Brining a small amount of chicken
I want to brine 2 small chicken breasts but all the recipes I have found call for 1/2 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water. Do I really need to follow that for 2 small breasts? It seems kind of wasteful. I was wondering if it would be ok to cut down by half or a third. Is it the amount of salt that is important or is it a ratio to water that I need to get right?
The salt : water ratio AND the right timing is what you need. Cooks Illustrated (I believe) did a bunch of tests, and they found that low-salt brining wasn't any better than not brining at all in terms of juiciness. In this case, though, all you need is enough water to cover the chicken.
I use the brine recipe from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, and it's always been successful:
Brining for Poultry and Meat
To make the brine, stir kosher salt (do not, under any circumstances, use table salt here) into cold water until dissolved, in the proportion of 1/4 cup salt to 1 quart of water. Mix enough brine to cover the poultry or meat completely in a nonreactive* bowl or pot. Store refrigerated for the times specified below. Do not brine for longer than the recommended time or your meat will become too salty.
Cut-up chicken: brine for 8-12 hours
Whole chicken for roasting: brine for 8-24 hours
Whole turkey for roasting: brine for 24-48 hours
Pork chops: brine for 2 hours
Pork loin: brine for 8-24 hours
Pork shoulder: brine for 24 hours
I agree with cut it down and the ratio looks pretty good to my eye.
Whatever ratio you decide to use, just remember that a gallon = 128 ounces and a cup = 16 tablespoons. I always try to err on the side of caution when brining after having an embarrassing experience using a brine recipe that created a dish so salty it was barely fit to eat - and I did it with company for dinner. I've found that if I use less salt and more time I get pretty good results after rinsing and patting dry. If the brining doesn't provide the juiciness I had hoped it would, at least the meat doesn't resemble a salt lick.
Honestly, I just do it by taste since I am single and rarely brine whole birds. I go for a seawater flavor, and try to do it in advance to give whole spices time to infuse. I like to keep good marinades or brines in a jar and reuse them a few times in rapid succession rather than going through the whole process every time. Just my workable habits to try, not necessarily what you should always do.