Brining a turkey is a process that draws water into the raw turkey to plump it out, while seasoning the meat all the way through. Fans swear that turkeys that have been brined turn out seeming more tender, and moist. They also say that for salt lovers, the added saltiness makes the turkey meat irresistible.
People who aren’t fans says it gives the meat a funny texture, dilutes the taste, and ruins the gravy.
Others say they have done it for years, but that now it’s just too much hassle for not that significant a result, so as far as they’re concerned, it’s had its day.
It is not recommended to brine a kosher turkey, as it has already been salted. The process is also recommended against for a self-basting turkey. “If you’re roasting a kosher or self-basting turkey, do not brine it; it already contains a good amount of sodium.” Cooks Illustrated. Roasted Brined Turkey. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.cooksillustrated.com/recipes/1713-roasted-brined-turkey
- 1 Safety steps
- 2 Steps to brine a turkey
- 3 Brining time
- 4 Keeping the turkey in the safe chilled zone
- 5 Brining a turkey in a crisper drawer
- 6 Adding aromatics to the brine
- 7 Washing a brined turkey
- 8 Roasting a brined turkey
- 9 How brining a turkey works
- 10 Downside of brining a turkey
- 11 Has turkey brining had its day?
- 12 History
- 13 Sources
- Do not WASH the turkey before starting. Washing a turkey can blast germs up to a few metres (5 to 6 feet) all around. It does a poor job of removing bacteria anyway.
- During brining, the turkey must be kept in a safe temperature zone of 1 C and 4 C (between 33 and 40 F.) Above that, nasties can breed and cause food poisoning and spoil the meat. Salted water is not going to stop the nasties from growing. (And below that, obviously, the meat will freeze and no brining will happen.)
- Turkey must be treated as potentially infected with nasties such as salmonella bacteria, campylobacter bacteria, clostridium perfringens, etc, etc. Even one drop of raw turkey juice can make someone ill. Be mindful of any possible cross-contamination. If you have an area other than a kitchen to do the prep work in, such as a basement, garage, balcony, etc, that could be ideal.
- Clean up. Sanitize after prep any kitchen surfaces that may have been affected. After brining is completed, sanitize again any relevant surfaces as well as any reusable implements. Use a bleach and water solution. “A fresh solution of 1 part unscented liquid household chlorine bleach (5 to 6% sodium hypochlorite) to 5 parts clean water should be used to treat work surfaces, equipment, or other items, including can openers and clothing, that may have come in contact with suspect foods or liquids. Spray or wet contaminated surfaces with the bleach solution and let stand for 30 minutes.” United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Complete guide to home canning. Agriculture information bulletin No. 539. 2015. Page 1-27.
Steps to brine a turkey
To brine a turkey, start with a fresh or thawed turkey. Don’t do this with “self-basting” turkeys bought from the store, as they have already been injected with a solution and so probably won’t absorb any more, and don’t do it with a kosher turkey, as it has already been salted to draw the blood out.
Get a very large clean pot that will hold your turkey, or a very large pail whose cleanness you trust, and that will still fit in your fridge (see below). Have handy the salt and the turkey, be near a sink, have the largest measuring jug or cup that you have, and have your sleeves rolled up.
Remove the turkey from any plastic, and take out any giblets, etc (put those in the fridge to make gravy with later.) Rinse the turkey with cold water, and place it in your pot or pail. Using your measuring jug, cover the turkey with enough water to cover it by an inch (2 to 3 cm) — keep track of the amount of water as you are putting it in. Now is the time to add the salt. Use uniodized table salt, or fine sea salt (which will also be iodine-free.) Cooks Illustrated recommends a ratio of 400 g (1 cup / 13 oz weight) of salt per 4 litres (1 US gallon) of water, regardless of the size of bird.
“A four-hour soak in a solution of 1 cup of table salt per gallon of water does the job for moderately sized 15-pound turkeys, but we were curious to see if the salt levels should be adjusted for smaller and larger birds. We soaked lightweight, middleweight, and heavyweight birds in brines with salt levels ranging from 1⁄2 cup to 4 cups and then refrigerated each bird for four hours… Apart from a distaste for the meat brined in the weakest and strongest solutions, tasters found most permutations to be acceptable… Even for a rather large or small bird, then, our standard formula — 1 cup of table salt per gallon of water — is just fine.” Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey. Cooks Illustrated. 1 November 2004. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/36-how-to-brine-a-turkey
They suggest to reduce the salt if you are brining overnight . “For an overnight brine, halve the salt—use 1⁄2 cup table salt per gallon of water.” Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.
