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To Brine or Not to Brine?

My husband really wants to brine our turkey this year (we're hosting the entire family). Is it really worth the labor involved? And doesn't it mean that it will be too salty to stuff? We are getting a Bell& Evans from the butcher--I've been assured that the bird is of high enough quality to render brining unnecessary. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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  1. If you're getting a really good turkey I don't think you should brine it. Brining masks the turkey flavor and changes the texture of the meat. It helps a standard (probably pre-frozen) supermarket turkey, but, in my opinion, harms a good fresh one.

    Plus, you can't stuff a brined turkey or make gravy from the drippings.

    I don't know anything about Bell & Evans turkeys, but if I were you I would cook it without brining once, to see how it turns out, then decide if you want to brine for later years.

    BTW, brining is not hard; you basically just stick the bird in water with dissolved salt and sugar and let it sit in the refrigerator for a while.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Euonymous

      There have been several other Thanksgiving threads dealing with this issue. The short of it is that there are varying opinions on the results of brining.

      There are knowledgeable foodies on both sides of the question. Alton Brown and Cook's Illustrated swear by it. I have done it and, before we were married, DH did, too. We agree it does make for a moist bird. However, the texture of the meat reminds us a little too much of processed meat. And, no matter how much we rinsed (keep in mind we each were doing our own experiments separately), the meat was still a little salty and no, you can't get good gravy from it (though some say they do).

      So, we don't brine. What we do insist on is butter under the skin and an accurate meat thermometer. The major problem with turkey cooking is OVER-cooking. I also favor using an injector but DH thinks it's a pain. If you have a quality bird and use the butter and don't overcook, it will be lovely.

      1. re: Euonymous

        To the contrary, brining improves a quality bird, but has no effect on supermarket turkeys, which generally include water and salt as ingredients, as well as things like modified food starch, sodium phosphate, and natural flavors. In other words, they've already been brined, but with extra chemicals.

        Interesting to know that you can't make gravy from the drippings of a brined turkey. Guess I need to find a new name for the stuff in the gravy boat on my Thanksgiving table every year for more than a decade. Drippings, fat, flour, stock--sure sounds like gravy to me.

        1. re: alanbarnes

          I have always made gravy from a brined bird as well..... maybe the stock I make with the innards cuts the salt as I don't salt that...never had a problem!

      2. jennie, I don't know about Bell & Evans turkey, but, after trying chicken of various types (free range, grain fed, you name it)...some less expensive, some more...from various sources, I always go back to B&E. I really do find their chicken to be superior--more fleshy, more natural in color, healthier looking skin, moist with a nice texture when cooked. I would have complete confidence in their turkeys (except my butcher only carries local farm turkeys) and would agree with euonymous and rexs that you might as well skip the brining if you don't feel like doing it.

        I brined our turkey last year, and I agree 100 percent that it changed the texture and the flavor. Not that it wasn't okay...it was just...different. If you've ever had kosher chicken, it reminded me of that.

        It was moist, but the meat seemed...softer...and a little too salty for my taste. I figured that could be something I could adjust by reducing the amount of salt I use...I don't know...but I don't think I'll brine the bird this year, anyway.

        FWIW, I agree with euonymous...brining is not hard. It's essentially like marinating meat, except with fewer ingredients in a larger vessel ;-).

        So...if you'd like to try it...maybe if you're going to cook a turkey breast for dinner one night or weekend when you don't have as much to juggle as you would on Thanksgiving. I generally find turkey breasts tend to end up drier than when I cook a whole bird, so that's probably the next time I'll brine.

