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Turkey Brining Guide

There are four methods that can be used to create a distinctive bird - brining, marinating, roasting, and deep frying (or any combination of the four). A lot of professional chefs will tell you that they believe that brining is the secret ingredient to a great turkey- brining is a marinating method that uses a seasoned, salted water to increase the moisture and juiciness of your turkey. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it doesn't make the turkey taste salty. Properly done, brining leaves the turkey very juicy and if your brine mix includes spices and seasonings it even seems as if those flavors are trapped inside the bird! Just like baking, brining can be considered a little bit art and a little bit science but there are some secrets. You want to remember two things when brining --- balance and time. It is critical to achieve the right balance of salt and sugar to water (or liquid). You also must be sure not to brine your turkey for too long.


What Exactly is a Brine?

There is no one "best way" when it comes to creating your brine- But there are some basic guidelines to understand. Brines are typically a combination of salt and water — for each gallon of liquid in your brine use roughly 12 oz. of salt. Brining time is not etched in stone either, so even if you are only able to brine for a short time you'll get more flavor than if you didn't brine at all.


Choose Your Salt

You have 3 choices here: general table salt, Kosher Salt, and Sea Salt.

Experienced cooks tend to favor kosher salt, as it dissolves quickly. Some cooks also believe that kosher salt tastes "cleaner" than plain old table salt which usually contains anti-caking agents. I like sea salt, as I feel that it adds some great flavor, but sea salt is also a little bit more expensive unless you can find a good supplier- I would not buy sea salt at the grocery store as they tend to really jack the price up. For those that go with the run of the mill plain table salt, you may want to consider whether you want to choose non-iodized salt over iodized salt.

Some cooks believe that salt containing potassium iodide gives an off-taste. In blind taste tests conducted by Cook's Illustrated back in the early 2000's, they dissolved 9 different grades of salt in chicken stock and spring water and there was no clear cut winner in taste preference. The testers scored them as all acceptable. So, if cost is your primary driver – a cheap table salt from the grocery store is probably as good as an imported Fleur de Sel.

Now with that said, you do need to pay attention to whatever salt you do decide to use as table salt and kosher salt do not provide the same saltiness in a flavored brine. So instead of going by volume (i.e. one cup) you should be going by weight (kosher salt tends to be lighter and fluffier than table salt). Kosher salt weighs roughly 6-7 ounces per cup while table salt and sea salt weigh around 10 ounces. So if you choose a kosher salt you'll need more salt (by volume) to achieve the same level of saltiness that you would with table or sea salt. To make it a little easier, the chart below shows equivalent amounts of table salt and the two most popular brands of kosher salt that we figured out and converted to approximate cups (in case you don’t have a food scale at home):

Sea Salt or Table Salt 1 cup
Morton Crystal Kosher Salt 1-1/2 cups
Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt 2 cups

As far as seasonings and spices you can add to your brine to amp up the flavor, we offer a variety of special turkey rubs that can be throw in to your brine to help give some extra unique “oomph.” We have a ton of great recommendations in our page 19 Turkey Brines, Marinades, and Rubs. Don’t be turned off if a recipe doesn’t have the word “Brine” in it- we give some tips on how you can adapt the marinades and rubs to become brines as well inside most of the recipes.


What Container to Use for Brining

Since refrigerator space is limited, even more so for the holidays, use a brining bag and a square cooler filled with ice. Choose a cooler that is large enough for the turkey and the brining liquid. Be sure to thoroughly clean (with soap and water), sanitize (with bleach and water) and air dry your cooler both before and after use.

If you are using your refrigerator, you need a food grade container that is big enough for the turkey and the brine. Mostly importantly, this container must fit in the fridge!


Don't Lose Your Cool

The reason you are using a cooler is that salt used in your flavor brine does not preserve your meat so your meat and brine solution must be kept below 40° throughout the brining process. If you are looking to store your meat in the refrigerator during brining, check to make sure that the container you choose will fit in your refrigerator! A container that's big enough for your turkey may be too big for your fridge.

Your turkey must be completely submerged in the liquid during the entire brining process. Place a heavy bowl or weighted bowl on top of the meat to keep it from floating in the brine. Your turkey and brine must be kept cold without diluting the mixture if you are using a cooler. Place the bird and the brine in the cooler (if you are not using a brining bag). Add ice filled Ziploc bags or reusable frozen gel packs into the brine solution. You can also place the turkey and brine into a turkey oven roasting bag inside the cooler, and then pack ice around the bag.


How Much Brine to Make

Place your turkey in the container you're going to use and cover with plain water. Remove the bird and measure the water to determine the amount of brine liquid you'll need to prepare.


Making the Brine

In a large stockpot combine your liquid (i.e. water, juice, etc.) salt, sugar and optional seasonings (see brining recipes). Place on stove on medium high heat. Stir until sugar and salt have completely dissolved. Be sure not to let the brine boil. Once the sugar and salt are dissolved remove brine from heat, set off to the side and let it cool for 15-20 minutes.


How Long to Brine?

The amount of time your poultry needs to soak up the brine seasoning depends on the type of meat (turkey or chicken), its size and the amount of salt used in the brine. The more salt you use in your brine flavor, the shorter the soaking time needed. Here are the typical brining times listed in most recipes:

Whole Turkey 12 hours to 2 days
Turkey Breast 4 to 8 hours
Whole Chicken 3 to 8 hours
Chicken Breasts, Thighs, and Legs 1 to 2 hours

If you are brining for the first time it is always better to remember that less is better. The worst thing you can do is overbrine your meat --- this leaves it salty and tough. So for the first time, brine on the lower end of this scale. If you feel that it could use more flavor after finally getting to enjoy all of this work, you can brine a bit longer next year. If you brine for too long there is no way to save your bird… Just thinking about that disaster gives me a queasy feeling.


