Kitchen Hack, Thanksgiving Edition: Brining a Turkey

November 12th, 2015

It sounds a bit like one of those old school cooking methods Great Grandma would have put to good use for Sunday supper—or maybe a technique the pioneers might have employed to keep their summer bounty fresh all winter long.

Despite its old school origins, brining absolutely has a place at the modern Thanksgiving table. There’s no better way to get a juicier, more flavorful turkey on that fourth Thursday in November.

It’s nothing complicated; all that brining entails is soaking raw meat in a saltwater solution overnight. This process helps the meat retain some of its juices—30 to 40 percent more, according to Serious Eats. 

To understand how this works, you have to first understand how turkey gets dry as it cooks in the first place. As the folks over at Serious Eats explain, the muscles in the meat are made of fibers inside a protein sheath. As the meat cooks, the proteins contract, wringing out any liquid or juices in the turkey and leaving it dry and tough.

The salt in the brine starts to dissolve some of these muscle proteins. That allows the fibers to loosen and absorb liquid from the brine. Most importantly, the muscles don’t seize up as much when they cook—leaving the delicious turkey juices in place until you slice into the meat.

The fact that brining basically seasons the meat for you is just an added bonus. All that salt in the brining liquid enters the bird, meaning diners will get a perfectly seasoned flavor in each bite, not just on the skin.

The good news? All you need to brine a turkey is one of these handy brining kits, or just a brine bag and some salt.

Here’s how to lock in all that extra moisture and ensure your Thanksgiving bird won’t become a tough, stringy mess.

Step One: Making Your Brine

First things first: Whether you’re doing a straight saltwater brine, or adding in some herbs and spices, you’ll need to make your brine ahead of time. Brining liquid typically is a solution of between 5 and 8 percent salt.

If you’re using a pre-made brine, follow the directions on the kit exactly—it’s crucial that your brine isn’t too salty, or the meat could turn out inedible. To make your own brine, consult this handy guide to find out how much salt you should dissolve in water for the size of your turkey. If your brine recipe calls for simmering the brining liquid on the stove to dissolve the salt and other ingredients, be very careful to cool it completely before dunking your turkey in it—you don’t want to partially poach the meat.

A word about added seasonings: While brining is incredibly effective at adding enough salt to the turkey, there’s some debate about how well herbs or spices will be able to season the meat. Try it for yourself and draw your own conclusions!

Step Two: Submerging Your Bird

Next, grab your brine bag and thawed turkey, and find a refrigerated space large enough to fit the bird. If you don’t have enough room in the fridge, a large bucket or cooler with ice will work just fine. Just make sure to replenish the ice frequently to keep the temperature consistently below 40 degrees to avoid any bacterial contamination.

Brine the turkey for 12 to 24 hours, flipping it once to ensure even coating.

Step Three: Drying The Bird

When you remove the turkey, pat it dry carefully with paper towels. Allow the turkey to sit for at least an hour before roasting. For a crispier skin, brine the bird a day or two ahead of time and leave it uncovered in the refrigerator to dry out the skin.

Once your turkey is dry, it’s ready to roast! Pop it in the oven, and prepare for the waves of compliments from happy dinner guests to come rolling in.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Annalise MantzAnnalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.

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