The Turkey Whisperer

Is Brining a Turkey Actually Worth It?

November  8, 2018

The great roast turkey debate is: To brine or not to brine? In my family, we take this one step further: To dry brine or to wet brine? That is, to season with salt Judy Rodgers–style or to soak in a saltwater solution. Both take place a day or more before roasting and both, theoretically, accomplish the same goals: reducing moisture loss (dry turkey, begone!) and yielding a flavorful, well-seasoned bird.

Is all this trouble actually worth it, though?

A few days ago, my mom and I had our first Thanksgiving menu–planning meeting over the phone (can you tell this is our favorite holiday?) and, as is tradition, we argued debated about roast turkey methods.

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She bought this wet-brining kit from Williams-Sonoma. It has dried apples and lemon peel, rosemary and thyme. She and my dad will pull out their infamous turkey-brining container. It’ll be fun!

“Dry brining is better,” I said. “Everyone says so.” By everyone, I mean one article I read on the Serious Eats’ The Food Lab six years ago, which claims: “Brining robs your bird of flavor. Think about it: Your turkey is absorbing water, and holding on to it.” Plus, it doesn’t take up half your fridge.

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Top Comment:
“This is incredibly inaccurate advice. "Juicy" is a direct result of your final cook temperature and has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with brining method. If there was a difference in juiciness between your 3 birds, you're a bad cook. You overcooked your dry-brined turkey (which needs *less* cook time than a wet-brine) and then blamed your dry turkey on your prep method? Yikes. If your test was properly conducted then the results would have been *inconclusive* because there is no way for anyone to be able to tell which brining method you used *after the bird is cooked* if the bird *is cooked properly*. Wet-brining merely gives you more "time in the zone" to get the turkey out of the oven before you ruin it than dry-brining does as it causes the meat to cook slower. The moisture level in the final product has nothing to do AT ALL with adding (or not adding) salt in any form.”
— Tom
Comment

“But everyone loves our wet-brined turkey,” my mom insisted.

“But everyone loves my dry-brined turkey,” I insisted.

We called it a draw and decided to pick it up another day. But between then and now, I watched our latest episode of Dear Test Kitchen, the Hotline-inspired video series hosted by our test kitchen director Josh Cohen. It pains me to say this, but:

Mom, you were right.

Josh put three turkeys to the test. All of them were spatchcocked, which is a fancy way of saying butterflied, which is a fancy way of saying: Remove the spine and crack the breastbone, so the turkey lays flat and cooks evenly. Like Josh, I’m proud to be on Team Spatchcock. But back to the brining. Here are our competitors:

1. The lazy boy.

You just put the bird in a 450°F oven and, uh, that’s it. (To be slightly less lazy, you can unwrap the bird in advance and refrigerate uncovered overnight. This leads to crispier skin!) After roasting and carving, drizzle the meat with olive oil and pan juices, and generously salt. Josh’s theory is that this laidback method might work just as well as its more labor-intensive counterparts.

2. The wet brine.

Josh’s go-to ratio: 1 gallon of water to 10 ounces of salt. Scale up as needed and submerge the turkey in this solution, then refrigerate for 24 hours. (If you’re in a hurry, you can increase the saltiness and brine for less time.) While Josh kept it simple for the sake of the experiment, you can add some brown sugar to the mix, or spices like black peppercorns, coriander seeds, and bay leaves. Before roasting, make sure to pat the skin dry with paper towels. Alternatively, you can follow the uncovered-refrigeration method mentioned above.

3. The dry brine.

À la the Russ Parsons recipe, use 1/4 ounce salt for every 5 pounds of turkey. So, for a 10-pound bird, you'd need 1/2 ounce salt (about 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal). Salt all over (getting under the skin as much as possible), stick in a giant plastic bag, and refrigerate for 48 hours (preferably uncovered for the last 2 to 12). Psst: You can season the salt with bonus ingredients like grated citrus zest, ground spices, and minced fresh herbs.

The results were unexpected to say the least. According to the taste testers, this particular dry-brined bird turned out not super juicy, not super flavorful. The wet-brined reviews can be summarized by our assistant buyer Casey Simring: “Mmm mmm!” Or, as Josh put it, “More flavor. More moisture.” The lazy boy bird came in second place: juicier than the dry-brined (is this real? Is my life a lie?) but not as well-seasoned as the wet-brined.

So, we will be wet-brining our Thanksgiving turkey after all. It’s humbling to be wrong, right?

What’s your roast turkey game plan for Thanksgiving? Tell us all the details below in the comments!

8 Comments

M C. November 17, 2018
Thanks for the turkey test video, I enjoyed watching. <br /> I’ve done Alton Brown’s wet brine the past couple of years. It’s been a favorite with family and friends. I also found, if available, using the oven meat thermometer makes a big difference. Also, I’ve tried preset spice brines. Still not as good as putting Alton’s spices together. <br />I’m doing the same this year, with a 20 lb turkey in the oven. <br />Also, going to try my new steam oven with a separate smaller turkey.<br />Planning on a taste test. Happy Thanksgiving! <br />
 
M C. November 17, 2018
Ps. going to try the spatch- cocked method. Makes complete sense.
 
Hamilton W. November 12, 2018
The shaky cam is a little distracting. I know you're trying to imbue the video with authenticity but you can still have it be look handheld without it distracting so much. great video overall though!
 
plevee November 11, 2018
The major problem with a brined turkey is that the drippings are way too salty to make gravy. this seems to be more pronounced with wt brining which also sometimes gives the meat an unpleasant spongy texture. I'm going to go with a fairly light several day dry brine.<br />
 
CookOnTheFly November 11, 2018
I'm a dry-briner. I travel a lot, and this year is on schedule to be the same. I'll pick up my turkey breast at the grocer on the Sunday before T-day, dry-brine it on Monday and let it sit in the fridge uncovered until Thursday afternoon. Crispy skin, juicy bird and happy, less-stressed cook. Meanwhile, I'll be in Germany eating schnitzel and dreaming about my happy turkey. Holiday = done. <br />
 
bluelizzy November 10, 2018
I have tried all three methods over the years and am now a dedicated spatch-cocked wet-briner (including at least a few hours to dry the skin before roasting) I do rely on temperature to determine doneness, but I don't agree that juicy is not a result of brining.
 
Tom November 9, 2018
This is incredibly inaccurate advice. "Juicy" is a direct result of your final cook temperature and has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with brining method. If there was a difference in juiciness between your 3 birds, you're a bad cook. You overcooked your dry-brined turkey (which needs *less* cook time than a wet-brine) and then blamed your dry turkey on your prep method? Yikes.<br /><br />If your test was properly conducted then the results would have been *inconclusive* because there is no way for anyone to be able to tell which brining method you used *after the bird is cooked* if the bird *is cooked properly*. Wet-brining merely gives you more "time in the zone" to get the turkey out of the oven before you ruin it than dry-brining does as it causes the meat to cook slower.<br /><br />The moisture level in the final product has nothing to do AT ALL with adding (or not adding) salt in any form.
 
Linda T. November 11, 2018
I dry brined last year for the first time......amazing....doing it again this year....<br />