Here, a guide to deciding which brining technique is best for your bird.
You have your Thanksgiving turkey, now it's time for the dry brine vs. wet brine debate. Brining is important, because it's a technique that increases a turkey’s moisture and improves its flavor. If you're wondering how to brine a turkey, there are two options: it can be done by soaking the turkey in a flavored saltwater solution or by dry brining in a salt-heavy rub.
Both turkey brining techniques have their benefits—they’re easier than mid-roast basting, for one—but both also have drawbacks. If you decide to wet brine turkey, you have to turn over a large portion of your fridge right when you need it most to house a bucket of salt water and raw turkey. If you decide to dry brine turkey, you still have to sacrifice some shelf space but for a shorter amount of time and without the worry of meat water sloshing everywhere.
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The choice to dry brine versus wet brine a turkey depends on how much time you have, how much space you can allot to the process, and just how much effort you’re willing to give the showpiece of your Thanksgiving Day dinner.
Dry Brine vs. Wet Brine
A dry brine and wet brine for turkey work in essentially the same way. They both infuse the turkey’s meat with salt. The salt breaks down muscle protein strands in the meat, and the water is absorbed into the muscles.
When the turkey is roasted, the muscles cannot contract because of the salt’s destruction to the protein strands. This reduces the amount of liquid that’s expelled from the bird during cooking, helping it retain moisture and leaving you with a deliciously juicy bird.
The difference between the two brining options comes in how the salt works. In a wet brine, a bath of salt-infused water saturates the meat. The water solution pumps up the amount of liquid in the bird by as much as 40 percent, but the salt also helps the muscles retain the liquid during cooking. (That’s why you don’t see a torrent of water coming out of the turkey when it’s cooked.)
A dry brine, on the other hand, actually draws the turkey’s natural moisture out of the meat. Then, the salt mixes with the turkey’s juices and is reabsorbed into the meat. This very concentrated brine breaks down the muscle proteins and prevents them from squeezing liquid out during the cooking process.
The salt is the magic of both the dry brine and wet brine for turkey. You can use other flavoring ingredients—sugar, spices, and citrus zest are common—but they’re ancillary. In fact, you may not even taste them in the turkey after a wet brine. In a dry brine, however, the spices and herbs come into direct contact with the skin. Their flavors may be more readily absorbed directly into the meat, which means you have more flavor impact with dry brining.
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How to Dry Brine Turkey
1. Create your salt brine.
For every two pounds of turkey, pour out one tablespoon of kosher salt. An eight-pound turkey needs four tablespoons of salt. You can also add other dry spices to the dry brine mixture. Black pepper, paprika, sugar, rosemary, thyme, and oregano are all common. Make any combination you prefer, and combine well with the salt.
2. Cover the turkey with dry brine.
Thoroughly dry the surface of the turkey with paper towels. Gently sprinkle the salt over the surface of the turkey and inside the turkey’s cavity.
Place the turkey on a rack inside a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer the baking sheet with turkey into a refrigerator, and let the turkey brine uncovered 12 to 24 hours.
4. Brush and roast.
After the brine is finished, you can brush off any remaining brine if you want. You can also leave the dry brine in place for extra flavor. Roast the turkey according to your recipe’s instructions.
For extra moist meat:
Rubbing butter between the turkey skin and meat is an easy “self-basting” technique. While the turkey roasts, the butter melts and helps flavor the turkey meat while also keeping it moist and delicious. If you want to do this, you need to spread the better (seasoned or plain) under the skin before the dry brining process. The salt brine makes the turkey skin tough, which will make spreading butter after the brine more difficult.
How to Wet Brine Turkey
1. Combine salt, water, and aromatics.
The ratio of salt to water is the most important part of the turkey wet brine. A good rule of thumb is one cup of salt for every gallon of water. An 8- to 12-pound turkey will likely require two gallons of water to fully submerge the bird.
Aromatics like bay leaves, peppercorns, garlic, whole allspice, hearty herbs (rosemary and thyme are good options), and citrus zest are commonly used in wet brines, too. You can also use sugar—use 1/4 cup for every cup of salt.
When you’ve selected the ingredients you want, bring them to a boil with some of the liquid you’ve reserved for the brine. Let the infused liquid cool entirely, then add it to your brining vessel.
2. Submerge turkey in brine solution.
Carefully remove any plastic wrappings from the turkey. Lower the bird into the brining solution. Place the pot, bucket, or other large vessel in the refrigerator or iced-down cooler. If the turkey floats above the water line (and it probably will), weight it down with a clean plate or platter.
Let the turkey brine in the salt water solution at least overnight (eight hours) or up to 24 hours. You must keep the turkey and brining liquid cool during the entire process.
4. Remove and ready for roasting.
After the brine is complete, remove the turkey from the solution. Discard the solution. Place the turkey on a rack in a rimmed baking pan. Pat dry with paper towels, and roast per your recipe’s instructions (here's exactly how to roast your turkey for perfect results).
For extra crispy skin:
If you like the texture and juiciness of a wet brine turkey but adore crispy skin, you can take your bird preparation technique one step more and let the turkey dry in the fridge overnight. After you’ve removed the turkey from the brine and patted off excess moisture, place the bird in the fridge uncovered. The air will help wick away any moisture on the surface of the turkey and in the skin. This will lead to delicious browning when roasted.
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Pros and Cons of Choosing a Dry Brine vs. Wet Brine for Turkey
Both a dry brine and a wet brine for turkey are effective ways to make the meat moist and juicy. That makes the decision between the two come down to just a handful of factors.
1. Space needs (and time demands)
A turkey must be fully submerged in a large pot or bucket if you’re wet brining. That means the wet brine process will consume a large portion of your fridge at a time when fridge space is hot real estate.
You can brine a turkey in a cooler, but you’ll have to carefully monitor the temperatures inside the cooler to ensure the turkey and brining solution stay below 40°F. Above that threshold and bacteria will begin to multiply quickly. This can introduce the risk for foodborne illness.
A dry brine, on the other hand, still requires valuable shelf space in your refrigerator, but you don’t have to contend with a large bucket or vessel of salt water and raw turkey juices.
2. Flavor impact
A wet brine for turkey is a surefire way to add a lot of moisture. The problem is, however, that moisture is mainly water. This can leave your turkey very juicy, if not a bit watery. A richly-concentrated liquid like homemade chicken stock won’t do much good either. The turkey only picks up salt and water from the wet brine, which means any flavor impact from aromatics is minimal.
A dry brine, however, imparts far more flavor directly into the meat because of the close contact between the spice mixture and turkey meat. The flavor is much richer and more intense.
3. Comfort level
If handling a cumbersome and slippery 15- to 20-pound raw turkey doesn’t seem appealing, you’re not alone. The “ick” factor alone may be enough to deter even the most seasoned Thanksgiving cook from this technique. You’ll still have to remove the packaging and pat dry a turkey before you dry brine it, but you won’t have the issue of gripping a slimy bird in a vat of swirling meat juice.