Turkey

How to Brine a Turkey for the. Juiciest. Bird. Ever.

Forget what you've heard before—this is how to get your best brine on.

October 15, 2020

Thanksgiving was always at our house. Every year, friends, family, neighbors we barely knew wound their way through the fog to our home in the Berkeley hills, bearing pecan and pumpkin pies, sweet potato casseroles bobbing with marshmallows, tureens of green beans, and bowls of guacamole (this last one always arrived with a particularly time-challenged guest after dessert, but was polished off nonetheless).

My father, a vegetarian since his twenties, was for some inscrutable reason in charge of the turkey. A few hours before guests arrived, he’d pull the bird out of its bag of brine (a major Snowden-level leak one November left our fridge permanently frosted in turkey salt) and haul it onto the barbecue. He’d bring out bottles of liquor that had accumulated at the back of our cabinet over the year, and pour them over the bird in their entirety, to dubious effect. There was a lot of head-scratching and bird poking, and eventually he’d decide the turkey was probably done. Someone would take the electric turkey saw to it, and a few minutes later we’d be heaping our plates with steaming slices of miraculously succulent meat.

This year, of course, will be different. Like so many Americans, I will be far away from family and cut off from friends. There will be no procession of guests, no heated debates over gravy and stuffing. My fiancée and I will be eating our holiday meal in our Brooklyn studio apartment, texting or Zooming loved ones, talking hopefully of next year. And without the throngs of Thanksgivings past, a whole turkey would be a waste. Instead, we’ll roast a couple legs and a few sweet potatoes, make a little cranberry sauce, and probably skip the gravy.

But even in these strange circumstances, there is comfort in tradition, and particularly in food. And for everyone making turkey this year, whether a whole bird or a single breast, what better time to improve on memory, and make turkey that is actually, genuinely delicious? To accomplish this small, hopeful act, we need to talk about brine.


Brining Basics

Brining involves bathing ingredients in salted liquid. On a microscopic scale, muscle fibers in the meat absorb water through some combination of capillary action and diffusion. But as J. Kenji López-Alt demonstrates in his investigation of the science of Thanksgiving turkey, water isn’t enough. As meat cooks, the proteins denature and contract, squeezing water out of the muscle.

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“The problem of the dry brine for me is that the skin usually turns out inedible salty, and worse, all of the delicious juices and pan drippings are way too salty to use for gravy. ”
— Susanna
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No matter how waterlogged the turkey is when it goes into the oven, it’ll emerge dry as can be—unless it’s been properly salted. Why? Because salt dissolves proteins in the meat to form a gel. The salt ions cause the fibrils within the muscles to repel one another, expanding into an open lattice. This new structure holds water much better, and doesn’t contract in the same way when it is heated. The result is moist, tender, flavorful meat.

Now before you get too excited about brining, I have a major plot twist to throw at you. It turns out that brining, for all its advantages, is a half-measure, a false god, a golden calf. The path to true turkey greatness is the way of the dry brine.

Instead of immersing turkey in a bath of salted water, the dry-brine disciple smothers their bird in salt alone. This achieves the same effect as brining, but without the added water. When the bird roasts (or grills, or smokes), it still retains liquid, but the liquid it retains is more richly flavored. The texture is slightly firmer. The skin is crisper. In fact, when López-Alt compared the two methods, he found that though meat absorbed a tremendous amount of water when brined, it ended up just about equally moist (by weight) as a dry-brined bird.

If a combination of great flavor and perfect texture are the goal, you may be wondering why brining in a flavorful liquid mixture isn’t the way to go. Unfortunately, most flavor compounds don’t do very well at penetrating the meat, so even a bird bathed in chicken broth ends up more watery than its dry-brined cousin. Besides, with the peace of mind you’ll get from knowing there’s no brine leaking from its bag all over your fridge, the choice is clear: Toss the bag and dry-brine your bird.


How to dry-brine

  1. Two days before Turkey Day, pat the bird dry. (If it’s frozen, give it an extra couple days to thaw in the fridge first.) Remove the giblets, neck, and any other oddments from the cavity, and set up a clean work station to salt your bird.

  2. Salt the bird on all sides and inside the cavity. Remember, you’re salting the entire bird, not just the surface, so season liberally. To allow air to circulate around the bird, which will lead to crisper skin, place the turkey on a wire rack set in a sheet tray, and place uncovered in the refrigerator. Cover loosely with plastic wrap if salting more than two days in advance.

  3. 1 to 2 hours before you plan to roast the turkey, take it out of the fridge to bring it up to room temperature.

  4. Roast your turkey.

What are your best turkey-brining tips? Let us know in the comments.
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Sam is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Find more of his work at arecipefordisaster.org.

15 Comments

Cherie R. November 17, 2020
I brine in buttermilk and herbs .....the best!!!
 
MCRB October 29, 2020
Would you also suggest dry brining for a rotisserie turkey and should the bird be injeceted with broth during the dry brining or just before being put on the spit?
 
Susanna October 25, 2020
The problem of the dry brine for me is that the skin usually turns out inedible salty, and worse, all of the delicious juices and pan drippings are way too salty to use for gravy.
 
AntoniaJames October 26, 2020
I make gravy a few days ahead of time, roasting wings or other turkey parts that I buy from the butcher a week before Thanksgiving. Then I use the turkey drippings from the brined bird as seasoning to the already-made gravy. ;o)
 
Dee A. November 22, 2020
Only way to go. I have a glass-ceramic cooktop, which does not accommodate using two burners to handle an unwieldy toasting pan. Plus, the make-ahead gravy is easier to skim the fat off of, makes no mess in the kitchen on the Big Day, tastes delicious after sitting for a couple of days and I always freeze some for the turkey leftovers repurposed into pot pies. Win!
 
lcurtis October 19, 2020
The Thanksgiving Menu Maker isn’t working. “Page not found” anyone else having a different outcome??
 
AntoniaJames October 26, 2020
A new version is expected this week. (And I can't wait.) ;o)
 
lcurtis October 19, 2020
The Thanksgiving Menu Maker isn’t working. “Page not ft puns” anyone else having a different outcome??
 
Chaz October 18, 2020
When I click on the link to the Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker, I get an error message: "The page you were looking for doesn't exist."
 
manykittiesmama October 17, 2020
I’ve been dry brining using ‘The Judy Bird’ method for many years. You get a perfect turkey this way. No watery mess, no buckets. Try it.
 
gjonesro1 October 16, 2020
Hi, I learned to brine with a lot of herbs and spices. Do you suggest cooking with the herbs and spices or not using any herbs and spices other than salt?
 
Sheri W. October 25, 2020
I had an amazing recipe for an herb brined turkey breast. Would you share your recipe? Than you!
 
[email protected] October 16, 2020
What type of salt do you recommend?
 
AntoniaJames October 15, 2020
I've been brining using this (Judy Rodgers's) technique for quite a few years. I never have room in my fridge for putting a turkey on a sheet pan, so I just plop that sucker, bottom down, into my tall, somewhat narrow stockpot. Every bird throws off a ton of liquid while brining; I just pour that out every 18 hours or so. Even touching the sides of the pot a bit, the turkey dries out just fine. When I take the bird out to come to room temperature, I put it on a sheet pan, which dries out whatever moisture remains on the surface. ;o)
 
Kate T. November 10, 2020
This is THE (late) Judy Rodgers? From the Zuni Cafe? Who makes that amazing chicken dish? If so, I'm sold!