A reader wants to know if marinating chicken breasts before baking them in the oven would keep them from drying out.
The answer is that while marinating can enhance flavor, it can actually promote drying. The best way to ensure a juicy result is by brining the meat. That may seem counterintuitive, given that the main ingredient of any brining solution is salt.
Brining is the process of soaking meat in a salt solution. It causes the meat to absorb liquid and also seasons the meat because it absorbs the brine. So right away, using a brine will flavor and tenderize the meat as well as keep it juicy.
The basic formula for a brine is one cup of coarse (kosher) salt and half cup of sugar to each gallon of water. Adding herbs and spices is the way to introduce flavor to the meat through the brining solution.
I highly recommend brining for cooking whole turkeys, too. Your Thanksgiving bird will be memorable and no part of the bird will ever come out dry.
These days, most folks are buying boneless skinless chicken breasts. There is little or no fat, which promotes juiciness, and without skin and bone, the meat goes into the oven, grill or pan without protection. So the absence of skin and bone promotes drying. And so does overcooking. Here are additional solutions for preventing your boneless skinless chicken breasts from drying:
Use a pastry brush and lightly “paint” the chicken breasts with olive oil or canola oil before cooking. Broil, rather than bake, the chicken breasts until they just begin to brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Chefs use touch to test for doneness. Just open your hand and spread your fingers so there is about a quarter inch between them. Now feel the skin below your thumb. That’s the way the meat should feel. Chefs also use carry-over cooking time (that means the meat continues to cook even after you pull it from the heat) to reach the ideal temperature. (More on the importance of meat thermometers in a future column.)
Here’s a basic brine recipe that’ll work for chicken, turkey and pork:
1 gallon spring water
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup sugar
4 garlic cloves, cut in half
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. ground coriander
12 whole black peppercorns
Bring water, salt and sugar to a boil, stirring until sugar and salt are completely dissolved. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Cool to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours.
Place meat in a Zip-Loc bag, add brine, seal and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.
Pat the meat dry (this is important), brush with oil and sauté, broil or bake.