Cooking has never been more creative or more fun than it is today. When it comes to combinations of ingredients and flavors, there no longer are hard and fast rules. Often times a crazy idea turns into a favorite recipe. And that's how I came to love chicken brined in sweet tea.
I was writing my cookbook on different ways to flavor food called "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned" and I decided to write a whole chapter on brining. That is how much I believe in brining.
It is the perfect way to infuse both moisture and flavor into lean cuts of meat, such as pork, poultry and fish. I was creating brines that reflected flavors from all different types of cuisines and wanted to create an iconic Southern brine. It didn't take long for sweet iced tea to come to mind. This traditional sweet beverage of the South is perfect for brining. Basically, all you have to do is add salt.
Because my favorite sweet tea is half lemonade and half tea, my tea brine has strong lemon undertones that make it a perfect complement to grilled chicken. I also add a touch of cinnamon to the brine to make it slightly spicier and more complex, helping it stand up to the heat and smokiness of the grill. If you don't like cinnamon, you could substitute a teaspoon of black peppercorns.
The result is my go-to brine when grilling chicken pieces. I like to serve the sweet-tea brined chicken with classic sides, like potato salad and grilled green beans in summer, and cornbread and sweet potato mash in the fall and winter. You'll find that it is versatile and goes with just about anything.
And don't worry -- the chicken doesn't taste like iced tea. But it is juicy and well-seasoned. And if you like lemon chicken, like I do, grill a couple of sliced lemon halves and squirt the warm grilled juice over the chicken just before serving. Or for a tropical twist on the brine, substitute green tea for the black tea, and apricot nectar for the lemonade and you have an exotic tea brine that also works with pork.
When brining, remember the brine needs to be cold. And the smaller the piece of food, the less time it will take to brine. You don't want to over-brine and make the food salty.
After the chicken has brined, pat it dry, but don't rinse it. Brush all over with olive oil but do not season it further. The chicken already is seasoned. I recommend grilling all bone-in chicken pieces over a medium indirect heat -- about 350 F to 400 F -- so they are cooked on the inside at the same time they are golden brown on the outside. Cooking bone-in chicken pieces over direct heat can result in a raw interior and a burned exterior.
When you use this brine, you'll see that besides delicious chicken, the brine also promotes a beautiful caramelized color thanks to the sugar and the tea that is absorbed by the chicken. Since we all eat with our eyes first, that is a win-win chicken din-din in my book.
SWEET TEA-BRINED AND GRILLED CHICKEN
Start to finish: 2 hours 15 minutes (30 minutes active)
4 cups hot water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
12-ounce can frozen lemonade concentrate
4 cups strong freshly brewed black tea, cooled
1 lemon, cut into slices
6 cups ice
8 bone-in chicken thighs
In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the water, salt, sugar and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Set aside to cool until just warm. Add the frozen lemonade and tea, then stir well. Add the lemon slices and ice. Stir well.
Add the chicken to the brine, then cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.
When ready to cook, prepare a gas or charcoal grill for medium, indirect cooking. On a charcoal grill, this means banking the coals to one side and cooking on the cooler side. On a gas grill, turn off the burners in one area and cook the chicken there.
Remove the chicken from the brine. Pat it dry with paper towels, then brush it lightly all over with oil. Arrange the chicken on the grill grate, bone side down. Cover and grill for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the meat reaches 170 F at the thickest part. There is no need to turn the chicken during cooking.
Remove the chicken from the grill and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. If grilling the lemons, do this while the chicken rests and squirt the hot grilled lemon juice over the chicken pieces before serving.
Nutrition information per serving: 240 calories; 160 calories from fat (67 percent of total calories); 18 g fat (4.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 3 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 16 g protein; 790 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."