Fennel-Brined Chicken with Lemon and Black Pepper Glaze

#RecipeUpTop:

  • 4 Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (home butchered preferred);

For the brine:

  • 50 to 100 grams salt
  • 50 to 100 grams sugar
  • Fennel seed (to taste)
  • Coriander seed (to taste)

For the glaze:

  • 1 lemon (juice and zest)
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 TBS sugar
  • Fresh cracked black pepper (to taste)
  • Salt (to taste)
  • Corn starch slurry (to desired thickness)

Method: Construct a 6% brine with the fennel seed and coriander as flavorants, and brine for at least six (6) hours, or preferably overnight. Meanwhile, combine the glaze ingredients except for the cornstarch slurry and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust for acidity, salt, and sugar. Thicken with slurry to desired consistency. Cook chicken breasts via desired method (grilling instructions below) to internal temp of 165F, then glaze. Serve over rice, salad, or in a sandwich.

Details

Spring is sliding into summer on the mountain, and our latest supply run yielded a bounty of chickens, which we processed in our usual way. As a result, we have a lot of boneless, skinless chicken breasts around which, despite some shade from the current culinary hivemind, do have a lot of really great uses.

Most of the hate for the cut comes from the same attribute that made it so desirable in the first place: it’s lean protein. In other words, it dries out really, really quickly. The upside is we can cook it really, really, quickly. And, with a little moisture insurance and extra flavor from our brine, we’ll buy ourselves some wiggle room in the final product.

The end result is succulent, sweet-sour, juicy medallions of chicken that have a million applications (including eating them straight off the cutting board with some white wine while giggling), and are actually pretty good for you (so I’ve heard).

Step one: the brine. If you’ve read some of this blog, you know how much I love a brine in correct applications. (The First Chicken; The Pull of Pork) A few years back, it was like the wild west of brine-town with folks soaking everything from fish to fillet mignon, and, well, it was just a lot of the wrong tool for the job.

Chicken breast, however, is up in the top three (3) of things to brine. Not only does it need the moisture help, it really needs the flavor help, AND it’s super eager to learn. So, get your breasts in a bag, get them on the scale (I’m using a cambro to make things easier, and to catch any eventual leaks in the fridge), and zero it out. Fill the bag with tap water until the breasts are covered, and re-weigh it to figure out the weight of the water:

In this case, it’s 884 grams of water. We’re going for a 6% brine here, so that means about 53 grams of salt and 53 grams of sugar (if we were on a short timeframe, I might bump this brine strength up to 10%, meaning 88.4 grams of each).

Once that’s measured, in go the spices and herbs. This time around, we’re going pretty simple with fennel seed and coriander. Both taste like summer to me, and the licorice notes of the fennel really seem to work with the citrus flavors of the coriander, particularly on a charcoal grill (more on that later).

Let the chicken soak in the fridge for six (6) hours.

Step two: The glaze. Folks, this is an entire post unto itself, but here we go. The manufacture of any glaze is a lot like making a salad dressing, in that there will be a baseline of ingredients, but it’s going to take a bit of balancing and adjusting for acidity, sweetness, salt, etc. Also like our prior post, we’ll be using white vinegar to augment our citrus base because it’s one of those devious tricks I’ve developed over the years that turns one lemon into an unlimited font of citrus.

The good news is the process is really absurdly simple. Get all of the glaze ingredients EXCEPT the cornstarch slurry into a sauce pot and bring it to a simmer:

Once the sugar is dissolved, taste it. It’s a glaze, so it should be very pungent in terms of salt, sweet, and acid. Remember, this isn’t a sauce; it’s literally a micro-lacquer of flavor on the outside of your chicken. So, be bold.

Alright, let’s talk cornstarch slurry. I have an arsenal of thickeners in my kitchen, and for this type of application, cornstarch is the go-to. You need the sauce to gain viscosity without losing flavor, but also without concentrating that same flavor. For example, you could, in theory, reduce the sauce until it was thick on its own. And it would taste horrible, because all of the neutrally-flavored water molecules would be gone, and you’d have something like bullion cubes in liquid form. Corn starch lets us lock-in our flavor-balance, while also giving us the thickness we need for things like glazing meat on the grill (or making a great dipping sauce for egg rolls… but that’s a different post).

How do we use it? Very cautiously. Simply put, dissolve some (say a tablespoon) in only as much cold water as it takes to look kind of like whole milk:

My total volume here happens to be almost exactly 50ml, but I’m still going to add this slowly, as the potential is there to really seize up into glop if you’re not careful.

Finally, last word about the corn starch slurry: after each addition, bring the sauce/glaze back to a full simmer to make sure you’re seeing the complete thickening power of the starch you’ve added, AND ALSO remember it will be significantly thicker at room temperature. So, go a little thinner than you think you need. Here’s the end result, notice the suspended black pepper:

Oh, by the way, you now have the skills to make any glaze that’s ever existed, congratulations. General Tsos? Candied ribs? Lime Ginger Shrimp? All the same method, different ingredients. Have fun.

Step three: cook your chicken (and glaze it). Full disclosure: this recipe works great in the oven. But, it’s spring/summer and I’M GRILLING LIKE A MADMAN.

Typically, I’d advise against grilling chicken breasts because, well, like we talked about they tend to dry out really quickly. But, in this case, we’ve already got our moisture insurance with our brine, and I know a few tricks with the grill that can help us get to the promised land.

So, here we go. Get the chicken breasts out of the brine and rinse them. Why? The brine is pungent stuff, and while we want it IN the chicken, it’ll be too strong ON the outside. Note: they’re not going to look much different from where we started, but they are. Oh, they are:

On the grill, we’re building an indirect fire, meaning the coals all go up against one side and the chicken goes on the other:

No coals under the chicken, lid on, probe thermometer standing by. Depending on your heat level, grill design, etc, it could take anywhere from fifteen (15) to twenty five (25) minutes to get these up to the temp we’re looking for: 155F internal (which is not fully cooked, but there’s a reason for that).

And guess what? They’re not going to look great when we’re there:

Not exactly gorgeous, right? Well, here’s the fun part. We’re going to flip them and get them directly over the coals and paint on the glaze like we’re trying to hide some awful wallpaper:

Keep watch, because over this direct heat they’ll brown fast, particularly with the sugar in the glaze, but that’s what we’re counting on and it’s why we cooked them to done via indirect heat first. From here, glaze ’em and flip ’em as you see fit, until you’re happy:

That’s it. Don’t over cook them, add a little extra glaze as they come off if you want some finger-smacking action, and… serve them however you want. They are almost as good the next day, so I usually go medallions for salads, sandwiches, and middle of the night unaccountable scrounging.

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