So maybe ‘Foodie Magazine Day’ hasn’t become quite the regular feature we originally envisioned it to be when we first started Capital Spice…

Is it our fault?  Is it your fault?  Why focus on pointing fingers when we can all celebrate the fact that it’s back!  (If you didn’t notice it was gone, play along anyway.)  

This time, we’re turning to the good folks at Cook’s Illustrated for an all-purpose brine that has yet to let us down.  Considering how often we roast chicken here at Capital Spice HQ, you can rest assured we’ve had ample opportunities for disappointment – but it just hasn’t happened.

More about Cook’s Illustrated and their “Universal Formula for Brining” after the jump.

If you’ve never picked up a copy of Cook’s Illustrated, you don’t know what you’re missing.  The antithesis of glossies like Gourmet and Food & Wine, Cook’s Illustrated is less a food magazine and more a collection of kitchen case studies.  Whether taste-testing various store-bought products (orange juice, olive oils), putting kitchen gadgets (mandolines, serrated knives) through their paces or simply testing dozens of variations on a cooking technique to find the “ultimate” approach, they treat their subject matter with a seriousness that makes you willing to spend your grocery money on the ingredients they call for.  If they cooked 40 pork chops to figure out the best way to keep them tender and juicy, I can feel comfortable spending a bit more on the good stuff from the Farmers’ Market without fear of ruining them.

There’s something charming and just a little creepy about the whole thing: their fanatical devotion to getting things just right, the lack of advertising, the folksy observations of founder and editor Christopher Kimball (accompanied by that Wall Street Journal-style sketch portrait).  It’s a snark magnet – until you actually put their recipes to the test.  Once you’ve given them a try, they’ve got you.

So naturally, when a conversation about roasting chicken with Jason from DC Foodies resulted in a desire to try brining, I deferred to the authorities at Cook’s Illustrated for the how-to.  A quick Google search turned up this PDF of an article from the November/December 2001 issue, and I decided to give it a try.

I bought a three-pound chicken from Capitol Hill Poultry in Eastern Market and broke it down into six pieces (2 each of wings, breasts and leg/thigh combinations).  This way, I’d be able to roast the chicken more quickly than if I were to attempt to cook it whole.  I set the pieces aside and went to work on the brine.

The Cook’s Illustrated recipe is really easy – 1 quart of water, 1/4 cup of table salt (or 1/2 cup of kosher salt) and 1/2 cup of sugar per pound of meat.  Using those proportions, I mixed up three quarts of brine and stirred to dissolve the salt and sugar into solution.  I also crushed a few cloves of garlic, chopped some tarragon and sliced up some lemon, eager to add some flavor during the soaking process.  I added the chicken to the brine and then sunk a pot lid on top of the chicken to ensure that it stayed submerged and absorbed as much brine as possible.

The simplicity of the Cook’s Illustrated brine is one of its great strengths.  The other is the relatively short period of time required to achieve the benefits of the brine.  While some recipes direct you to let the meat soak overnight, this one recommends only 1 hour per pound of meat, at least 30 minutes and not more than 8 hours.  I left the chicken to soak for a good five hours before pulling it out of the brine (all of which, including the lemons, I immediately discarded) and setting it to air dry in the refrigerator for about an hour and a half.

Once dry, I like to brush olive oil over the skin and between the skin and the meat itself and add some last-minute spices (fresh ground pepper is a must, but other options can include paprika, cumin, mustard powder or even curry).  From there, you need only place the chicken into a pre-heated oven and wait for juicy chicken with golden cripsy skin.  I’ve found that our oven gives the best results cooking at 385 degrees for 50 minutes, but I would encourage you to set your temperature somewhere between 375 and 400 and then check on things after 40 minutes.  That way you can avoid drying out the chicken or burning the skin.

If all goes to plan, you should be enjoying succulent chicken and crispy skin in just under an hour.  It’s not exactly rocket science, but the fact that Cook’s Illustrated treated it like it is means that you can expect a great result.