        1. I am on the fence on this issue. I have 3 birds under my belt. 2 brined, 1 not brined. First bird was a spur of the moment Thanksgiving meal. We canceled on our hosts for Thanksgiving as my wife was pregnant with our second child and had severe "morning" sickness, it was really all day and all night sickness but I digress. So we stayed home, her on the couch and me to chase after our then 16 month old. Wasn’t going to cook and then said I have to at least make a small thanksgiving for me and my daughter. Secured a fresh small 10-11lb organic free range bird the night before Thanksgiving. Bought Brining bags and a brine mixture from Williams Sonoma. What was going to be a not so great Thanksgiving turned into a spectacular meal. One of the best Turkeys ever, and my first. My wife wasn't eating much, but this was soooooo good, it was her first full meal since she had gotten pregnant. Last year, we hosted 15 people, a huge gathering for my wife and I considering we like to host small intimate dinners. Brined a 20+ pounder and it was received very well with rave reviews from the family. My third bird (not for a holiday thankfully), we did not brine and it was awful and dry. (Thought the quality of the bird could be to blame) This year we are hosting about 8 people. I am on the fence. I'm told with a quality bird it's unnecessary to brine.

          The only thing I disagree with is that the texture of the meat changes. The texture of my brined birds was not any different than unbrined. I think the key here is not to over brine. For the smaller bird I brined for 10 hours and the bigger bird I did a full 24 hours. If you brine for too long you can get that deli meat texture that people complain about. My only complaint is the skin doesn't come crisp but that is easily resolved by drying out the bird for another 24 hours after brining.

          I have Alton Browns first book and used it as a guide and then did a little research on the net. A.B. suggests that if you are concerned about the meat being to salty, than just brine for less time until you get comfortable. Not the best advice since you can’t necessarily cook a few practice turkeys before the holiday.

          After writing this lengthily reply, I think I have convinced my self to brine again this year.

          6 Replies
          1. re: angelo04

            I am very salt sensitive and not only do not brine, I cannot eat brined meat. I think it does change the texture (although less time would help that) and all I taste is salt.

            One year we used Julia's recipe for a laid back turkey --- deboned everything but legs and thighs. It cooked in 1/10th the time (well, a lot less), we put it on top of the dressing and it was beyond incredible. It really isn't that hard to debone and it was incredible.

            I may have to do that again this year. However, for Thanksgiving, we're ordering out.

            1. re: dutchdot

              Never really thought of doing that. Funny you should mention. My wife and I take some recreational classes hear and there. She just finished a 6 week Advanced Tech. She learned to debone a whole chicken, stuff it with stuffing and reassemble to look like a bird with the bones. She did this at home, (part of her homework) I t was awesome, almost like a mini version of a Turducken. I think if you did your turkey this way, brining wouldn't be necessary as you mention the cooking time is drmatcilaly decreased. Now you've thrown a wrench in my plans! LOL, guess I ma back on the fence.

              1. re: angelo04

                You might try going with a variation of this, this year. One of the best thanksgiving birds I've had involved a lot of patience with a knife, but damn was it good: a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a cornish hen stuffed with prosciutto and porcini. No dryness problems because the duck fat kept the turkey moist, and between the chicken fat and the prosciutto, the chicken and cornish hen were fine. Carving it was a blast. Served with chestnut polenta.

            2. re: angelo04

              Read your post with interest, angelo...especially the part re the texture. I don't think I've over-brined, in terms of time, but when I try it again, I'll remember your suggestion and double-check again to make sure I don't overdo it. What you say has some logic, IMO, because...I've found any meat can "mushify"--technical term ;-)--if over-marinated.

              About your suggestion that we try drying out the bird after brining...how long would be safe, to keep a bird uncooked? I'd think the sugar and salt would help to extend the refrigerator life a little bit...but I get very nervous about pushing it with any raw meat, and especially poulty. Thoughts?

              1. re: MaggieRSN

                I've asked the same question and I'm told say 24 to brine and 24 to dry. So if you are looking to serve your bird at say 2:00, I think you could prep your bird Tuesday Morning to Wedensday and then dry it from Wed. to Thurs. and be OK.

                1. re: angelo04

                  Definitely brine it. Even good turkeys improve with it.

                  I only brine for 12 hours and I air dry for 4-6.

            3. I tried a brined turkey for the first time two years ago. For the first time I was able to enjoy the white meat because there was so much more moistness and flavor to it.

