To Brine or Not to Brine

How to Pre-Salt —Rather Than Brine—That Turkey

Roasted turkey
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Every year lots of articles come out about "how to brine a turkey" just in time for Thanksgiving. There are people who swear by brining, to be sure. But not everyone brines.

Should You Brine Your Turkey?

Only you can decide, but I'll tell you one thing: I'm not brining mine.

If you've ever struggled with trying to figure out a way to conveniently brine a giant Thanksgiving turkey (is it possible to do so conveniently?

in a normal-sized kitchen?), I am here to relieve you of your burden. There is no reason to brine that bird. None. Sure, it gives it flavor and helps it stay juicy, but do you know how it does that? With salt. The salt is the magic.

As Harold McGee, renowned food scientist and experimenter once claimed, "you'd be angry with your butcher if he did it."

Why should you not want your butcher to brine your turkey? Well, brining, or soaking food (meat in particular) in a salt water solution, uses the power of osmosis to force the turkey (or other meat) to draw up water into itself. The theory is that the meat ends up juicier and moister that way.

The problem is that it is a fake juiciness. Real juiciness comes from the meat holding on to its own moisture, not holding onto some water (seasoned or not) in which it has been soaked.

For this reason, I vastly prefer pre-salting my turkey (and other meats).

Think of it as a "dry brine." The salt, applied on its own instead of in a watery solution, helps the turkey (or other meat) hold onto its own natural juiciness and flavor.

How to "Dry Brine"

"Dry brining" is simply pre-salting:

  1. Cover the turkey—over and under the skin as much as possible—with about 1/2 teaspoon of fine sea salt per pound of meat. It will seem like a lot. Don't worry: most of it will fall or cook off.
  1. Use about 1/4 of the salt inside the cavities of the bird, and the rest over the entire turkey, working salt under the skin on the breast and thighs as much as possible.
  2. Put the turkey in a large bowl or roasting pan, cover, and chill for at least over night and up to four days. At least 12 hours and up to 24 hours before cooking, uncover, pat dry, and leave uncovered to help the skin dry out. This will help ensure a crispy, brown skin when the bird is cooked.

Roast your turkey as you see fit. I like to rub mine with about 1/4 cup of room temperature butter, lay bacon or pancetta across the breast, pour about a cup of dry white wine in the pan, and start the whole thing off at about 400°F. After 30 minutes I turn the oven down to 350°F and roast—basting with pan juices and maybe 1/4 cup of port at a time every half hour or when it occurs to me—until the legs wobble and everything is fully cooked and browned and lovely. Then I take it out, cover it with foil, and let it sit while I finish the rest of the dishes, usually about 45 minutes or so. Then I carve it, serve it, and wait for someone to toast me.

For a more formal recipe, see How to Roast a Turkey. You may also want to check out Types of Turkeys.

May I make another bold suggestion? Don't roast your turkey, grill it!