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Nov 18, 2008 01:25 PM

NYT/Harold McGee - Don't Brine!

Why you *SHOULDN'T* brine that turkey. Finally common sense (and science) prevails:

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  1. This article seems to assume that brines are only made of salt water. The first time I tried a brined turkey, my mother made a brine with juniper berries and some other herbs. I made my first T-day last year and used a cider brine. In both cases, there was lots of flavor in an otherwise bland meat.

    I had a pretty good gravy with mine too. It wasn't too salty at all.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Avalondaughter

      With the addition of acid (cider) you were marinading - not brining. Brine is mostly salt, some sugar. Brining is typically done for a day or two (to get the full effect of the salt), whereas marinades are done for a shorter time.

      1. re: applehome

        Plus, you need the brine to open up the muscle fibers as McGee said in the article. Soa marinade doesn't do anything for the juiciness, but it does enhance the flavor.

    2. I don't like to brine a bird for more than a few hours, since the salt does alter the physical texture of the meat unpleasantly. I feel that brining should be done in moderation... I still don't think there's anything wrong with it. Besides, it's more of a personal preference and less an absolute value judgement.

      1. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Harold McGee, and I've read his books from cover to cover. Still, I disagree with him on this one.

        The comparison of home brined turkey with the commercially "enhanced" meats is not valid. It isn't valid because, when you do it yourself, you control what you use, how much of it you use, and for how long you use it.

        The solutions used in enhanced meats generally contain things such as phosphates, which cause the meat to retain the maximum legal amount of added liquid (paid for at meat prices). The flavours are generic and, often, artificial. These products may be "juicy", but I certainly agree with McGee that the result is more often flaccid meat and salt gravy than good tasting meat.

        When I do it myself, the results are very different. Sometimes I simply dry salt a chicken, or a small turkey, as gleaned from the Zuni Cafe method. Sometimes I rub the chicken or turkey with a seasoning mix that amounts to a dry cure. A high quality kosher chicken, though lacking any additional flavourings, will simulate the result of these methods.

        Sometimes I put the bird in a seasoned brine solution, which rests at room temperature for a time span that I control. It certainly doesn't spend three days in the fridge or gain 10% in weight. I recognize that this is not possible when processing food for sale, but it's really quite safe in the real world of home cooking. A turkey that spends some time in a brining solution, and is then cooked to 155/165, isn't going to harm anyone.

        With all of these methods, the results speak for themselves. The meat is much more flavourful and, depending on the method used, the breast meat can be noticeably juicier. The drippings are not horribly salty and gravies, where appropriate, come out fine.

        So, yes, McGee is correct when he describes commercially "enhanced" meats and poultry. But doing it yourself does not involve pumping the weight up by 10% or more using salt and sodium phosphate.

        Is a brined turkey less "meaty" or "turkey like" than an unbrined turkey? That depends. Most commercial turkeys have so little natural turkey flavour that they need a flavour boost to be worth eating. If I have a turkey from a source that I expect to have real turkey flavour, I'll likely salt it rather than brine it. However, my experience has been that these very special turkeys can also be especially dry - in short, a Catch 22.

        McGee also contradicts himself with his serving suggestions. Earlier in the article, he notes that "Thanksgiving is an occasion for roasting the whole bird". Then he suggests serving what is, essentially, "pulled turkey". That does away with the whole traditional show of carving the whole bird at the table. And what is Thanksgiving about but tradition?

        I've also found that his suggestion of letting the thinly sliced, or shredded, turkey rest in the gravy doesn't work. Kept hot, the meat dries out even more. The alternative is cold turkey in tepid gravy. A whole turkey may retain its heat for quite a while, but thin slices or shreds definitely do not.

        I also have a very simple method for dealing with the differing temperature requirements of the white and dark meat. I butterfly the turkey and cook it in a convection oven. Today's turkeys are so breast heavy that the dark meat will reach 165 as the breast comes to 155. Indeed, the dark meat will sometimes reach 175 by the time the breast is cooked through. This means I'm not bringing that majestic whole bird to the table. However, it is sufficiently intact that the carving ceremony can still take place.

        Harold McGee is a great food scientist and a more "curious cook" than I. However, I'll bet my turkeys taste better than his.

        9 Replies
        1. re: embee

          McGee isn't actually a scientist, but a food writer that understands and relates food science and lore very well - an unusual combination, indeed. You're picking at him (he contradicts himself? - you can't tell style from content?), for whatever reason you have, but it no more makes him wrong than you right.