              I am doing my first turkey this year and plan to brine. I never planned to stuff it to begin with, so that doesn't matter to me. As for the drippings, whether or not you cna make gravy has to do with the brine you use. Usually the brine recipe will include a gravy recipe if it's considered feasible. My brine says it's a go, so that's what I'm doing.

              Only time will tell if I am doing the right thing. If it's bad, I'll try something different next year.

              Of course it's just *turkey*, which isn't hte most flavorful or interesting meat to begin with.

              1. I always brine my turkey. I use Alice Waters' recipe and brine it for 72 hours. And, I stuff it. And, I use the drippings for gravy. Why not stuff and make gravy- it always turns out wonderful. I also cook it breast side down.
                The recipe I use has salt, sugar, carrots, celery, onions, leeks, bay leaf, pepper corns, red pepper flakes, coriander, fennel seeds, star anise and thyme.

                1. Brine the bird! It's always better.
                  I find it more important to give it a good soak than to buy a more expensive turkey.
                  Learned about this some years ago through Cooks Illustrated, and am a 100% convert. Would also recommend with chickens and leaner pork cuts (chops, loin roasts, tenderloin, etc.)
                  Enjoy what I'm sure will be a delicious Thanksgiving!

                  1. perhaps this is a silly question, but why can't you stuff a brined bird?

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: eLizard

                      the stuffing will be wayyyy too salty. same reason you can't make gravy from a brined bird. You can attempt to cut gravy with broth though.

                      Almost all Americans eat too much salt. I just think the whole brining thing is completely unnecessary unless your religion suggests it, ala Kosher birds. I eat the bird because I like the taste of turkey, not salt. And it's plenty moist without brining. I never have dry, crumbly overcooked turkey, it's flavorful and moist and I never brine and I always get lots of compliments on it. Just take steps to make sure the breast doesnt' get overcooked/dry out and it will be very tasty. It's JMO, but I tire of the brining craze and will be glad when it's over.

                          1. re: angelo04

                            The breast meat and dark meat cook at different temperatures. I believe the white meat cooks at 160F but the dark meat needs to go up to 180 in order for the connective tissue to break down. One way to do this is to place a large bag of ice on the breast for about three hours while the rest of the bird sits on the counter. Some people might be concerned about bacterial growth, but I've never had a problem with anyone getting sick from this process.

                            When it goes in the oven, the white meat is much colder than the dark meat. If you do it correctly, the dark meat will reach 180F when the breast meat reaches 160F.

                          2. re: rockandroller1

                            You can make gravy from a brined turkey. I've done it for many years. You just need to combine the drippings with unsalted broth you've made with the giblets.

                            As far as stuffing, I don't know. I don't stuff because of the food safety issues.

                          3. re: eLizard

                            The idea that you can't stuff a brined bird is ludicrous: I do it every year and the stuffing is always outstanding. I suspect that those who say that brining makes their birds inedibly salty are using far too concentrated a brine and packing the poor bird's cells with far too much salt. Use a light hand with the salt in the brine (while bringing in spices and other flavors) and don't keep the bird in the brine for longer than 12 hours. You're not making corned beef here. Rinse the bird, air dry in the fridge for a couple hours, stuff it, roast it, carve it, eat it. It's not that hard a concept.

                          4. We've been brining for seven years and we'll never go back to the old way. Everybody always says, "This is the best turkey I've ever had," and I get multiple requests for our recipe/procedure. We also stuff the bird and use the drippings to make gravy. Just brine with one cup of Kosher salt overnight, and don't use table salt in any of the other components.

                            1. Have any of you briners used the dry brine method discussed on another thread? Does it fall somewhere in between the pros/cons of wet brining vs no brining?

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: TNExplorer

                                I have for chicken and it's FABULOUS. Not wanted to take a chance on the Tgiving bird as I cook for a big crowd that expects the same thing every year.

                              2. Absolutely brine it. There's very little labor involved, and it will make the meat moister and enhance its flavor. It has nothing to do with the quality of the bird and everything to do with getting a little seasoning in--as opposed to on--the meat. The texture won't change appreciably unless you use an extremely saline brine or brine for a very long time.

