Make the most of this year's bird.
When it comes to your Thanksgiving spread, there are very few negotiables. You’re either serving a turkey or you’re explaining to all of your hungry, out-of-town relatives why you felt compelled to completely drop the ball and serve a centerpiece that is not the traditional, elegant bird. So, yes, turkey is definitely happening. However, how you’ll prepare your turkey is very much up to you, and quite frankly, a hotly debated topic as the holiday season approaches. To wet brine or dry brine or to brine at all, that is truly the question.
Before we dive into the different approaches to brining, let’s nail down exactly what it means to brine. This process, which originated out of the need for food preservation in the pre-refrigeration era, can improve both flavor and texture, particularly for roasted meat, by bathing meat in a solution of seasoned, salty brine. Scientifically speaking, it equalizes salt levels and increases moisture levels. Huzzah!
The first thing that any wet brine enthusiast will tell you is that this salty-sweet solution of spices, salt, and sugar completely revolutionizes the texture of meat. By allowing your bird to bath in this water solution for 2-3 days in a large pot in the refrigerator, the meat will absorb water, thus decreasing the total amount of moisture lost by up to 40%. A good rule of thumb for the wet brine is that for a 12-14 pound turkey, use 6 quarts of water with 1 ⅓ cups of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt (if using Morton’s, use a bit less than a cup). As far as sugar, add about a quarter the amount of sugar (or sweetener of choice like honey, molasses, or brown sugar) as you did salt salt. As far as aromatics, anything from bay leaves, peppercorns, whole allspice, garlic, hard herbs, and citrus zest are all fair game. Just remember that if you are adding these components, to make sure you boil your brining water (only a portion of the water is necessary) in order to infuse the flavor to its fullest potential (if you’re just doing salt, water, and sugar, there’s no need to heat the brine). Wait until the water has cooled back to room temperature before adding the rest of the water and the turkey.
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So, why aren’t we all wet brining, right? Well, there’s a few catches to this seemingly enticing process. First off, it’s a major pain in the ass. Ideally, you’ll get this wet brine going 2 to 3 days before the big day, which isn’t too much to ask, however that also means that a large portion of your refrigerator is now consumed with an enormous bird in a utility bucket or large pot. Now, that’s kind of a lot to ask. If refrigerator space isn’t a problem, it’s the breadth of this undertaking might be the breaking straw. Let’s think about this—you’re now tasked with handling a 15-20 pound raw piece of meat and a bath of its own juice. That can be a messy project to have strewn throughout your kitchen on one of the most food-centric holidays of the year, amiright?!
Another criticism of the wet brine involves the juices that the turkey releases while cooking. Yes, the bird is significantly juicier, but the juices released are largely coming from the water in the wet brine. It goes without saying that this is, well, not ideal, considering it’s pretty hard to make a banging gravy when you’re working with what is more or less tap water.
Enter the dry brine.
With this method of preparing your turkey for the big day, you simply dry (SHOCKING, I KNOW) and rub the bird all over with the same ingredients that you would typically dissolved into water to create a wet brine—spices, sugar, and plenty of salt. The ratio here requires less salt and sugar, as seen with this brine, because the salt and sugar is now in direct contact with the skin, thus allowing it to penetrate the fibers more readily and slowly work its way into the meat. Once the dry brine has sat for at least a day, refrigerated and uncovered, the rub is gently removed prior to cooking, and the turkey is sent on its way to the oven.
According to the Time Inc. Food Studios Test Kitchen Director Katie Barreira, the huge perk of a dry brine is that you can avoid having to deal with the headache that is a gargantuan tub of raw meat juice in your fridge, and simply settle on having your salted bird rest in the fridge, uncovered, for at least 24 hours. In fact, Barreira insists that even if you do go through the trouble of a wet brine, a dry-brined bird is still going to offer a better, richer flavor.* Since dry brining is way more doable, requires less heavy duty equipment, and consistently offers better results, then it seems like the answer we’re looking for here is that dry brining is likely the way to go.
Here’s a little dry brine trick Barreira swears by: Prior to rubbing the bird with salt and seasonings, she gently separates the turkey skin from the breast and thigh meat, where she then uses her fingers to spread butter (seasoned or plain, unsalted) under the skin. This way, the turkey essentially bastes itself while as the butter melts throughout, rather than you having to manually open the oven (which causes your oven temperature to fluctuate) and get in there to baste it yourself.
When I asked the hero that we all need but don’t deserve, Nicole McLaughlin, Well Done Food Stylist and star of Mom vs., for her thoughts on dry versus wet brining, her answer was direct, to the point, and a little bit shocking. She went so far as to assert that days-in-advance brining, as well as aggressive, mid-cooking basting are both unnecessary.** With so many other things to fuss with in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, she gives her bird a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper, tucks her butter cubes under the skin, and immediately sends it into the oven, where it will be ready for her—crispy skin, moist meat, and all—in a couple hours. Don’t believe her? Maybe we’re all overthinking it and need McLaughlin’s reminder that sometimes the best option is the simplest one.
*There is a huge exception here. If you have a kosher bird, it’s already salted, so there’s no need for you to add any more into the situation.
**Has existential crisis and cancels Thanksgiving forever.