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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.