To Brine Or Not To Brine (Or To Salt!)

by / Thursday, 08 November 2012 / Published in Blog

To brine a turkey or not to brine a turkey, here is a turkey just after being brined.Shhh…I have a secret to tell you. I’ve never brined a turkey. Sure, I’ve brined other things (chicken breasts, pork roasts) but never a turkey. I know brining a turkey is supposed to result in a wonderfully moist bird but I’ve never even thought about attempting it. However, today I have become convinced that I need to try something else: salting a turkey.

First, let’s find out why I don’t brine my turkey. Then we’ll find out about my salting discoveries.

Here are my reasons for not brining turkey:

  1. My roasted turkey isn’t dry. Really. I’m not bragging here. This has nothing to do with me and everything to do with my parents. As you may know, I grew up working in my parents’ restaurants. During the holiday season we OFTEN catered events requiring roast turkey. We became experts at roasting the perfect bird. And I don’t think I’m biased here. I recall many strangers coming to me as I dished out second-helpings to say that it was the moistest turkey they’d ever eaten. This was admittedly in the days before brining was popular but I still take that to mean that everyone agreed with me: my momma’s turkey was no dry bit of sandy desert. And neither is mine!
  2. I love me some turkey gravy. Really love. And my experiences with brining have taught me that the drippings you gain cannot, absolutely CANNOT, be used to make gravy (unless of course you’re interested in ocean-flavored gravy). Now of course, if I was smoking or deep-frying my bird, then I would not be getting any drippings to be used as gravy and I might drop this line of argumentation. But for now, under the assumption that I will be roasting (tune in next week to see what I decide to do this year), the lack of good gravy-making drippings makes me want to cry and nobody should cry over roast bird.
  3.  

  4. I don’t have that much fridge space. So many of the brining recipes I’ve seen have you put the bird and brine solution in a big container in the fridge. I’m baffled about this. As it is, the day before Thanksgiving when the hubs brings home our turkey I spend an hour rearranging things to find space. And that’s just a turkey. Not a turkey in a big container full of water! For 12-36 hours before Thanksgiving Dinner, when I’ll be feeding 15-20 people, I’m supposed to give up half of my fridge to a container of water? Seriously? Not happening. (Now, I’ll admit here that I have recently found a potential solution to this problem. Alton Brown’s method has the turkey in a drink cooler with the brine and tons of ice. He then puts the whole thing in a cool place. Living in Florida, there aren’t always a lot of cool places around. But I could keep it in my air conditioned kitchen and add ice regularly. Sounds a bit annoying but at least my fridge would not be held hostage).
  5.  

  6. I don’t  like watery meat. When I’ve brined other pieces of meat, I’ve found them juicy but not in a flavorful meat-juice way. Instead, it’s been in a non-flavorful water-juice way. I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this before so I did a big of googling to make sure that my taste buds don’t have a brined-meat-dysfunction. It turns out that I’m not alone here. In fact, this very issue prompted J. Kenji López-Alt, Chief Creative Officer over at Serious Eats, to run a few turkey-brining experiments. It’s fascinating stuff. His results confirm my feelings, backed up with some science to boot! The very way that brining works results in extra flavorless water in the meat. He even tries using broth instead of water to boost some flavor. Unfortunately, science has us by the drumsticks and the broth idea does not work.
  7.  

So those are my reasons. I don’t brine my turkey and I’m not about to start. However, reading López-Alt’s diligent brining experiments and taste-tests did lead me to discover a new possibility:

Salting the Turkey

It turns out that if you spread a coating of coarse salt over the turkey overnight in the fridge you get many of the benefits of brining (especially near the outer edges of the bird which are the places most likely to dry out during cooking) without that whole water-juice thing.

Additionally, the salted turkey takes up no more room in your fridge than a regular turkey.

However, I’m guessing that the drippings will still be uber-salty and thus the gravy will have an oceany tang. But it’s worth testing. If I can get my mom’s already moist turkey to be even moister AND have a rich turkey gravy to go with it, I’ll experiment all day long!

This weekend I’m going to salt up a whole chicken, roast it and then make some gravy. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Now tell me, do you brine your turkey? Why or why not?

 

7 Responses to “To Brine Or Not To Brine (Or To Salt!)”

  1. Hi Christine

    Good post!

    I remember using rock salt, and then cooking in a paper bag, being a popular technique back in the 80′s, but I’m not sure I personally would agree with comparing using salt, with brining. I would compare it more to a salt cure, but being used more as a marinade similar to a rub. I think this would be a great technique to try if you plan on smoking a turkey.

    I first attempted brining a turkey 18 years ago, and have to say it has been my favorite way to prepare a turkey ever since. A brine (salt brine) using osmosis, actually forces moisture into the cells of the meat, and this would include any aromatics that you may have in the brine. I will have to share my method with turkey with you sometime so you can try it yourself!

    Kevin
    HomeBBQ.com

    • Hey Kevin,

      I’ve actually watched your video about smoking a turkey. I’d love to learn more about your technique though.

      What you’ve said about brining and osmosis is interesting. Have a look at the article I linked to above (again here: http://www.seriouseats.com/2012/11/the-food-lab-the-truth-about-brining-turkey-thanksgiving.html ). He claims that it actually is not osmosis and seems to have tested it scientifically the osmosis theory scientifically.

