Cooking a turkey or chicken can be done in a myriad of ways, but some methods yield better results than others do. This guide is a deep dive into the world of brining.
For me, using a brine is a must-do step in any kind of poultry cooking, because it helps the muscle fiber in the meat better absorb and retain liquid, meaning that the remaining dish won’t dry out. The key takeaway message- retained moisture equals a more juicy product.
Making a brine is simple however requires a little patience to allow the salt to do its magic. With a little bit of prep and planning, tender and moist poultry can be mastered. There are two methods for brining- wet and dry. Let’s take a closer look to see the difference and the culinary benefits to the bird.
What is a Brine?
A brine can be thought of as similar to a marinade, except instead of adding flavors to the meat, what you’re doing is preventing the natural moisture and flavor from leaving the meat. This process is especially important for lean meats, like chicken or turkey, because there is less fat to lend flavor and moisture.
When cooking muscle fiber, the heat causes individual coiled proteins in the meat to unwind, releasing mass and moisture along the way. Soaking the meat in a salted solution–the brine–before cooking reshapes certain proteins and forms a gel, allowing the muscle fibers to absorb the liquid before cooking. Though some are lost once heat is applied, much of it stays.
The brine also dissolves certain proteins in the meat, which reduces the ability for the muscle fibers to contract as tightly, retaining more water molecules in the meat. All of this results in a juicier final product.
Wet vs. Dry Brine- What’s Better?
A wet brine is a saline solution–best estimates say 5-8% salt. You’ll need to keep the bird cold for the entire process, and the whole thing will need to be submerged, so you will likely need a large refrigerator and containers or bags. Make sure the temperature of the brining solution is 40°F (refrigerator temperatures) or below to prevent any bacteria growth over time. The defrosted poultry should be brined for at least 12 hours and up to 18 hours. Before roasting, make sure that the surface and cavity is dry so the skin can become nice and crispy.
A dry brine essentially means the bird will be salted, but during this process, you can add different herbs and spices for added flavor. During salting, osmosis will bring the juices and moisture out of the meat, but the salt will dissolve in the meat, resulting in a concentrated brine that breaks down muscle proteins. These released fibers can now absorb more liquid–the juices that were released by the initial osmosis process.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both. Wet brining requires a lot of space and time–recommendations for time spent in the brine range from overnight to a few days. It also replaces water with the natural flavor and moisture of the bird, resulting in juicy meat but possibly reduced and watered down flavor.
Dry brining also requires a cold space, but not the containers and vast amounts of liquid. But it also requires methodical attention to detail–packing salt in every crevice and ensuring one part of the meat doesn’t end up more salted than another. Knowing at which point everything has been drawn out, reabsorbed and broken down requires practice too because cooking at the wrong time can result in too-cured meat or overly dry meat if the process hadn’t been far enough along.
After testing both methods, I prefer dry brining because it requires no water, less mess, and the meat has a stronger savory flavor. If you have the time, I’d recommend trying both techniques to ultimately see which you enjoy better. It’s a tasty experiment!
How To Make A Wet Brine
No matter what size turkey or chicken you’re cooking, you want to maintain the same salt concentration in the water. I’ve been using Serious Eat’s turkey brine formula and found very good success. Here is the basic recipe:
6% Brine Solution: 1 1/4 cups (225 g) kosher salt + 1-gallon water
You want to make sure that the poultry is completely submerged, so increase the amount of brine needed based on the size of the bird.
How To Make Dry Brine
Dry brining is simple- use kosher salt to coat the surface of the meat, breast, legs, thighs, and wings. Even if you’re using the spatchcock technique you want even coverage, but not an excessive crust. The poultry can be transferred to a baking sheet topped with a rack, placed in a refrigerator, uncovered for at least 12 hours or up to one day.
The chicken can be wrapped in plastic and placed in a bag if you do not have space to leave it uncovered. Use a paper towel to gently dry the surface before cooking. You don’t have to rinse the salt off the skin before roasting. However be careful of over-salting, if you feel that you may have added too much, rinse the chicken under water and thoroughly dry with paper towels. It helps to allow the surface to dry in the refrigerator to ensure a more crisp skin.
I like to add additional dried herbs and spices to my dry brine like oregano, thyme, black pepper, and ground bay leaves. These extra ingredients elevate the flavor on the surface and aromatics as the meat roasts.
Amount of Dry Brine: Start with about 1/4 cup kosher salt for a 4 to 6-pound chicken. For an 8 to 12 pound turkey start with 1/2 cup kosher salt. You may not need all of this amount, gauge based on the size of the poultry.
Spotlight On Turkey: When Brining Isn’t Required
A few things to keep in mind while buying turkeys: turkey is considered a kosher species, so for those with religious sensitivities, you can be assured that the animal was killed and processed in a particular manner. The types of turkeys below do not require an additional brining step. Make sure to read the labels on the turkeys and ingredients to see if any salt was already added.
Kosher turkeys are also pre-salted, so they are well-flavored and good at retaining moisture with little work required for you besides cooking it.
Self-basting turkeys are something else to look out for. They’ve been injected with salt and flavor to enhance moisture and are ready-to-cook right out of the package. The main drawback reported is that, while very juicy, they can be very bland. If you’re short on time, this may be the easiest option, but you might have to sacrifice flavor.
Enhanced meat is another term to recognize. It essentially means any meat that has been injected or brined, whether during the packaging process or in your own home. If you want to control the process from start to finish, make sure your bird comes without an enhanced stamp of approval.
Now that you know the benefits, will you be brining your next roasted chicken or turkey dinner? I would love to know if you taste a difference!