaks. You almost need to plan out two whole days for this to happen. Dry brining is clearly the way to go.
Dry Brined Green Egg Chicken
1 whole chicken, approx 3-3.5 lbs
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp dried oregano
1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp orange zest
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
Rub the olive oil on the skin of the chicken. Mix all dry ingredients plus the orange zest together and rub very liberally all over the chicken. Leave the chicken uncovered in the refrigerator for anywhere from 8 to 24 hours. Set the green egg (or grill) to 350 degrees fahrenheit over indirect heat. Let the birds cook for approximately 1 1/2 hours, or to an internal temperature of 160 degrees (It is recommended you cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. When you let it rest on the counter, the chicken will “carryover cook” up another 5 degrees). Remove the chicken from the grill. Let it rest on the counter for 20-30 minutes, carve and serve!