There are so many great conversations on the Hotline — it’s hard to choose a favorite. But we’ll be doing it every day leading up to Thanksgiving to spread the wealth of our community’s knowledge — and to help you host the least stressful Thanksgiving yet. No promises on the crazy relatives.
Today: We’re breaking down the basics of brining. Tomorrow we’re cooking up the best ways to accommodate special diets without losing your mind.
Deciding how you want to brine your turkey is an important choice, and whether you go with a dry brine or a wet brine, questions come up — even the most experienced cook can feel bird-brained at times. Thankfully the community is here to smooth ruffled feathers and answer all of your brining questions:
The Pros Propose
- Michael Ruhlman thinks cooking is all about basic ratios, and brining is no different. His ideal brine is 5%: “That means 50 grams of salt in a liter of water, 1 ounce of salt for every 20 ounces of water, or for those poor souls without a scale, 2 tablespoons Morton’s coarse kosher salt for every 2 1/2 cups water.” If you’re in a time crunch and need to brine more quickly, follow his guidelines for making a stronger brine.
- Chef Ken Oringer says: “Brining introduces flavor that gets down to the bone. It’s also important because it adds moisture, thus allowing the turkey to handle high heat. My favorite brine recipe starts with apple juice and combines various other ingredients, from coriander and fennel seeds, to garlic, Old Bay, sage, tarragon, cloves, and even an orange and an apple. More flavors in your brine equals more flavor in the bird. And don’t forget the salt, which helps the meat absorb the moisture.”
- Virginia Willis reminds us that all salt is not created equal, so it’s important to consider the size of the grain of salt that you’re using in a brine: “Table salt is very finely grained, whereas kosher is larger. However, there are two brands of kosher salt widely available with different size crystals: Morton’s and Diamond Brand. Morton’s kosher salt is more compact and denser with smaller crystals. Because of the differences in the size of the crystals, 1/2 cup of table salt is equal to 1 cup of Diamond Brand kosher salt or 3/4 cup Morton’s kosher salt. My recipes call for Diamond Brand because the conversion is easy at 2:1. For a turkey: Dissolve 2 cups Diamond Brand kosher salt and 1 cup sugar per 2 gallons cold water for a 4- to 6-hour brine or 1 cup Diamond Brand kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar per 2 gallons water for a 12- to 14-hour brine. )
- Executive Editor (and cookbook author!) Kristen Miglore notes that it’s okay to brine a kosher bird, as they’ve just been salted briefly, but she cautions against brining a Butterball or other pre-brined or deep-basted bird, saying: “It’ll be plenty seasoned and juicy on its own!”
- If you forget to start brining your turkey ahead of time and are wondering whether or not to proceed with a brine, Amanda Hesser says yes — even just a few hours of dry brining is helpful.
- Aranthi deems dry brines supreme thanks to their simplicity, minimal mess, and ability to produce a great-tasting bird. Jessica Bakes agrees — she’s found that heavily salting your turkey many hours beforehand gives amazing moisture and maintains the turkey’s flavor.
- Erinbdm sticks with what works. She’s done a wet brine every year, and the turkey has always been flavorful and delicious and not too salty. SKK concurs, and finds wet brines are worth the trouble due to the huge difference in taste and texture they provide.
Can you brine a self-basting turkey?
- HalfPint recommends steering clear of the salt, and inserting a mix of a fresh herbs under the skin for flavoring, or using a salt-free dry rub on top of the skin.
More: Get the lowdown on how to brine meat and why you should bother.
- To save fridge space when it’s at a premium, Sfmiller is partial to storing a turkey in an insulated (and well-cleaned) cooler. JadeTree used to buy a big bucket every year too, but discovered that brining bags are easier to manuever than a giant sloshing bucket.
- AntoniaJames has more vertical real estate than horizontal in her fridge during the week of Thanksgiving, so she puts her dry brined bird in a bag in a narrow stock pot. She puts the lid on, and then usually has room on top for something else.
- No, it isn’t necessary, and ChefOno advises against it as well for food safety reasons: “Poultry prep poses serious danger from cross-contamination. Rinsing creates microscopic splatters and should be avoided. To remove excess salt and moisture while minimizing risk, pat your bird dry with paper towels then thoroughly sanitize the work area.”
- Aranthi has found that it’s possible: “If you make a salt-free giblet stock with the giblets while the turkey is cooking (or use other no-salt stock), you can get a gravy that’s not too overwhelming.”
- AntoniaJames prefers to plan ahead and make gravy using a stock and drippings from turkey wings, a day or two ahead of time. She doesn’t salt it, so then you can add in the pan drippings from your brined turkey for additional seasoning and more flavor.
Tell us: What are your best tricks and tips for successfully brined turkeys?
Have you missed any of our Thanksgiving roundup of Burning Questions? Catch up now:
First photo by Nicole Franzen, all other photos by James Ransom