If you want to use kosher salt, they add that the amount needed of kosher salt will vary by brand even, because brands vary by coarseness: “Substitute 2 cups of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt or 1 1/2 cups of Morton Kosher Salt for 1 cup of table salt.”
Put your hands in, mix the salt around to dissolve it, and rub the salt into the turkey skin.
Cover the container with plastic wrap (to prevent splash contamination), and set it into the fridge. This step must be done refrigerated. Salted water is not going to stop nasties from growing.
Cooks Illustrated suggests that 4 hours is all the time that is needed for a turkey up to 7 kg (15 pounds). Overnight brining is also fine. (See reduced salt recommendation above for overnight.)
They also suggest not to go under the 4 hours recommendation, as well as not to brine for longer than overnight.
“We didn’t find significant differences in birds brined for an hour or two longer than our standard four-hour or overnight brine; but if you go much beyond that, the bird will be too salty. And if you brine a turkey for only two or three hours, you won’t get all the benefits of brining (moisture retention, thoroughly seasoned meat, and a better ability to withstand hot oven temperatures, which is essential for crisp skin).” Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.
Keeping the turkey in the safe chilled zone
This is going to be a challenge for anyone, at a time of year when fridges are already bursting. Alternatively, put frozen ice packs in the pail with the turkey, and then place it in a covered picnic cooler. The important thing is that the turkey must stay in the safe zone at refrigerated temperatures the whole time for food safety reasons. If you’re not certain, you could also pack ice in around the pot or pail. “Refrigerated temperatures” are between 33 and 40 F (1 C and 4 C.)
If you don’t have a pot or pail, you can buy one of those disposable picnic coolers made out of polystyrene / Styrofoam, and do the brining right in there, chilling the water down with ice or ice packs. You probably should plan to dispose of the disposable picnic cooler afterward, as you may never get it sterile ever again after having raw meat soaking in it. If it is cold outside, you can also set it outside in the garage or on your porch or balcony (provided there are no raccoons or marauding cats where you live.)
Cooks Illustrated says,
“A large, foodsafe container (such as a cooler) can be used to hold the turkey if the refrigerator is not an option. It is important to thoroughly clean and sanitize the container before and after use. Because the container is not going to be stored in the refrigerator, you must add a sufficient number of ice packs or bags of ice to maintain a temperature below 40 degrees F (4 C). Choose a container that’s large enough to keep the bird completely submerged.” Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.
Note that some people swear by doing their brining in a large, sealed oven roasting bag, with the bird then taking up just one rack in the fridge. Make sure any plastic bag you use is food-safe and doesn’t leak. You may wish to double-bag, as a raw turkey juice leak could make you have to sanitize your entire fridge on the busiest day of the year in the kitchen.
Brining a turkey in a crisper drawer
Some people brine their turkey in the crisper drawer of their refrigerator.
If you are considering this, first make sure the turkey will fit with the drawer closed. (Tip: do this before you remove any packaging from the turkey.) This will generally only work with smaller birds.
Do NOT use the crisper drawer directly as a brining basin, as shown in the photo below. It would create an open bacteria bathtub to infect your entire refrigerator.
Instead, place the turkey into a food-safe plastic bag that will not leak. For all intents and purposes, this means a large, brand-new oven bag. Place the turkey and brine in the bag, then seal it, and then place it into the crisper drawer in the fridge.
This contains raw-turkey contamination.
Should the bag develop a leak, be sure to sterilize the drawer and surrounding areas in the fridge extremely well with a water and bleach solution. Some people suggest to double-bag the bird to help prevent this happening.
Adding aromatics to the brine
You may add aromatics if you wish to the brine. Slices of onion, pieces of citrus fruit, apple cider vinegar, spices. For some people, it’s all about the aromatics. “Pulling out the cooler and mixing up the brine, with its precise, unchangeable list of aromatics, is as much a part of the holiday as a game of front-yard football or complaining about the Jell-O mold your brother-in-law insists on making.” Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother. New York: The New York Times. 14 November 2018. Section D, Page 1.
You could add a form of sweetener if you wish. One of the first turkey brines discussed in newspapers, back in 1999, was developed at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. It had sugar in it.
A New York Times reporter, R.W. Apple, advised his readers to add star anise and fennel seed to that brine. The San Francisco Chronicle took the Chez Panisse sugar-salt brine and added “four juniper berries, five crushed allspice berries and a head of garlic.” Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.
