Brining Thanksgiving Turkeys

To brine, or not to brine, that is the question. We’ve consulted the authorities and have uncovered some answers for you.

When it comes to turkey, most cooks (and turkey-eaters) are concerned with having moist and flavorful turkey grace their guest’s plates at Thanksgiving. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, magazines and food websites abound with turkey recipes, each promising a flavorful result with wonderfully moist meat… as long as you don’t overcook the bird.

Some recipes suggest brining turkeys, while others slather the bird in butter. Though the technique of brining foods has been around for centuries (think of making pickles—the solution the vegetables are preserved in is essentially a brine), it appears to be all the rage today. But of us are left wondering whether brining is really better.


What is brine?

A brine is essentially a solution of salt and water that is used to pickle or preserve foods. You can add additional ingredients, like sugar, herbs, saffron, and citrus to impart additional sweetness, color, and flavor. It’s quite easy to make brine, and the bird will typically sit in it for a couple of hours, to overnight, before it is rinsed and dried well before cooking. Some cooks have also heard this technique referred to as a “wet brine,” versus a “dry brine,” where a seasoned salt is rubbed all over (and inside) the meat to be cooked. 


A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Times published an article about the “Judy Bird,” a dry-brining technique for preparing roast chicken named for chef Judy Rogers, the chef at Zuni Café in San Francisco, and her beloved technique for cooking chicken which uses a “dry brine.” However, a “dry brine,” isn’t at all a brine, but instead a “cure” or “rub” that is just as effective as a “wet brine” when it comes to moisture and flavor.


The science behind the brine

A couple of years ago, Harold McGee, who writes on the chemistry of food and cooking for The New York Times in his column “The Curious Cook”, beautifully explained the science behind this culinary technique. Essentially, brining moisturizes meat due to the principle of osmosis: there is little salt in meat, so when a meaty bird sits in a tub of salty water, salt will permeate into the meat, displacing moisture. That salt in the meat then begins to break down the proteins, creating more space for water to enter. And you can feel the difference—on average brined meats will gain at least 10% of its original weight in water and salt.


So, to brine or not to brine?

Mainstream food punditry maintains that brining the turkey practically guarantees a moist, tender roast. I agree, it does. But I’m still a no-briner.” Harold McGee, Miracle Cure or Just Salt Water?

So why does Harold McGee say no to brining? Let’s compare the two.

Brining believers know that, because of this influx of water and salt (a flavor enhancer), a brined turkey is more moist, tender, and seemingly “more flavorful” than an un-brined bird. If you overcook your brined bird, the meat will still be quite moist because of all the added water in the meat. And the meat will be tenderer — because the salts are breaking down the proteins, the meat will not seem as tough.

In terms of flavor, if you choose one of the mass-market birds that are bred to maximize meat, and not flavor, brining with herbs and other flavors is nearly essential if you want a moist and tasty result. Many view brining as a turkey insurance policy: Short of undercooking the bird, it’s hard not to end up with something moist and flavorful.

But there are naysayers, too. Brining your turkey is time consuming, and takes forethought: you’ve got to get the container to brine it in, make the brine, and find a place to hold it for a couple of days. (I’m sure your fridge will not be big enough — or will already be full of Thanksgiving side dishes!) If you’re roasting a full-flavored Heritage bird, brining it will only leave it tasting, well… not as meaty, with all the water diluting the real turkey flavor. Are you a gravy fan? Bad news: You can’t make pan gravy if you brine your bird; the drippings will be way too salty.


Brining alternatives

If you’ve decided against brining your bird, all hope is not lost. Many recipes call for a bird to be slathered in butter before cooking. Chef Lauren Braun Costello swears by wrapping her bird in bacon. Whatever the technique, each does seem to add some additional moisture and flavor to your bird. Just don't forget to season both the outside and inside of your bird liberally, too.

- Classic: A Julia Child-inspired technique that calls for slathering the outside of your very dry bird with softened butter.

- Compound Butter: For even more flavor, make a compound butter by mixing in some seasonings and herbs or citrus into the butter, and slathering it directly on the breast meat, underneath the skin. When that butter melts, it has no place to go but to infuse into the meat.

- Martha Stewart: similar to coating your bird with butter, Martha layers melted-butter-and-wine-soaked cheesecloth on the bird's breast.

- Bacon: Chef Costello's choice technique — and it makes sense. "It keeps the breast moist and makes one heck of a deliciously crisp bacon snack. Also, the bacon is cured and fatty, so it can impart lots of flavor and moisture from the salt and fat. Coating the turkey breast and legs with bacon literally acts as a shield, creating a layer between the turkey and direct heat," she says. Sounds good to us: a tasty bird, and a salty-sweet treat? Yum!

- Upside-down: An unusual technique favored by Lydia Shire, the chef at Locke-Ober in Boston, Mass., is to begin roasting the bird upside down (you can also sit it on its side), essentially exposing the parts of the bird that take the longest to cook before exposing the quick-to-dry breast meat. Word of caution, though: If you’re juggling a 24 pound bird this year, rotating it around might prove to be difficult.


Tips not to forget

In the end, regardless of whether you choose to brine or not, properly cooking your meat, and letting it rest, will aid in yielding a moist and flavorful product. The goal of cooking a turkey so that the thigh registers at 180 degrees and the stuffing at 165 degrees, while keeping the breast under 155 degrees, eludes many cooks. This challenge is what oft plagues cooks, and is why it is essential that you have an instant-read thermometer on hand. More importantly, don’t forget to let it rest before cutting! As the meat rests, the juices will have a chance to settle and redistribute. For a turkey, it is wise to let it sit for about 30 minutes.

Click here to see more of Chef Costello's Thanksgiving Turkey Tips.


For more turkey talk, visit The Daily Meal's Guide to Thanksgiving!