It’s turkey season, and that means all the TV shows are full of tips and tricks for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Baste it every 10 minutes. Bake it in a bag. Deep fry it. Rub butter under the skin.
The turkey, like all meats that have both light and dark on the same carcass, presents a unique cooking challenge because the white meat cooks more quickly than the dark meat. By the time the thigh meat comes to temperature, the breast is overcooked. And no amount of basting can solve overcooked meat. (All basting does is waste heat and electricity and make the turkey skin soggy.)
The best solution to the dry turkey problem has been utilized by chefs for millenia. Brining. (Also known as “pickling” or “corning.”) It just means soaking the meat in a salt solution. And chances are, virtually every piece of poultry meat you eat at a restaurant…even a fast food fried chicken restaurant…has been brined. This is why the turkey and chicken you cook at home isn’t nearly as juicy or flavorful as when you eat it at a restaurant.
Even ancient cultures knew that brining worked, they just didn’t know WHY brining worked. As modern science has aimed its microscope toward the kitchen, some hints behind the physics and chemistry of brining have been revealed, but any food scientist will tell you that we still don’t fully understand the complexities behind why brining results in such a delicious piece of meat. It just does.
Most theories are regarding the permeability of cell walls in relation to salinity levels. Every cell in our bodies has a wall around it that keeps out pathogens and holds the cell’s contents inside. In some instances, that cell wall is permeable. It will allow oxygen to pass through from the blood in your capillaries. When its moisture content decreases (like when you become dehydrated) it will allow moisture to come through the cell wall to replenish the moisture inside the cell…but only if the moisture contains salt. (This is why you need to drink electrolytes or eat something salty in addition to drinking water when you are dehydrated…otherwise the water can’t effectively penetrate the cell wall to hydrate the cell.)
We see this pattern in nature through ocean fish. The reason that ocean fish taste naturally saltier than beef or catfish is because the fish are swimming around in brine, and therefore the salinity level of their cells is higher. (And they’ve developed ways of dealing with higher salinity in their bodies, which is one reason they don’t freeze to death when the ocean temperature drops below 32F. Salt water freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh water. Salty cells do, too.)
If the salinity level of your brine is just right…the cell wall becomes permeable and lets in the moisture. And if you have packed that moisture with flavors, those flavors go inside the cell, as well. The cell swells up plump with the brine solution. And then other magical and mysterious things start to happen.
Most food scientists theorize that the high level of saline in the brine causes the tightly-woven protein structures inside the cell to unwind and collapse on each other, trapping the brine solution inside a gel-like matrix. This holds the brine inside the cell tightly, and when the baking temperature gets high enough, the brine turns to steam. This means the food steams itself from the inside-out during baking, resulting in a faster cooking time. Also, because extra moisture was trapped in the cell by the denatured protein matrix, the end result is meat that is more moist, with a higher salinity content (ie…it tastes better).
Brining is a science, though. If your salinity ratio in your brine isn’t just right, you can end up STRIPPING moisture out of the meat you’re trying to moisturize! Soak a steak or chicken in pure water, or a very weak saline solution, and the cell walls become permeable in the opposite direction. Since the salinity inside the cell is higher than the water outside, the wall secretes salt and water, which dehydrates the cell and removes its natural flavor. So make sure you’re using a solid brine recipe, and DO NOT modify the salt or water content at all.
The standard ratio for a brine is 1.5 cups of Morton’s brand Kosher salt to 1 gallon of liquid. If you only have table salt, the ratio is 3/4 cup per gallon. (Do NOT use iodized salt, or your meat will taste funny.) If you only have the extra coarse Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, it’s 2 cups per gallon. For pickling/canning salt, which is the finest form of salt and dissolves very quickly, use 2/3 cup per gallon.
Worried about your meat being too salty? The traditional formula is to brine for one hour per pound. This will usually result in a perfectly-seasoned turkey or steak. If you try it and it’s too salty for you, reduce the brining time to 45 minutes per pound for your next try. However, it’s actually kinda hard to make the meat too salty through brining, which distributes the salt evenly throughout the entire piece of meat, rather than focusing the salt right on the surface. Sometimes with massive turkeys over 25 pounds which require more than a full day of brining, the meat near the surface may get a bit saltier than you like. But large turkeys are practically impossible to cook perfectly WITHOUT brining.
