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Brining Basics

Everything you need to know about how to brine turkey (and everything else)
Brining Basics
Illustration: Kim Graziano/Tasting Table

Brine basics: A brine is a saline solution, and to brine something is to soak it in said solution. You do it to make whatever you're brining juicier and therefore tastier. The technique comes up a lot around Thanksgiving, but can come handy any time of year and with almost any kind of protein.

Salt does the heavy lifting here (we recommend using kosher). The mineral denatures—or relaxes—the protein structure of the meat, thus tenderizing it. Salt also helps to infuse meat with both moisture and flavor: It first pulls water out of the protein, but as it dissolves, liquid from the brine gets reabsorbed—along with the other flavorings it contains.

Much ink has been spilled on the virtues of brining over the years—usually wet versions. But fans of dry brining, sometimes called "pre-salting," are making a case to skip the liquid. We are among them. Relative to its effort (minimal), the rewards of dry brining are high: Crisp skin, intense turkey taste and, perhaps most importantly, no unwieldy water bomb hogging up your fridge. Intrigued?

Our beautifully brined turkey | Photo: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table

All About Dry Brines... Yes, "dry brine" is technically an oxymoron. But the process consists of rubbing or sprinkling the outside of a piece of meat with salt and then letting it sit, refrigerated, for several hours or days in its own juices. (If it's a whole bird, you'll need to salt inside the cavity, too.) Many people add flavorings to their dry brine, from cracked peppercorn and smoked paprika to dried herbs.

Some cooks, like Hunter Pond, brining enthusiast and owner of East Hampton Sandwich Co. in Dallas and Fort Worth, prefer to use dry brines for smaller and fattier cuts of beef or pork, treating it like a rub to create a more flavorful surface. But you can dry brine a turkey, too—a more convenient undertaking than a traditional wet brine.

According to the folks at Fine Cooking, along with our own Food Editor, Andy Baraghani, dry brining a turkey yields a crispier skin. And cookbook author Molly Stevens makes the case that dry brines produce a more turkey-flavored turkey, since the juices that ultimately get reabsorbed come solely from the bird itself. She suggests using ½ to 1 teaspoon kosher salt per pound, plus whatever herbs and spices you desire. (If you use fresh herbs, she says, tuck them under the skin.)

J. Kenji López-Alt over at Serious Eats "vastly prefers" dry brining and doesn't add any additional flavorings beyond half a cup of kosher salt and two tablespoons of baking powder to promote crisp and beautifully browned skin.

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We opt to incorporate the warm spices of coriander, fennel seed and Sichuan peppercorn for additional flavor in our turkey, but the choice is yours. Either way, set the salted turkey on a baking sheet and leave in your fridge, uncovered, for 12 to 24 hours.

And Wet... Wet brines are not wrong. Traditional wet brining combats dryness by leaving the meat with more moisture than nature gave it, making it juicy, but potentially less intensely meat-flavored. Still, you're better going wet brine than not brining at all.

López-Alt advises using a six percent saltwater solution, or about 1¼ cup kosher salt per gallon of water. Other than that, the liquid, aromatics and any other flavorings are up to you. Pond always uses fresh herbs and whole peppercorns. But, he cautions, don't overdo it: "A few strong flavors are best. Keep your brines—and your flavor—direct and simple." And be sure to pat anything wet-brined dry before cooking, says Baraghani.

Why It's Worth the Trouble: Brined meat is juicier and more flavorful. Period. Dry brining is easier and will save you space in a jam-packed pre-Thanksgiving fridge. But should you have the inclination to submerge a 15-pound bird before hosting arguably the biggest food holiday of the year, feel free. Just promise us one thing: This is your year to brine.

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