          Turkey is a notoriously hard bird to cook for all the reasons he gave. People have come up with various solutions, and one, brining, has been touted for a few years now based on somebody's article somewhere. These fads go around like widfire. A few years before, it was deep-fat frying. I hated my brined turkey last year at a friend's house, and I generally do not like brining anything, other than my salmon before I smoke it. In that process, the meat is supposed to lose it's fibrous structure, to become more interconnected. So it is a pleasure for me to see this whole brining fad exposed as the idiocy it is when what you want is a flavorful, moist, but firm and chewable (but not chewy) meat.

          Is it possible to use brining as a technique successfully? Yes, in limited situations - perhaps you've come up with one. After all, nobody would have thought that grilling something to a complete char would be tasty, but someone (I think Prudhomme) invented blackening. That doesn't mean that you can burn anything and everything every which way and still have edible food.

          Dry-rubbing with salt is curing, not brining. When it is left to sit in it's own water (as with barrels of salmon), it is pretty much the same as brining, but with no extraneous water drawn back in. It typically doesn't process the meat as deeply in the same time. But if the water is drawn off, the osmosis process doesn't come into play, and you have ham - eventually prosciutto/serrano/schwarzwald shinken.

          The idea of food science, and what good writers are supposed to explain, are the mechanisms of how techniques do what they do. That you or anyone else has worked out a specific set of procedures that works for you is great, but doesn't mean that their explanations are inaccurate. It wouldn't surprise me if your turkey was better than something he cooked, any more than if any one dish of anybody's was particularly good. That doesn't mean that brining is generally a good thing to do with Turkey or any other meat. It doesn't mean that he's wrong to warn against brining as a general purpose technique for creating better tasting meat.

          I don't think that McGee or This or Adria or anybody else is God and unapproachable. They may in fact get something wrong here and there - especially where they go beyond objective and repeatable experiments and observations, and venture into tastes and preferences. But I don't believe that he does so here.

          1. re: applehome

            We'll just have to disagree. McGee certainly does contradict himself in that article, and his ultimate solution was to serve pulled turkey. Egad.

            I do, indeed, differentiate between dry rubbing and brining in my post, and I stated that I use different methods at different times and for different reasons.

            McGee et al are not gods and, in this case, my suggestions have as much validity as his do. My palate represents anecdotal evidence rather than a scientific experiment, but my point, to those sufficiently interested to read my post, is that it is possible to do much better than McGee suggests through some personal trial and error.

            I do not, and never have, brined a turkey, or anything else (curing deli meats excepted), for three days and I certainly don't use sodium phosphate. When I have a really good bird from a proven reliable source, I don't brine it. With chicken, this is frequent. With turkey, it is rare.

            I believe it was Cook's Illustrated that started the brining fad, which was then taken up by others. It's not applicable to every situation, as I've noted, but it isn't idocy either. It is also quite possible to smoke a salmon without brining it. It depends on the effect, and flavour, you want to achieve. I remember the lox of my childhood, which was intensely salty. Few people could even tolerate a mouthful of this cure today.

            BTW, "blackening" is NOT burning. Failure to master this technique explains why most "blackened food is borderline, or totally, inedible. Prudhomme's blackened foods were not burned.

            1. re: embee

              You're right that it was ATK that pushed the Turkey brining. And it points to the major problem with that show (and magazine), which is the pushing of techniques like brining. They concentrate on making things more foolproof for home cooks, rather than more delicious. To that extent, brining may work for people who regularly overcook their birds. But for people like you and Palmer (and me - and probably the great majority of us here), we've obviously done it long enough to figure out some really good solutions to the turkey problem. Perhaps McGee's article ought to be taken as simply counterpoint to ATK, and not as advice for experienced cooks.

              1. re: applehome

                Yes, I can agree with you on that point. I read CI, and I find it useful. I have changed some of my cooking habits significantly, for the better, based on material in that magazine. I have changed even more of my cooking habits based on McGee.

                While I read CI, and even have a handful of their cookbooks, there is much to dislike about their magazine and even more to dislike about their business practices. I rarely watch ATK, but I've seen it enough to recognize that it is a better COOKING show than almost anything left on the Food Network.

