For us, there's a clear winner.
The turkey is the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving tables, but the lean protein can easily dry out while roasting. By the time the dark meat (thighs and legs) are cooked, the breast is often overcooked. Brining is a home cook's secret weapon, as it not only seasons the turkey properly, but helps it stay moist (even the notoriously dry breast meat!) There are a couple ways to brine a turkey however, either in a salt-water solution, known as a wet brine, or a dry brine, which entails generously applying salt to the outside of the bird. If you've ever wondered which is better, let us breakdown how each method works and why we think one technique is the best way to go.
How Brines Work
Wet or dry, brines use salt to break down the proteins in the turkey so that the meat can absorb moisture and hold on it. After the salt breaks down the proteins, the proteins won't contract while cooking, meaning less moisture is expelled in the roasting process. The main difference between the two kinds of brines is how the salt is applied. In dry brines, the salt is applied directly to the turkey, while a wet brine dissolves the salt into water and submerges the turkey in the solution. In a wet brine, the salt water is absorbed by the turkey, which plumps the meat and keeps it moist. When salt is applied directly to the bird in a dry brine, it draws moisture out of the meat and the salt mixed with the turkey's juices is reabsorbed into the meat with time.
How To Wet Brine A Turkey
The general rule of thumb is to use one cup kosher salt to one cup sugar per gallon of water, and most 8-12 pound turkeys will require at least two gallons of water to be completely submerged. Bring the water, salt, sugar, and any aromatics to a boil in order to dissolve the salt and sugar. Cool the solution completely. Transfer the turkey, breast side down, to a stainless steel pot or large food-grade plastic container. Pour over the cooled brine mixture, cover, and store in the fridge until ready to cook or up to two days.
How to Dry Brine A Turkey
All you really have to do to dry brine a turkey is rub it generously in salt and let it rest in the fridge uncovered. In the refrigerator, a dry brine dries out the skin so that it becomes shatteringly crisp and turns a deep golden when cooked. You can add herbs and spices to a dry brine to add more flavor to your turkey, and a dry brine can also include sugar like a wet brine. Our Smoked Turkey Rub is a good dry brine to start with and includes thyme, rosemary, sage, pepper, and garlic powder on top of salt. Just remember to pat your turkey dry before applying the rub.
Issues With Wet Brines
A wet brine requires quite a bit of planning. First off, you must have a container large enough to contain not only the turkey, but all the brining solution needed to submerge it. This also means having enough refrigerator space to store the container for 12 to 24 hours unless you invest in a cooler and lots of ice.
That leads to the next issue, handling all the, let's be honest, icky turkey brining solution. If using a wet brine, you will have to contend with a slimy, wet turkey that needs to be thoroughly patted dry before roasting or the skin won't crisp up properly. Then you have to dispose of all that brining liquid, hopefully without splashing bacteria everywhere.
The other thing to consider is the flavor impact of a wet brine. While wet brines are good at keeping a turkey moist, they don't deliver on flavor. The turkey only takes on water and salt, and the aromatics added to the brining solution, despite what many people think, don't absorb into the meat. J.Kenji Lopez demonstrated for Serious Eats how seasoned wet brines don't actually transfer any flavor to the turkey meat.
Why We Prefer A Dry Brine
Not only can you infuse your turkey with more flavor with a dry brine, but it requires no specialized equipment (you can dry brine in the roasting pan), it takes up less space in the fridge, and is generally less messy. All a dry brine really requires is salt and time, it's that easy and simple, and it doesn't involve icky meat juice-water either.
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Read the original article on Southern Living.