At least one food writer, J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab, strongly advises against adding any acidic material, such as vinegar or citrus juice, to the brine:
“First off, don’t try to brine your turkey or chicken in cider (or any other acidic marinade, for that matter). Don’t do it. Just don’t. The acid in the cider will kick off the denaturization process in the meat, effectively “cooking” it without heat. The results? Ultra-dry meat, with a wrinkled, completely desiccated exterior.” J. Kenji López-Alt. The Food Lab: The Truth About Brining Turkey. Serious Eats. 5 November 2012. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.seriouseats.com/2012/11/the-food-lab-the-truth-about-brining-turkey-thanksgiving.html
The bad news about aromatics is that none of them may matter: “there is no scientific proof that the brine actually carries those flavors into the meat… the molecules in cider, herbs and other flavorings are too large to penetrate the membrane surrounding the meat before the salt molecules do, and so they fail to carry much flavor into the turkey.” Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.
Washing a brined turkey
Take the turkey out of the brine (discard the brine).
After this, the advice is to give the turkey a good wash under running cold water, rinsing away all traces of salt. Cooks Illustrated says, “Remove turkey from brine and rinse well under cool running water.” Cooks Illustrated. Roasted Brined Turkey.
Note that washing raw poultry now runs contrary to all food-safety advice given by all reputable food-safety authorities because of the invisible spray of germs that contaminates nearby work surfaces up to a few metres (5 to 6 feet) away. But, the brining process seems to demand it to remove excess salt.
Here’s guidance from the USDA. They say that rinsing after brining is the only exception to the “don’t wash raw meat” rule:
“The only reason a whole turkey (or any meat or poultry for that matter) should be washed is if it was brined. Thanksgiving cooks who are purchasing a brined turkey, or brining their turkeys at home, must rinse the brine off before the turkey goes into the oven. If you plan on serving a brined turkey this year, here is how to minimize the risk of cross contamination.
… first take the time to remove dishes, dish drainers, dish towels, sponges and other objects from around the sink area. Then cover the area around your sink with paper towels. Place the roasting pan next to the sink, ready to receive the turkey.
Clean the sink with hot soapy water, rinse well, and fill it with a few inches of cold water. .. use cold water to rinse the cavity… Run the water gently to prevent splashing. Make sure the water is coming out the other end of the cavity. If it isn’t, the neck or giblets may still be in there.
And that’s it! No need to scrub or rinse the rest of the turkey. Hold the turkey up to let it drain into the sink and gently place the turkey in the roasting pan. Remove the paper towels, clean the sink and the area around the sink with hot soapy water, and proceed with your preparations.” Gravely, Marianne. To wash or not wash. USDA. 21 March 2017. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/11/16/wash-or-not-wash
North Dakota State University Extension Service says:
“Water can splash turkey juice (and all that goes with it) up to 3 feet (1 metre) around your sink. Anything sitting near it or placed on it afterwards could pick up those microscopic gifts. If you do need to rinse your bird because you put it in a brine, be sure to thoroughly disinfect your sink, counters, backsplash and any other surface that might be contaminated.” North Dakota State University Extension Service. Facebook page post 23 November 2020. Accessed November 2020 at https://www.facebook.com/NDSUExtFood/posts/10158920739253421
After your brining and rinsing, some people including Cooks Illustrated recommend letting the turkey sit on its own overnight in the fridge to dry it out:
“If you have the time and refrigerator space, air drying produces extremely crisp skin and is worth the effort. After brining, rinsing, and patting the turkey dry, place the turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, 8 to 24 hours.” Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.
Roasting a brined turkey
When the turkey is rinsed, and optionally dried, put your turkey in the oven, and roast as usual.
Needless to say, there’s no need to salt the turkey before cooking.
How brining a turkey works
Salt from the water moves into the meat, displacing water from the meat, so at first, its actual effect is to make the meat a bit drier. But then, the salt causes muscle proteins to move apart from each other, tenderizing the protein fibers and making room for more water, which then seeps back in from the brine.
The meat can gain up to 10% of its weight in water. When cooked, the turkey will shed some water, but still have enough in it to seem moister, and the weakened proteins make it more tender.
Downside of brining a turkey
Some say the salt-enhanced meat is too salty for their tastes.
Most agree that the juices from a brined turkey are too salty for their taste to make pan gravy from. A few people say that the salty juices may be because the cook was in a rush at the final stage of brining and didn’t give the birds a really thorough rinse off before roasting. Others say that no matter how much rinsing they’ve done, it’s too salty, so they always make sure they have chicken or gravy stock from another source (or use the giblets.)
