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Is Brining a Turkey Actually Worth It?

Food52 logo Food52 11/8/2018 Emma Laperruque
a plate of food on a table © Provided by Food52

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.

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!

a plate of food on a table: Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird) © Provided by Food52 Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird) Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird) by Genius Recipes a plate of food on a table: Barbara Kafka's Simple Roast Turkey © Provided by Food52 Barbara Kafka's Simple Roast Turkey Barbara Kafka's Simple Roast Turkey by Food52

“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.

“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.

a bowl of food sitting on a table: The 1-2-3 Gravy You Can (& Should) Make in Advance © Provided by Food52 The 1-2-3 Gravy You Can (& Should) Make in Advance

The 1-2-3 Gravy You Can (& Should) Make in Advance by Emma Laperruque

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, it turns out, we will be wet-brining our roast turkey after all. It’s humbling to be wrong, right?


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