Some paranoid food agencies have declared brining dangerous, because the meat isn’t typically refrigerated when it’s in the brine. (Though there are very few organisms that can withstand the salinity levels of brine, and if your brine is also very acidic, like mine usually is, you’ve got a VERY inhospitable environment for pathogens.) You can easily brine chicken breasts, steaks, roasts, and fish in the fridge, but a turkey is a different story. In this case, replace some of the water content in your brine with ice. (A gallon of water weights 8.3 pounds, so if you’re using a 10 pound bag of ice, you’ve got just a little over 1 gallon plus 1 quart of water. Factor that into your ratio.) Stir the ice vigorously into the brine, which will lower the temperature of the brine to near freezing. Brining is most effective in the 32F-36F range, so adding the ice helps the brining to be more effective. If you place a cold, thawed bird straight from the fridge into a cooler and cover with icy brine, you probably don’t need to worry about anything else. But sometimes I’ll toss an extra bag of ice on top of the bird to help weigh it down and keep it below the surface of the brine, and to help keep everything cold. Make sure to wrap the ice in a garbage bag, though, to make sure it doesn’t melt and dilute the brine. Jiggle the cooler every few hours to make sure the brine is contacting the meat at every spot.
I have experimented with thawing frozen meat directly in brine, and I’m sad to say, it doesn’t work. Your meat needs to be completely or at least mostly thawed before it goes into the brine. So if your turkey is still frozen the day before Thanksgiving, you have to rapid thaw it in the sink or bathtub in ice water before it can go into the brine. Immerse a completely frozen turkey in brine, and it will still be solidly frozen 12 hours later. I would have thought the salt water would unfreeze the turkey, like pouring salt on ice melts it…but it doesn’t. It allows the temperature of the brine to actually drop BELOW 32F, which is basically just like a freezer for the turkey, keeping it nicely frozen.
Any additional flavorings you place into the brine will be transported into the meat. The best brine I ever made was a jalapeno honey brine. (But MAN was it expensive with all that honey!) Most of the time, though, I just use water, salt, and sometimes a little brown sugar (especially for pork, but occasionally for poultry). Water and salt is all you need. Adding flavors typically means heating up the brine to extract the flavors (like from herbs, garlic, etc.), which results in evaporation, and subsequent cooling…and you end up with messed up and unknown ratios. So I try to seek out liquids that are already flavored, like juice, wine, and vinegar, which have the added benefit of acids to help protect and tenderize the meat. My go-to Thanksgiving brine is half apple cider, and half apple cider vinegar. The flavor ends up INCREDIBLE. Some fans have expressed concern over using so much vinegar, but I’ve used apple cider vinegar as the SOLE liquid in my brines with fabulous results. It smells a little funny while baking, but the meat is incredible.
You might not be aware that most of the poultry you buy in the store is ALREADY brined. Look for a statement to the effect of “Enhanced with a solution of broth and sodium phosphate.” That’s a mild brining technique that drives chicken broth into the meat so that it will weigh more and therefore sell at a higher price. Tricky, right? One of the benefits of brining at home is that it will suck out the industrial brine and replace it with your own brine, reducing the amount of sodium phosphate in the meat…because your brine has a higher sodium ratio than the industrial brine.
One of the only drawbacks to brining is that it saturates the skin with liquid, and it doesn’t get as crisp as unbrined meats. There are some ways to counteract this. First, brine the turkey so that you can remove it from the brine 12 hours before baking. Thoroughly dry the skin with paper towels, and let the turkey sit in a pan in the fridge for 12 hours to dry out. Then rub the turkey all over with olive oil, and start the roasting at a very high temperature…450F or 500F for the first 30 minutes, to really crisp up that skin. Then lower the temp to 350F or 375F and roast until it’s done. Please note that the weight of the bird will eventually squeeze some of the brine out of the meat, so don’t leave a brined piece of meat in the fridge for longer than 24 hours, or you’ll begin to lose the benefits of the brine.
While brined meats can be cooked to a higher temperature than unbrined meats, and still remain moist, this doesn’t excuse you from using a meat thermometer. NEVER cook a turkey without one, and never trust those awful plastic thermometer that come inserted into many store-bought turkeys. Don’t pull it out because that leaves a hole for juices to leak out. Leave it in, ignore it, and remove it only after the meat has rested for 10-15 minutes after coming out of the oven. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast (make sure it’s not touching a bone) and remove the turkey when it hits 161F. Tent it lightly with foil and let it rest so the juices are reabsorbed into the meat, and then carve the most delicious turkey you’ve ever tasted.
Feel free to check out my complete video guide to thawing, brining, and roasting a turkey: