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How and why (or not) to brine a turkey

Join the great brining debate this Thanksgiving.

Matt Elliott Senior Editor
Matt Elliott is a senior editor at CNET with a focus on laptops and streaming services. Matt has more than 20 years of experience testing and reviewing laptops. He has worked for CNET in New York and San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire. When he's not writing about laptops, Matt likes to play and watch sports. He loves to play tennis and hates the number of streaming services he has to subscribe to in order to watch the various sports he wants to watch.
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Matt Elliott
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Outside of politics, debating the merits of brining a turkey might be the most controversial topic around your Thanksgiving table.

I've tried both ways in Thanksgivings past: oven-roasted turkey after brining and oven-roasted turkey without brining. I can't point to one year's bird being superior to another's, but that's probably because I do not shy away from gravy on Thanksgiving -- or any meal where gravy is on offer, for that matter. 

Smother your turkey (and your mashed potatoes and stuffing and vegetables) in gravy and you'll have a hard time discerning the subtle changes in your turkey's texture and flavor.

Since I'm just an enthusiastic home chef, I turned to the professionals -- Christopher Kimball, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and Alton Brown -- for answers. Each brings a scientific approach to cooking. Kimball and Lopez-Alt wrote two of my favorite cookbooks -- The Cook's Bible and The Food Lab -- and Brown has been a favorite since his Good Eats days, my favorite cooking show ever (which was recently rebooted, er, Reloaded)

I cracked open both books and tracked down an Alton Brown blog post to find out their thoughts on brining.

Back up -- what is brining?

Brining is soaking your turkey in salted water for many hours or overnight. The turkey absorbs some of the water while soaking in your brining liquid, and the salt dissolves some muscle proteins, which results in the meat contracting less while it's in the oven and losing less moisture as it cooks.

What do the experts say?

I was surprised to learn that both Kimball and Lopez-Alt are firmly in the anti-brine camp. Both state that it's a pain to brine a big turkey and that its effects are not all positive.

Kimball says that "brined turkey lacked a bit of tooth. It was moist and flavorful, but it reminded me a bit of the boneless turkey breast sold at the delicatessen. I like turkey with real chew." He says his mother's slow-roasting method is easier and yields similarly juicy results.

Lopez-Alt states plainly, "I don't brine my turkey. Ever." He points to two problems with brining. First, it's a hassle because you need a giant container to house your bird, and you need to keep it cold, which either means deploying ice bags or taking up valuable real estate inside your fridge. Second, he says the added juiciness comes at the expense of flavor: "It's juicy, but the juice is watery" because you forced the bird to absorb water. In summary, Lopez-Alt says, "I don't brine my birds because I like my birds to taste like birds, not like watered-down birds."

Brown favors a dry brine and spatchcocking his bird before roasting it. For people like me who have difficulty planning ahead, however, he suggests you combine the brining and thawing process and points to a brined bird's superiority for leftovers, "Is the flavor as good as the dry cure method? It's not quite as intense but on scale of 1-10 I'd still give it 8.7 and when it comes to leftovers (can you say "sandwich") I don't think a brined bird can be beat." In the end, aren't turkey sandwiches on Friday and Saturday and Sunday the whole point of a Thanksgiving turkey?

Read more: Here are three ways to thaw your turkey in time for Thanksgiving

I still want to brine -- how do I do it?

Get a big stock pot, the crisper drawer from your fridge or a cooler. And make sure you are using a natural turkey (one not already injected with a salt solution).

Add a cup or two of kosher salt and then add a pitcher of hot water to dissolve the salt. Let the salted water cool and place your turkey in the container. Add cold water to cover the turkey. 

The ratio of salt to water isn't terribly important. You are looking for a ratio of about two cups of salt to one gallon of water. Put the container in your fridge or, if you don't have room in your fridge, use ice bags to keep it cool.

If you have a frozen turkey, you can thaw it while you brine it a la Alton Brown, but plan on it taking two days to defrost.

When the big day arrives, remember to rinse off excess brine before roasting so that you don't end up with insanely salty pan gravy. Because good gravy is the best part of any feast. (Check out this Chowhound recipe for brined roast turkey with cream gravy.)

Best gifts for the home chef

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What about dry brining?

Dry brining means just rubbing your turkey with salt -- on top of the skin and below -- and letting it sit in the fridge for a day or two before cooking. It helps your bird retain moisture without watering down the flavor.

Lopez-Alt says to use 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat. Before you begin salting, loosen the skin of the breast by using your hand or the handle of a wooden spoon, and then rub some salt under the skin and all over the bird. Put the turkey on a large tray or baking sheet and pop it in the fridge -- uncovered -- overnight or up to 48 hours. 

Dry brining is step one of this Chowhound recipe for easy roast turkey.

And flavored brines?

You can also make your brine part marinade to add a bit of flavor to your bird. Martha Stewart has a flavored brine recipe that includes bay leaves, garlic, thyme, dried juniper berries, fennel seeds and a bottle of Riesling.

Do you have a tried-and-true method for preparing a Thanksgiving turkey? If so, please share your culinary secrets in the comments below.

Originally published on Nov. 17, 2017.
Update, Nov. 15, 2018: Added Alton Brown's brining opinions.