By Lauren Salkeld, Epicurious.com
Brining has become a bit of a Thanksgiving buzzword of late and many cooks tout it as the secret to a moist, flavor-packed Thanksgiving turkey. But what, really, does brining mean? Well, there are actually two types of brining–wet and dry. Dry brining is simply rubbing a turkey in a salt and herb mixture and letting it sit (refrigerated of course) for many hours (usually about one hour per pound). It’s somewhat easier and more convenient than the alternative wet option, and advocates insist dry brining makes for a bird with a meatier, firmer texture.
Related: Epicurious’s Guide to Thanksgiving
Wet brining, which does seem to be the most popular option, is indeed slightly more involved, as it requires soaking a turkey in a salt-water solution (herbs, spices, and aromatics can be incorporated and sometimes other liquids like beer or molasses are added to the water) for several hours or overnight. Still, with a solid recipe and a little know-how, giving your turkey a long, flavorful bath, i.e. wet brining it, is really quite easy. To help assuage your brining anxiety, we’ve gathered our best tips and beginners’ advice plus several of our favorite recipes.
Pick a Recipe: When brining, we recommend sticking to a specific recipe. Keep in mind that the salt-water solution can be adjusted for bigger or smaller turkeys–it’s important to completely submerge the bird so make sure you have plenty of brine. You can adjust the strength of a brine if you also change the duration of the brining. For instance, if a recipe calls for two gallons of water to two pounds of salt and a quick four to six hour soak, you can brine the turkey overnight by using half as much salt.
Whisk it Up: Before soaking your turkey, be sure to whisk the brine to completely dissolve the salt. Many cooks prefer to brine with kosher salt because its flaky texture dissolves easily. If you use table salt, just be sure to pay extra attention to the whisking step.
More Than Just Salt: Brine solutions can incorporate herbs, spices, and aromatics. Try incorporating the traditional Thanksgiving flavors–dried sage is a big one–or ingredients you’re using in other dishes such as peppercorns, rosemary, or thyme.
Safe Soaking: A safe, convenient way to brine is to arrange a large nonporous plastic bag in a large bowl then place the turkey inside, followed by the brine. Remove as much air as possible, seal the bag, and refrigerate it. The bag and bowl method keeps everything neat and orderly and you don’t have to worry about leaks and spills.
See also: Our Complete Guide to Making Perfect Pies
If your turkey is large (or your fridge is full), brine it in a thoroughly cleaned large cooler or sink (the downside is that your sink is out of commission for quite a while). To keep the brine cold without diluting it, place ice cubes in sealed plastic bags in the brining bath, replacing them as they melt. If it’s cold enough outside, place your cooler outdoors (temperatures below 26°F may start to freeze the turkey). You’ll need to be vigilant about monitoring the temperature of the solution so use a thermometer to make sure it doesn’t go above 40°F. And remember that the turkey needs to be completely submerged in the solution so you may need to weigh it down with a plate.
Rinse and Repeat: Once you remove the turkey from its brine, rinse it thoroughly with cold water, inside and out then pat it dry. Discard the brine solution and plastic bags. Scrub the sink, cooler, or bowl with soap and water.
Avoid These Mistakes
•Never brine a kosher turkey as it’s already been salted. You’ll also want to avoid self-basted turkeys, which have added salt.
• While the salt in a salt-water solution might seem kind of arbitrary, different varieties of salt have different volumes so if a recipe calls for kosher salt, don’t substitute table salt without converting the recipe.
• If you brine your turkey, you’ll have to skip stuffing it. The salt from the brine will leach into the stuffing and very likely ruin it.
Even if you reduce the amount of salt in the stuffing there’s no way to know exactly how much will be added from the brine. Instead, simply bake your stuffing alongside. For tips on stuffing, including how to make the most of ones baked outside the bird, see our guide to stuffing and dressing. Or, if you have your heart set on brining and stuffing, try this recipe for a cider-brined bird–the cider brine has far less salt than typical salt-water versions.
For more brining advice, watch our step-by-step technique video.
We have lots of options when it comes to brined turkey recipes, including a brined and barbecued bird, a deconstructed brined turkey, and brines infused with molasses, honey, and a stout beer and barley malt combination.
Still not convinced? Try Thanksgiving pro Rick Rodger’s dry-brine technique in his recipe for Salted Roast Turkey with Herbs and Shallot Gravy.