A Lemony, Gingery Roast Turkey for Something New on Thanksgiving

Inspired by Table & Apron in Malaysia.

November 18, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

“I brine whether it is scientifically justifiable or not, because, well, it is a religious matter,” cookbook editor Rux Martin told Kim Severson for The New York Times earlier this week.

For the uninitiated, brining essentially involves submerging your meat in a salty solution for several hours, during which the salt water will penetrate into the meat via a process called osmosis. (Takes you back to fifth-grade science now, doesn’t it?) Not only does this season the meat all the way through, but the salt in the water will loosen up some of the protein molecules in the meat as well, resulting in much juicier, plumper flesh post-cooking.

My all-time favorite food-science guru—J. Kenji López-Alt of Food Lab fame—did some extensive tests on brining, and found that it reduces the amount of moisture loss in poultry by up to 40%. This means that after roasting, a turkey that’s been brined can be nearly twice as moist as a regular, non-brined turkey, which for me is reason enough to adhere to the method, out-of-fashion as it may be according to Severson’s latest report.

When it comes to turkeys, I always turn to wet-brining because it ensures success—ease of mind, if you will—and dispels the Thanksgiving norm of a cardboard-dry bird. Instead, a flavorsome wet brine gives me a turkey that’s been extra-juiced up with moisture to begin with. I find that unutterably reassuring. Why? Even if I leave my turkey in the oven for 10 more minutes to crisp up the skin, or, say, forget to take it out for 15 minutes because I'm making the sprouts, I can feel safe in the knowledge that my bird will still be moist.

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Now here’s where it gets contentious. When it comes to flavoring brines, there are two schools of thought. Food scientists like Harold McGee and Kenji-Alt Lopez believe that there’s little virtue in them, as it’s thought that the flavor molecules of herbs or spices are too large to penetrate through the meat, unlike the much smaller salt molecules, and so most aromatics won’t carry through to the final product.

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Top Comment:
“The best vessel for brining is one of those 5 gallon jugs with the spout on them for drinks. A hefty layer of ice on the bottom, oven or large ziploc bag of turkey with brine, and ice on the top. Also, i always make a concentrated brine like erik, but just cool it at the same time with mostly ice and a little water. ”
— TJ R.

However, I’ve found that adding certain ingredients to brines (over others) can lend an extra oomph of flavor to the meat, especially when you have a run-of-the-mill store-bought, frozen bird. Maybe it’s less of a celebration of the wonderful gaminess of pure turkey meat—but it’s for the insurance against dryness that I’m willing to have my bird scented with delicious things like lemon juice and sugar, which both caramelize gorgeously in the oven.

Whether you choose to wet-brine or dry-brine or straight-roast your Thanksgiving turkey this year, can we all just agree that it’s a matter of personal preference? Deeply rooted in habit and tradition, and maybe some nostalgia too.

There's a strong argument for dry-brining, of course, which, as Creative Director and Genius columnist Kristen Miglore has written in favor of the "Judy Bird", "Wet brines are greedy things. Not only are you storing something in your fridge for several days, you're storing it in a vat of liquid."

I have a trick for this: If you don't have space in your fridge for a large pot, you can brine your turkey in an oven roasting bag, which allows you to surround the bird with liquid without needing a cumbersome vat. Do not use a trash bag (they aren't food-safe).

My wet brine is very lemony, thanks to lemongrass, lemon thyme, and lemon zest and juice. Photo by Julia Gartland

At restaurants all over the world, including the two I’ve worked at in the U.S. and Malaysia, flavored brines are an indispensable step for any poultry dish, from Parmigianas to schnitzels, fried chicken to the simplest roasts. Even big names like Thomas Keller and Nigella Lawson have all turned to flavored brines for their holiday roasts. As Nigella writes in Nigella Christmas, “For me the only turkey is a brined one.”

By doing a little wet-brining at home, dry turkey will no longer be an inescapable fact of the holiday season, for your birds will turn out juicier, tastier, and more aromatic than ever before.

My go-to brining recipe is one based on two of my favorite brines: Thomas Keller’s lemon-forward fried chicken brine and the super aromatic lemongrass-and-ginger brine used at Table & Apron, a Malaysian restaurant I once worked at. This version is for my favorite lemony, gingery roast turkey, which gets added lemon notes thanks to lemon zest and juice, lemongrass, and lemon thyme, perfect for Thanksgiving Day—and worth every briny minute it took to get there.

How will you cook your turkey this Thanksgiving? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • TJ Rohers
    TJ Rohers
  • Eric Bancroft
    Eric Bancroft
  • Eric Kim
    Eric Kim
Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about cross-cultural cooking, funky-fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.


CCSTAHL November 17, 2018
Must of read same article about brining being outdated and first thing I thought was NO WAY! When I brined my first turkey that was it for me and I'm not cooking it any other way. Gone are the days of trying to swallow nasty dry turkey of my childhood. I always ate dark meat because it was a little less dry, but by brining I can eat the white meat too. I don't go by food fashion, just by what tastes good. Long live the brine!
Eric K. November 17, 2018
Hey, I like your style. Me too; I’m a huge fan of Nigella Lawson’s spice-brined bird, the taste as well as the ritual of dumping a bunch of ingredients and bits and bobs into a vat of cold water. The brine itself ends up smelling wonderful, too.
TJ R. November 17, 2018
The best vessel for brining is one of those 5 gallon jugs with the spout on them for drinks. A hefty layer of ice on the bottom, oven or large ziploc bag of turkey with brine, and ice on the top.

Also, i always make a concentrated brine like erik, but just cool it at the same time with mostly ice and a little water.
Eric K. November 17, 2018
Sounds smart. Thanks for sharing—
Eric B. November 17, 2018
I’ve been wet-brining a heritage turkey every thanksgiving for 15 years with excellent results, and lemons are always in there. A tip - use a Ziploc Big Bag, Jumbo size, and a cooler (60 qt will do). Pre-make a concentrated brine base the night before, and refrigerate to chill. Then just before brining dilute with ice water to final composition. Put 20 lbs of ice in the cooler (I buy bagged ice), then put the open bag in the cooler. Place turkey in bag, breast side down (on top of ice). Raise turkey cavity opening and add ice cold brine to fill and cover bird, lowering turkey to rest breast side down. Twist bag to remove air, seal bag, stuff it inside the cooler, close lid. Good for at least 24 hours, which is great with an equlibrium brine. Amazingly good and flavorful.
Eric K. November 17, 2018
Great tip, Eric.