7 Tips to Expertly Brine a Turkey, According to Chefs
Is there anything worse than a dry turkey? We think not. One simple strategy that can totally eliminate that problem is brining.
Brining entails soaking the bird in a basic saltwater solution, which changes the texture of the meat, thereby helping it to absorb more moisture. And while this extra step certainly isn't required, it can take any turkey from mediocre to mind blowing.
Sure, brining may be a little extra work — but chefs say it's well worth the time and effort for tender, juicy results.
So, whether you're hosting Thanksgiving dinner or just preparing a turkey for a family feast, heed the following tips for brining a turkey like a pro.
Separate the bird into parts
"Turkey breast and turkey leg quarters might as well be from different animals when it comes to cooking technique," says Erin Miller, executive chef and owner of Urban Hearth. "The fact that we try to cook them together using the same techniques really mystifies me. The outcome is rarely good."
While turkey breast brines up nicely because it's lean, the leg quarters need less brining since there's more fat and connective tissue, according to Miller. In fact, she says brining the legs may actually dilute the flavor. Instead, she advises seasoning them with a heavily-salted marinade or dry rub.
"After brining the breast, I generally butterfly it, apply a dry spice rub, retie it into a roulade, roast it in the oven, and then reunite it with the leg at the table," adds Miller.
Get creative with herbs and spices
While a basic brine solution consists of just salt and water, chefs strongly recommend adding some other elements to amp up the flavor.
"Aromatic molecules do get lodged within the turkey tissue between cells, so the more intense the flavorings in your brine, the more those flavors will potentially be imparted to the meat," says Miller.
Start with a base of about 7 quarts of water, 1.5 cups of kosher salt, and 0.25 cup of sugar, advises Eric Caron, corporate executive chef for Lombardo's Hospitality Group. From there, Caron suggests adding any combination of ginger, garlic, sage, rosemary, fennel, coriander, juniper, a five spice blend, and dried chilis.
"You can even add citrus fruits, like lemon and orange, or vegetables, like carrots and celery," says Amit Sharma, sous chef at NoMo Kitchen.
Another option, according to Brian Jupiter, executive chef at Chicago's Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern, is to use sweet tea in place of water and sugar for a Southern twist.
"Incorporate the same seasonings that you are going to use to cook the turkey into your brine," explains Jupiter. "Seasoning in layers is essential in any form of cooking, and nothing is worse than biting into a piece of marinated meat where the only seasoned part is the outside."
"When you want seasoned meat all the way to the bone, time is your best friend," says Jupiter. And ideally, Jupiter recommends brining your turkey for 24-48 hours.
According to Michael Handal, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, you'll want to aim for a minimum brining time of 12 hours. But don't go beyond 48 hours, he says, or you'll risk spoilage.
"If you choose the 48-hour method, reduce the amount of salt you put in your brine by 25% so that your turkey is not over-seasoned," Jupiter adds.
Make plenty of brine solution
Your turkey should be completely covered with the brine solution, says Handal. So, if you're working with a large bird, you may need to prepare a double recipe to ensure it's completely submerged in brine. You'll also need a 10-quart pot with tall sides, or a brining bag if a large pot won't fit in your fridge.
As a general rule, add 1 cup of salt for every gallon of water you use.
"Also, make sure that all of the salt and sugar is completely dissolved before adding the turkey to the brine," Handal adds. "If your recipe calls for the salt and sugar to be dissolved by heating the brine, make sure the brine has been cooled completely before adding the turkey."
Be mindful of the type of salt you use
Salt is salt, right? Not exactly. According to Handal, it's crucial to use whatever specific type of salt is listed on your chosen brining recipe.
Kosher salt and sea salt have a coarser grain than table salt. And because of the different sized granules, the amount of salt in one tablespoon or cup can vary. This means you can't substitute one for the other without adjusting the amounts. Not only that, but what further distinguishes kosher salt from table salt is that it has no iodine, which affects the flavor.
"Table salt and Kosher salt differ in densities and can have drastically different results," Handal explains.
Try a dry brine
If you're smoking your turkey, or are just looking for a no mess, no fuss alternative, you may want to consider dry brining, says Chef Thomas Boemer of Revival.
Boemer suggests using your favorite BBQ rub, or if you're roasting the bird, try a combo of kosher salt, granulated garlic, onion powder, black pepper, thyme, sage, and paprika.
"Make sure your turkey is thawed out completely and patted dry so there is no excess moisture," says Boemer. "Season all surfaces, including the inside of the cavity, the morning prior to roasting. Leave the turkey uncovered in the fridge overnight, which will slightly dry the skin to produce a crispy and golden brown exterior, and then roast as typical."
Tuck compound butter under the skin
According to Tony Sudak, a former chef and current apprentice butcher for Walden Local Meat Co., compound butter is a flavor bomb that can totally transform your turkey for the better.
Compound butter is any butter mixed with herbs and spices. Per Sudak's recommendations, combine two sticks of unsalted softened butter, 2 tablespoons of chopped rosemary, 2 tablespoons of chopped sage, and 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh thyme, and mix well. Then, gently separate the skin from the breast and smother the butter underneath the skin. Do the same on the leg and thigh.
"As the turkey cooks, the butter will melt into the meat and distribute the herbs all over the turkey," says Sudak.
Whether you decide to use a liquid brine or a dry brine, making sure you properly brine your turkey using these pro tips can transform your Thanksgiving turkey for the better.