                                If you want to maximize the natural flavor of the bird (as opposed to adding complementary flavors), go with a plain saltwater brine. For a medium-sized turkey, dissolve half a cup of salt (non-iodized fine table salt) in two gallons of water and brine overnight. I use a cooler as a brining container and top off periodically with ice to keep the temp down. After brining, rinse the bird, pat it dry with paper towels, and allow it to stand for a while before it goes in the oven. For extra-crispy skin, make sure it's completely dry by putting it in front of a fan or using a hair drier.

                                As to gravy, I've make it from the drippings of brined poultry on dozens--maybe hundreds--of occasions and have never had a problem with it being too salty. Don't know about stuffing, since I never stuff the cavity, but it seems improbable that a light brine would cause a problem there, either.

                                There are plenty of strong anti-brining opinions out there. They may have something to do with all the recipes that, for all intents and purposes, produce corned turkey. A soak in a moderately saline solution for a reasonable period of time, though, will improve the flavor and juiciness of any turkey.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  Perhaps people who are saying brining makes the meat too salty are rinsing the bird after brining ( a key step). I like brining. Also, this months Bon Appetit, has an article on salting a turkey, essentially a salt dry rub. It seemed interesting but I have never done it. Has anyone tried this with turkey?

                                2. Do--makes a HUGE difference. (add herbs and citrus rind to the liquid :))

                                  1. Dug this thread up from my posts, we are starting to think about Thanksgiving. We are thinking of going a different route with the brine this year. Instead of wet brining it, we are thinking of dry brining it. I remember a thread on this method last year and can't seem to find it. Any input would be geatly appreciated.

                                    1. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/459930

                                      Ah I found it, this is the route we are going to try this year.

                                      1. I can't say enough good things about brining your turkey. I have used Alton Brown's recipe three or four times and it makes all the difference in the world. A link to the recipe is below.


                                        1. Another strong vote for brining, from one who hasn't had a salt shaker on the table in decades, and rarely uses it in cooking. I rinse and dry the bird after no more than 12 hours in ordinary brine. I follow Cooks Illustrated's directions, including air-drying in the fridge if there is room. I generally brine only in late fall/winter, when I can put the container outside overnight - there's no fridge space for brining even a whole chicken, much less a turkey. I have stuffed them (though not with bagged stuffing mix, which would have its own salt), made gravy, and used the carcasses for stock - all with fine results. Brine recipes don't address the difficulty of getting the salt to dissolve, especially kosher. I dissolve the salt in a pint or quart of vigorously boliling water, then let it cool and add ice/water to get to the desired volume and temperature. I imagine that if the bird sat in a brine with unmixed salt at the bottom, the seasoning could be a problem.

                                          1. I dote on brining. I had great results and meat was tender and juicy.
                                            I can make gravy with a roux and chicken broth.
                                            They have brining bags now and it is easier than the bucket thing or nonreactive pots.
                                            By the way, I looked up the word nonreactive and it does not exist. Reactive but not nonreactive.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. Brine it.
                                              And the gravy will be fine too...never had a problem with it turning out too salty.

                                              The brining really benefits the breast meat (which for the most part I don't even remotely like...the brining keeps it moist and thus palatable).

                                              15 Replies
                                              1. re: The Professor

                                                I felt the need to return to this thread... I'm getting a free range bird from a local farmer, (yay!) Previously I'd bought from a farm that used the word "Natural" and I just don't trust that... this place, I can see the animals wandering around... I digress.
                                                SuperMarket bird. = Brine to me
                                                I've brined birds from the "natural" farm too
                                                do I want/need to brine the Free Range heritage bird?

                                                    1. re: cgarner

                                                      I third the yes, but I would do a dry brine. I wet-brined one year and it was good, but a hassle (too big to go in the fridge, not cold enough outdoors, etc.). So, last year I dry-brined instead and the results were great, plus the skin was extra crispy.

                                                      1. re: cgarner

                                                        A repeat of my original reply to this thread.