                I'm one of those people who rarely cooks anything (baking excepted) verbatim from a recipe. When it comes to the quality of specific recipes, as opposed to general techniques, CI doesn't do all that well. Their committee decisions, and requirement that all ingredients can come from a Boston supermarket, tend not to create taste thrills. But when you consider that much of mainstream North America cooks their industrial turkeys until those little plastic gizmos pop up, brining would bring an extreme improvement to their cooking.

                Addressing one of your other points, I've never eaten, much less cooked, a deep fried turkey. I do know people who have made, or eaten, these. It seems almost impossibly simple, but still comes down to the cook having developed a very specific skill. At least the brining craze isn't likely to lead to third degree burns or the loss of one's house.

              2. re: embee

                Tremendously insightful dialogue on the idiosyncracies of brining but, for the record, the first reference that I encountered for turkey brining predates the existence of Cooks and originates with John Ash, a great Napa Valley cook and restauranteur. His published turkey brine was in a 1996 Bon Appetit and had tons of flavor enhancers (ginger, garlic, soy, bay, thyme, rosemary, etc.) and relative low percentage of salt allowing him to use the brine for a recommended 24 to 72 hours. We have followed it as a guide for turkeys since then, but never exceeding about 30 hours brined and at least 12 hours post brine to allow skin to dry out for crisping. Despite the fact that we've added apple cider and maple syrup to the mix, the results have been a tremendous infusion of flavors that are discernible even when eating cold leftover turkey in sandwiches. As for the actual roasting scenario, we continue to abide by the detailed roasting of large birds (20+lbs) via Cooks publications (ice the breasts before cooking, start upside down and rotate the bird, etc. and have never again had to endure the dried leather bird that we grew up with courtesy of a great aunt who believed you started the bird in the over 24 hours from when you were going to sit down to dinner going from a very hot to a moderate to a very hot and thoroughly dried bird that was only carvable when she bought an electric slicer. Pre-slicer we had toasted turkey hunks.

            2. re: embee

              I don't think McGee was contradicting himself about the whole roasted bird. What he suggests doing with the breast - slicing thin and moistening with gravy - can be done at the table. He's trying to contrast this with a 'casual last-minute saucing'. In other words, intentionally slice the breast first, and have a way of keeping the moistened meat warm while you carve the rest of the bird. For example, instead of laying the breast slices out on a serving platter, put them in a deeper bowl (preheated?), and top them with sauce directly from the hot sauce pan (as opposed to the cold gravy boat).

              I caught the last bit of Alton's turkey help line show. He cut both breast halves off the bird whole. He sliced them after cutting off the other parts, but I can imagine following Harold's idea, and slicing and saucing right away.

              A recent ATK episode butterflied a chicken as you describe.

              1. re: paulj

                We seem to have read somewhat different meanings into McGee's article. On rereading, I still view him as suggesting that the white meat be either shredded or cut much thinner than most non-professional cooks could do.

                The method you attribute to Brown does make sense. The whole breast pieces would, presumably, retain more heat than thin slices or shreds. This would also be a much easier slicing job. When I worked for a caterer while in my teens, they did remove the breasts in two whole pieces, slice them, and replace the slices on the carcass, though this presentation was served cold. It's likely still a popular catering presentation.

                1. re: embee

                  It is easier to keep the sauced white meat slices warm when done in the kitchen. For example you could use a pan on low heat, or even in the oven. Doing the same at the table calls for more planning, or movement back and forth between dinning room and kitchen.

                  Getting good slices while the breast is still on the bird is difficult, because it is easiest to cut along the grain of the meat. It takes a good eye to cut at a bias, getting large slices while keeping the meat fibers short.

                2. re: paulj

                  AB's method for brining and roasting turkey has produced the best birds I have ever had. I agree that you should not over-brine(3 days and 2 days to dry???). The double aluminum foil over the breast keeps it from over cooking. Also, as with most meat, I find that having it as close to room temperature when begin to cook it is the secret to a juicy and perfectly cooked entree.

              2. Cutting off the turkey breast and shredding it? That's borderline nauseating. Hey, let's cover it with KC Masterpiece!

                The way to get moist turkey breast is to cook it part of the time breast side down. If you have a crowd, then cook two smaller birds.

                1 Reply
                1. re: mpalmer6c

                  That certainly works, but butterflying is much easier.

                2. He is totally off base and totally wrong. I guarantee you a brined bird would win in a blind taste test over an unbrined bird 100 out of 100.