Many people don’t like brining for this reason — they feel that it makes the drippings useless.
The food researcher, Harold McGee, weighed in on the matter in 2008, while brining was all the rage. He agreed that brining makes the meat more “juicy and tender”, but still didn’t brine, because it made the meat too salt and ruined the drippings for gravy. He also added that unbrined turkeys taste meatier, as they haven’t been plumped up with tap water which dilutes the natural flavour and juices with saltwater.
Others complain that any added juice is basically just added tap water– and tasteless.
Other people feel it gives the meat an odd texture.
Has turkey brining had its day?
Some cooks now feel that turkey brining is a trend that had its day in the sun, but is now passé.
The first person to come out against it was Harold McGee in 2008.
A few years later, J. Kenji López-Alt, formerly of Cooks Illustrated, also went off the method. In 2012, he wrote that brining affects the texture of turkey too much for his liking. He called it “wet-sponge syndrome”, in which “the texture is a little too loose, and the flavor a little bland.” J. Kenji López-Alt. The Food Lab: The Truth About Brining Turkey.
In 2018, Alex Guarnaschelli, the New York chef whose brining directions are famous, said to the New York Times, “I’m so over it…. It’s enormous. It’s wonky. It’s ambitious. And I don’t always love the texture.” Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.
And, to put the kibosh on the trend, in 2018 the New York Times pronounced brining a turkey as out-of-fashion:
“For nearly two decades now, many of us have suggested that you plunge your turkey into a bucket of flavored salt water for a day or two. The promise was an end to dryness and a bulletproof solution to the conundrum of cooking a bird with both light and dark meat. But like the length of a trouser leg, turkey fashion shifts. Interviews with the big players in food media over the past few weeks suggest that the wet, salty turkey has lost its appeal among many of the people who once did the most to promote it.” Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.
Cooks Illustrated claims to have first brought brining a turkey to people’s attention. On their turkey brining page they say, “Since we introduced the brined turkey in 1993….” Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.
In 1999, Alton Brown showed people how to brine on turkey on his show “Good Eats”, which ran on the Food Network.
In the same year, both the New York Times and The San Franciso Chronicle reported on the Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse brining its turkeys.
In 2001, Pam Anderson put a turkey brining method in her cookbook, “The Perfect Recipe.” She added home-pressed apple cider vinegar.
Ruth Reichl, Gourmet Magazine editor, then picked up the idea. “I did feel that once you started brining them, they tasted better”, she is quoted as saying. Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.
When Christopher Kimball, editor of Cooks Illustrated, endorsed turkey brining in the early 2000s, the method had reached the mainstream.
Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey. Cooks Illustrated. 1 November 2004. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/36-how-to-brine-a-turkey
McGee, Harold. Miracle Cure or Just Salt Water? New York Times. 12 November 2008.
Moskin, Julia. Isaac Newton in the Kitchen. New York Times: New York. 24 Nov 2004.
Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother. New York: The New York Times. 14 November 2018. Section D, Page 1.
|↑1||Cooks Illustrated. Roasted Brined Turkey. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.cooksillustrated.com/recipes/1713-roasted-brined-turkey|
|↑2||United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Complete guide to home canning. Agriculture information bulletin No. 539. 2015. Page 1-27.|
|↑3||Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey. Cooks Illustrated. 1 November 2004. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/36-how-to-brine-a-turkey|
|↑4||Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.|
|↑5||Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.|
|↑6||Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.|
|↑7||Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother. New York: The New York Times. 14 November 2018. Section D, Page 1.|
|↑8||Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.|
|↑9||J. Kenji López-Alt. The Food Lab: The Truth About Brining Turkey. Serious Eats. 5 November 2012. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.seriouseats.com/2012/11/the-food-lab-the-truth-about-brining-turkey-thanksgiving.html|
|↑10||Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.|
|↑11||Cooks Illustrated. Roasted Brined Turkey.|
|↑12||Gravely, Marianne. To wash or not wash. USDA. 21 March 2017. Accessed January 2020 at https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/11/16/wash-or-not-wash|
|↑13||North Dakota State University Extension Service. Facebook page post 23 November 2020. Accessed November 2020 at https://www.facebook.com/NDSUExtFood/posts/10158920739253421|
|↑14||Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.|
|↑15||J. Kenji López-Alt. The Food Lab: The Truth About Brining Turkey.|
|↑16||Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.|
|↑17||Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.|
|↑18||Hays, Rebecca. How to brine a turkey.|
|↑19||Severson, Kim. Brine the Bird? Don’t Bother.|