      But what is interesting is what he says about salting, that the juices form the turkey mix with the salt and create something akin to a concentrated brine near the outside of the bird. Call it a marinade or a rub or whatever but what it does is an actual osmosis-style thing resulting in a juicier bird without introducing all the excess water and sponge-like texture that I have disliked in other brined food.

      And yes, it is like salt-curing. But the result, I think, is similar to brining in that you’re using salt to protect the bird from drying out during it’s long cooking time. The difference is that you’re not drawing in water at the same time.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting!

      • Yes, I have seen that argument before, although mostly from engineers.

        I learned the technique of brining from a friend that I worked with many years ago, he was a food ingredient chemist, and a pretty great cook himself. I spent several of my young years, working in the commercial baking industry, which is how I knew him, and quite frankly what gave me my thirst for the technical side of cooking….

        Anyway, the term was used then to describe the active process, so I never questioned it… And, I don’t necessarily believe it referred to the complete process, as was argued.

        Back to the subject, using a brine is a learned technique, and can take practice to get right. I can give you a recipe for the brine, and tell you how much time to brine, but it does not account for all the variables.

        In cooking, the difference between being a good cook and being a great cook, is learning to manage, and adapt to the variables in your ingredients, right?

        Using a brine follows that same principle, the meat, salt, and water (the 3 necessary ingredients), can have many variables, which can vary the recipe (the amount of salt), and the amount of time necessary to brine.

        The spongy texture you mentioned, should not happen. That would indicate either too much salt, or too much time in the brine, or both.

        And, as far as gravy, I add some of the drippings to turkey stock I made using the neck bone and the giblets, the day before, it’s like adding a super flavor jolt to the gravy… I also add some of the drippings to the cornbread stuffing before serving, and again, it’s like adding a super jolt of flavor to the stuffing. If your drippings are way too salty to do this with, you have either brined for too long and/or used too much salt in the brine.

        There is no doubt, that brining does add more work/prep, and a bit of complexity to the process, and I can certainly see if you don’t want to go through all of that, than it would be certainly worth giving “salting” a try.

        Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone!

        Kevin
        HomeBBQ.com

  2. Hi Christine

    Good post!

    I remember using rock salt, and then cooking in a paper bag, being a popular technique back in the 80′s, but I’m not sure I personally would agree with comparing using salt, with brining. I would compare it more to a salt cure, but being used more as a marinade similar to a rub. I think this would be a great technique to try if you plan on smoking a turkey.

    I first attempted brining a turkey 18 years ago, and have to say it has been my favorite way to prepare a turkey ever since. A brine (salt brine) using osmosis, actually forces moisture into the cells of the meat, and this would include any aromatics that you may have in the brine. I will have to share my method with turkey with you sometime so you can try it yourself!

    Kevin
    HomeBBQ.com

    • Hey Kevin,

      I’ve actually watched your video about smoking a turkey. I’d love to learn more about your technique though.

      What you’ve said about brining and osmosis is interesting. Have a look at the article I linked to above (again here: http://www.seriouseats.com/2012/11/the-food-lab-the-truth-about-brining-turkey-thanksgiving.html ). He claims that it actually is not osmosis and seems to have tested it scientifically the osmosis theory scientifically.

      But what is interesting is what he says about salting, that the juices form the turkey mix with the salt and create something akin to a concentrated brine near the outside of the bird. Call it a marinade or a rub or whatever but what it does is an actual osmosis-style thing resulting in a juicier bird without introducing all the excess water and sponge-like texture that I have disliked in other brined food.

      And yes, it is like salt-curing. But the result, I think, is similar to brining in that you’re using salt to protect the bird from drying out during it’s long cooking time. The difference is that you’re not drawing in water at the same time.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting!

      • Yes, I have seen that argument before, although mostly from engineers.

        I learned the technique of brining from a friend that I worked with many years ago, he was a food ingredient chemist, and a pretty great cook himself. I spent several of my young years, working in the commercial baking industry, which is how I knew him, and quite frankly what gave me my thirst for the technical side of cooking….

        Anyway, the term was used then to describe the active process, so I never questioned it… And, I don’t necessarily believe it referred to the complete process, as was argued.

        Back to the subject, using a brine is a learned technique, and can take practice to get right. I can give you a recipe for the brine, and tell you how much time to brine, but it does not account for all the variables.

        In cooking, the difference between being a good cook and being a great cook, is learning to manage, and adapt to the variables in your ingredients, right?

        Using a brine follows that same principle, the meat, salt, and water (the 3 necessary ingredients), can have many variables, which can vary the recipe (the amount of salt), and the amount of time necessary to brine.

        The spongy texture you mentioned, should not happen. That would indicate either too much salt, or too much time in the brine, or both.

        And, as far as gravy, I add some of the drippings to turkey stock I made using the neck bone and the giblets, the day before, it’s like adding a super flavor jolt to the gravy… I also add some of the drippings to the cornbread stuffing before serving, and again, it’s like adding a super jolt of flavor to the stuffing. If your drippings are way too salty to do this with, you have either brined for too long and/or used too much salt in the brine.

        There is no doubt, that brining does add more work/prep, and a bit of complexity to the process, and I can certainly see if you don’t want to go through all of that, than it would be certainly worth giving “salting” a try.

        Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone!

        Kevin
        HomeBBQ.com

  3. [...] you may already know, I roast my turkey. I’ve never smoked a turkey or deep-fried a turkey. I have several reasons for this but the [...]

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