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Q&A: Turkey Brining

Is this the first year you plan on brining your Thanksgiving turkey? Or have you tried it before and wondered if there was a secret you missed out on? Maybe you’re just wondering if the extra effort really makes a difference.

You’ll find two kinds of brining recipes. Wet-brining involves submerging the turkey in a salted, flavored solution for many hours. Dry-brining also requires plenty of time, but you just need to rub a blend of salt and seasonings on the turkey. Both can yield great results; however, all those steps in each process can raise a lot of questions. Recipes don’t always tell the whole story.

Here are some of the questions that often come up when brining. The answers will help ensure your brining efforts are rewarded and the star of the show is roasted to perfection inside and out.

Is brining really worth the trouble?

Yes! Turkey white meat cooks faster than the dark meat; that’s why by the time the dark meat is ready, the white is often dried out. Brining helps keep the white meat juicy while the dark meat finishes roasting.

Is brining just like marinating?

No - it’s different than marinating, which uses acidity to change the texture. Both wet-brines and dry-brines simply use salt to tenderize the turkey through osmosis…the salt draws in moisture. Wet-brines dissolve the salt in flavored solutions that allow aromatic infusions, while with dry-brines you just rub the salt and seasonings right on, which creates crispier skin during roasting.

I found a brining recipe that sounds good – but can I add my own twist?

For wet-brining, it’s best to resist the temptation to change the amounts of liquids or salt in a recipe. Wet-brining relies on the correct proportions of those two elements to activate the tenderizing chemistry. But you can indeed add your own twist to the seasonings. For an aromatic, citrusy brine, include quartered lemons and oranges. A teaspoon or two of a Garam Masala spice blend turns up the Indian heat. Whole cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and star anise pods create a sweet and spicy Asian flavor.

In dry-brining, as long as you use the amount of salt recommended, you can add your own touch, too. If you like extra spice, add a teaspoon each of Sichuan peppercorns and coriander seeds. For a more traditional taste, mix in several tablespoons of dried, crushed bay and sage leaves. Teaspoons of allspice, mustard seed, ginger and lime zest give a Caribbean kick. A smoky-sweet variation calls for a tablespoon each of smoked paprika, chipotle chile flakes, ground coffee and maple brown sugar.

Can I brine any turkey?

No - brining works best on birds that have had no liquid or salt added yet, or they will turn out too salty or mushy. Most grocery store turkeys have been injected with seasonings, sodium solutions or water - check the label. Even Kosher turkeys have been salted already as part of their preparation.

This brining recipe calls for kosher salt, can I substitute regular salt?

Yes - but be sure to cut the measure in half! Two cups of kosher salt equals only one cup of table salt, because the kosher crystals are bigger. If you use the same amount of table salt, you will definitely have an over-salted turkey.

Is any pan or pot OK for brining?

No - be sure to use a non-reactive pan (ceramic, enamel, glass, plastic or stainless steel). Aluminum and copper react with salt and can ruin both your pan and the turkey.

Can I brine a frozen turkey?

Yes - you can save time defrosting by brining a frozen turkey. If dry-brining, you can add more dry brine under the skin once it’s defrosted enough. For either method, defrost just enough so that you can remove giblets from the cavity, if present, before starting to brine.

Is smoking or deep-frying OK for a brined turkey?

Yes - for deep-frying, though, make sure that the turkey is completely dry – inside and out – before frying, especially if you used the wet-brining method.

If I’m wet-brining, the more time the better, right?

No – best to follow what it says in the recipe … leaving it in the solution too long is the primary cause of spongy turkey.

My dry-brined turkey doesn’t need to be rinsed before cooking, does it?

Yes - you should rinse the turkey after wet-brining or dry-brining. Just be sure to pat it dry afterward, completely dry, so that the skin will brown nicely when roasting. Allowing the turkey to air dry, uncovered, in the refrigerator for several hours works even better.

I’m wet-brining my turkey – do I just guess how much brine solution to make?

No - the easiest way is to place the turkey in the container you will use for brining and pour water over it until the turkey is covered. Remove the water, measure it and that’s how much brine you will need.

My wet-brine recipe says I can substitute other liquids for some of the water. Apple juice sounds good, doesn’t it?

No - avoid acidic liquids like apple cider or vinegar in your wet-brine solution. The combination of salt and acid will overdo the tenderizing and make the meat mushy. Coffee or herbal tea can add interesting flavors.

This wet-brine recipe calls for heating the brine to dissolve the salt and then cooling it. Do I really have to cool it afterward?

Yes – make sure the brine is cold before you use it. Completely cold – ideally store it in the refrigerator overnight. If a brine is used warm, it will begin to poach your turkey, which results in over-cooking later.

OK, brining is all done, now I just pop the turkey in the oven?

No - for best results and the crispiest, golden skin, once you take the turkey out of the refrigerator be sure to let it rest at room temperature an hour before roasting. This holds true for both wet-brining and dry-brining.

A brined turkey takes the same roasting time as usual, correct?

No - a turkey that has been brined will cook faster than one that hasn’t been. Adjust your roasting times if this is the first time you’ve brined your turkey. Over-cooking is another reason even brined turkeys dry out.

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