Craving juicy, tender and flavorful fried chicken? Try using sweet tea in your brine

Iced Tea Getty Images/MmeEmil
Iced Tea Getty Images/MmeEmil
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In anticipation of warmer weather and the formal arrival of spring (at least here in the east coast, where cold weather continues to plague us), I’ve been on the hunt for a foolproof recipe for homemade fried chicken. The best fried chicken I’ve had to date was at Toast, a New Orleans-based brunch spot serving french toast, crêpes and waffles galore. Their fried chicken with maple syrup & cayenne butter has been on my mind a lot this month, so in hopes of recreating their signature offering, I’ve been scouring the internet for all the fried chicken tips and tricks I can get my hands on.

Recently, I stumbled upon Lilly Parnell’s glowing review of fried chicken served at chef Jennie Wert's restaurant Ellen's on Front, which blends Latin and Asian influences with traditional American fare. The fried chicken, Parnell described, “was the perfect contradiction of flavors and textures: sweet and spicy, crispy and juicy.” But what really wowed her was the chicken’s secret ingredient: sweet tea.

Indeed, Wert's special sauce for achieving delicious fried chicken is using a sweet-tea brine. As explained by Parnell, Wert marinates the chicken wings and thighs for 24-hours in a homemade sweet tea brine. She then uses a dry batter consisting of flour, cayenne, paprika and salt and pepper. To her wet batter, she adds soda water, which creates an airy consistency for “an ultra-crispy chicken skin.” She finally fries the chicken in oil before tossing them in hot sauce and honey butter and topping them with Thai basil leaves.

Similar to Parnell, my mind was also blown, mainly because I’ve never considered utilizing sweet tea as a brine. My understanding of homemade brine is limited to the standard ratio of one cup kosher salt to one gallon of water. To spruce things up, I’ll add a sweetener like honey or brown sugar and spices or use buttermilk instead. But sweet tea was a new alternative that completely took me by surprise.

Sweet tea, though an ambitious choice of ingredient, isn’t all that uncommon in brine recipes. Chef John Fleer, hailed as the “thinking man’s chef,” uses a sweet tea-based brine when making fried chicken. Fleer’s recipe, courtesy of John T. Edge, “manages to pay tribute to the traditional South of days past and the multicultural South still on the horizon.” Fleer makes his brine by simmering a quart of brewed tea (double strength) along with one lemon, a cup of sugar and a half cup of kosher salt. The chicken (Fleer uses thighs and drumsticks) brines in the ice-cold, salty-sweet tea mixture for 48 hours before it’s coated in an egg-buttermilk mixture, corn flour and crab boil seasoning.

When it comes to utilizing a brine in making fried chicken, some recipes call for it while others say it’s unnecessary. Brining for the most part is helpful, depending on the kind of meat you’re working with. It adds flavor, allowing the meat to absorb that extra liquid and become juicier and more moist when cooked. The salt in brine tenderizes the meat, dissolving some of its muscle fibers which helps reduce its overall toughness. It also unfolds and unravels meat proteins, resulting in a more tender cooked meat.

Brining is great for lean meats that are inherently flavorless when cooked on their own, like chicken breasts, pork chops, seafood and Thanksgiving turkey. Red meats, like beef or lamb, are better off with a marinade.

Tea is such a natural addition to fried chicken because it adds a welcome touch of bitterness to the meat, which complements the juicy, rich, fatty, crispy bird,” wrote Joe Sevier for Epicurious. Sweet tea, in particular, not only yields spicy and sweet, crunchy and succulent chicken, it also adds mellow fruity undertones that intensifies the flavor profile of your dish.

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In a recent interview with EatingWell, “The Kitchen” co-host Katie Lee Biegel touted her own fried chicken recipe, which calls for a brine made with Milo’s brand sweet tea. Biegel’s brine also includes onion, garlic and soy sauce “for its salty depth of flavor,” she said.

“The tannins in the tea tenderize the chicken, and the sweetness from the tea and the soy sauce infuse into the chicken,” Biegel added. “This makes it so incredibly flavorful and almost impossible to overcook.”

That being said, sweet tea-based brines aren’t just reserved for making fried chicken. The brine can be used when preparing an Easter Ham that's finished off with a lemon glaze, per this recipe from Southern Living. It can also be combined with molasses when making a sweet tea and molasses-brined spatchcock chicken, per this recipe from Epicurious. Whatever your choice recipe is, be sure to have fun with making your own sweet tea brine. I sure will be — speaking of which, I’ve got fried chicken to make.