Salting meat and other proteins is a food preservation technique that’s been used for centuries (think corned beef, salt cod, and Chinese salted eggs). And soaking lean meats such as chicken, pork, and turkey in a salty solution — a process called “brining” — has long been a chef’s go-to trick for preventing these delicate cuts from drying out in the oven. But only in the past 15 years or so has brining gained widespread popularity with home cooks. And nowhere is it more popular than with Thanksgiving turkey. So just what is brining a turkey? Read on.
Admittedly, brining a turkey is no small undertaking, given how unwieldy it can be to fit the bird into a container large enough to keep it in brine overnight. Whether you use a lobster pot in your refrigerator or a clean cooler packed with bags of ice, you have to plan ahead. Nevertheless, anyone who has cut into a turkey on Thanksgiving only to find dry-as-dust breast meat knows that getting some insurance against that failure is worth a little extra effort.
Heath Robbins | Styling by Beth Wickwire/ Ennis Inc.
What Is Brining a Turkey? | How Brining Works
Brining makes turkey juicier by acting on the meat in two ways:
Diffusion and osmosis: The brining liquid is saltier than the fluid in the cells of the turkey meat. Because salt ions always travel from areas of higher concentration to those of lower concentration (a process called diffusion), they are pulled through the cell membranes into the meat. Then those saltier cells absorb water from the brine via osmosis. This plumps up the meat.
Protein denaturation: As salt makes its way into the meat cells, it causes the proteins to coagulate, or change shape, and push apart from each other. These altered proteins not only create more space for water to flow in, but they also do a better job of holding onto liquid during cooking, so the meat stays moist.
Of course, it takes time for all of this chemistry to happen, which is why most recipes have you begin the brining process at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours before roasting.
If you’d like to try your hand at brining, we have several recipes for you to try. There’s chef Sam Hayward’s 2004 recipe; a grilled, brined turkey from chef Geoff Gardner; our roasted brined turkey with giblet gravy; chef Frank McClelland’s cider-brined turkey with Madeira gravy; and chef Justin Walker’s brined and roasted turkey.
You can also try dry-curing your turkey, which involves dusting the bird with salt and spices and letting it sit for three days in your refrigerator. Dry curing is a process similar to brining, though slower and less messy. Some prefer the firmer texture of a dry-cured turkey, but it’s all a matter of personal taste. Our dry-cured turkey seasoned with rosemary, thyme, sage, and mustard seeds is a good starting place.
Lastly, if you like really crisp skin, be sure to let the turkey sit uncovered in the refrigerator for a few hours before roasting (or, even better, overnight). This allows the skin to shed some moisture so it will roast up very brown and crackly.
This post was first published in 2018 and has been updated.