Choosing Your Turkey

When choosing which turkey to purchase for brining, look for a natural turkey with "natural" or "no preservatives added" on the packing. Otherwise you are most likely to be getting a self-basted bird that's already been injected with a salt solution (and other flavorings).

Choose a turkey in the 12 to 20 lb. range. If you buy a frozen turkey, thaw according to the package instructions. Your turkey must be completely thawed before you begin brining.


Preparing Your Turkey for Brining

Remove the giblets and the neck (save if you use these for making your gravy). Remove any leg restraints. Trim any excess skin or fat from around the body cavity, and remove the tail. Rinse your bird thoroughly inside and out, and then pat dry with paper towels. Your turkey is now ready for brining.


To Rinse or Not to Rinse

Some recipes call for you to rinse your turkey brining, while others make no mention of this step at all. So who's right? We recommend that you follow the directions of the recipe you are using. Recipes that call for rinsing typically have higher salt levels or use a good deal of sugar (and sugar can quickly caramelize and burn during the cooking process).

Whether your recipe calls for you to rinse or not, we recommend that you still pat dry your bird with paper towels before cooking.


How to Get a Golden Skin

Some recipes call for cooking your brined turkey at a temperature range of poultry at 225-250°. We've found this "low & slow" approach, while working great for smoking leaves, results in an oven baked bird with soft, rubbery skin.

One trick we've found is to take your brined bird and pat it dry with paper towels and then set it on a rack over perched on a rimmed baking sheet. Then place the turkey and the rack in the refrigerator for 10-12 hours. This allows additional moisture to evaporate from the skin leaving you with a better browned skin. We've also found better results cooking our brined turkey in the 325-350° range. This higher temperature heats the fat under the skin enough so that it really does a nice job browning the skin.


Brining vs Marinating

From the outside, a brined and marinated turkeys might appear to be birds of a feather. Both require the use of your turkey sitting in some liquid with seasonings for a long time- but there are actually some difference between the two that result in different effects happening on a molecular level when deciding which method to use. For a brine, the key ingredient is salt. Salt helps to slowly soften the muscle fibers of your meat, resulting in more tenderness and juice as the cells have expanded. For marinade however, the key is an acid- acid begins working in a similar way to salt where it softens the fibers, but ultimately marinating in too much acid for too long can actually toughen or tighten your turkey. Because it’s left longer, brining will help add flavor deeper, where a marinade left for half a day will penetrate about a quarter to half an inch before it starts to pull out more juice than it can put back in. If you have more time and would like to add the most flavor possible before cooking, try brining. If you have less than a day or would prefer a more “neutral” turkey that your guests can season individually once it’s served, we’d recommend marinating.


What is "Dry Brining"?

A dry brine, as the name suggests, is using the same science of our wet brine recipe as far as the salt, but just takes the water out! Because of the salt the moisture will be drawn out of the meat of the turkey (just like a wet brine), but instead of being supplemented by the water, the moisture will come from the turkey reabsorbing this juice and it will begin to break down and tenderize the meat. This technique might remind you of a dry rub, though most people would use a lot more sugar in their rub than they would a dry brine. The other difference between dry brining and a regular rub is much more of an emphasis on letting the meat rest with the dry brine on, where a rub might be slapped on 20 minutes before you roast or grill it. Really, this is all just semantics, and the real treasure that exists in dry rubs are you don’t need to try and fit a giant turkey inside a giant pot filled with a brine in your already crammed holiday refrigerator! If you only have enough room for your turkey, you have room for a dry brined turkey. If you do decide to go with a dry brine, you will want to make sure you do rinse off your turkey skin so you’re not totally over-seasoning and risk missing out on all the other flavors of your meal because your tongue is coated in salt. Any of our normal wet brine recipes could be used as a dry brine, just omit the water and let it rest for the same amount of time.

In theory, the moisture levels between a properly dry brined and wet brined bird should be similar-ish, but of course dry brining your bird means that the skin might get a little crispier faster, so you’re going to want to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get too dark. If space is a real issue for you and you don’t want to get a cooler, dry brine might be your answer.


Brined Meat Cooks Faster

Brined turkey cooks faster than un-brined turkeys. The total cooking time varies greatly depending on several factors including --- whether your bird has stuffing to heat, how often you open the oven door to "check on the bird", the height of the oven, etc.

If you are used to your average size turkey, cooking in 3-4 hours, we recommend that you check it at 2 to 2-1/2 hours. And of course, the only way to really determine if your bird is thoroughly cooked is to use a meat thermometer. Check the temperature of the stuffing as well as the turkey to determine when it is fully cooked—160° for the stuffing. When completely cooked, all parts of the turkey should be between 160- 165°. You will find some "experts" claiming that you should get your bird to 180° but we think this leaves your turkey dried out. According to the US Department of Agriculture 160° is hot enough to kill all of the salmonella bacteria and leave your bird juicy and moist!

Here is a general guideline on cooking times by pound:

Weight Total Roasting Time
8-12 pounds 2 to 3.5 hours
12-16 pounds 3 to 4 hours
16-20 pounds 4 to 5 hours
20-25 pounds 5 to 6 hours

So there you have it. If you can't tell yet --- yes we think that brining is the best way to season your turkey. If you are a little harder pressed for time you can always learn the Secrets of Marinating Your Turkey!

Read More

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19 Turkey Brines, Marinades and Rubs
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