                                                        If you're getting a really good turkey I don't think you should brine it. Brining masks the turkey flavor and changes the texture of the meat. It helps a standard (probably pre-frozen) supermarket turkey, but, in my opinion, harms a good fresh one.

                                                        Plus, you can't stuff a brined turkey or make gravy from the drippings.

                                                        I don't know anything about the turkey you're getting, but if I were you I would cook it without brining once, to see how it turns out, then decide if you want to brine for later years.

                                                        1. re: Euonymous

                                                          >>"Brining masks the turkey flavor"<<

                                                          Nonsense. A simple brine is just salt water. Salt enhances the flavor of meat; it doesn't mask it unless you use far too much.

                                                          >>"Plus, you can't stuff a brined turkey or make gravy from the drippings."<<

                                                          Again, nonsense. I stuff brined turkeys (and chickens) all the time, and have never cooked one without making gravy. The stuffing and the gravy turn out just fine.

                                                          The quoted statements are simply wrong. We're not talking about a matter of varying tastes or differing opinions. Those statements are factually incorrect. False. Bogus. Fallacious. Specious. Untrue. Period.

                                                          If your brine masks the flavor of your turkey or makes it impossible to make stuffing or gravy, the problem isn't that you brined the bird, it's that you did it wrong. Claiming that brining causes these problems is like claiming that roasting causes blackened skin and dried-out meat.

                                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                                            I actually stopped stuffing the turkey a long time ago.

                                                            I make individual stuffing servings in cupcake pans and baste with turkey drippings and fat (don’t tell my family I use the fat, ok?)
                                                            Turkey comes out to rest, stuffing goes in to cook. Everybody gets their share of “crispy bits” and I can make more than one style of stuffing.
                                                            (my family jokes that Rachel Ray stole the idea from me… I’m quite sure I stole it from one of my more clever friends who was doing this long before me OR Mizz Ray)

                                                            I USED to do more than a simple salt water brine, but I’m getting a heritage bird and exactly DON’T want to mask the flavor of what Turkey should taste like (or am I building this heritage bird thing up in my head?)

                                                            I agree that I’ve always used the pan drippings for gravy and I’m sure I COULD stuff the bird, but they’ve always come out so much better for me by not stuffing that to go back for me would be silly.

                                                            1. re: cgarner

                                                              Love the idea of baking stuffing in muffin tins. Guess that's what I get for not watching Rachel Ray.

                                                              IMO the flavorful meat of a heritage turkey actually stands up to a brine with a number of ingredients better than a supermarket bird. Maybe it's gilding the lily, but I like to add some apple juice concentrate, allspice, pepper, and sage to the saltwater. YMMV.

                                                              If you've roasted brined birds before you know that making gravy is no problem. For those who haven't, don't add extra salt (by itself or in stock) until you've tasted the gravy and decided that it needs it.

                                                              Remember that a heritage turkey is probably older and leaner than what you're used to, so it's more likely to dry out and get tough. Brining provides some insurance, but the main thing is just to be careful not to overcook the bird.


                                                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                I toss in a couple cups of apple cider the rind of one orange and allspice berries. Nothing overwhelming flavor wise, I've seen brines that really go over the top, sometimes good, sometimes it leaves me scratching my head and wondering why

                                                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                I agree entirely, and since I use very little salt in general, if brining (one of the rare times I pick up the salt canister) meant not being able to stuff or make gravy, I'd have realized it the first time I brined.

                                                              2. re: Euonymous

                                                                It is utter nonsense that you can't make excellent gravy with brined turkeys.

                                                                I do it all the time.

                                                              3. re: cgarner

                                                                Definitely brine. I like Alton Brown's brine recipe.

                                                                1. re: cgarner

                                                                  Yes brine, adds moisture AND flavor (I like citrus & herbs).

                                                                  Do report back with brining results.

                                                                  1. re: Funwithfood

                                                                    I will be sure to report back! I am so very excited to be trying a Heritage breed turkey from a small farm (I don't know which breed and keep forgetting to ask, but caught a glimpse of them wandering around this past weekend when I went by for eggs and milk, they are beautiful birds!)