Every Thanksgiving, the topic of brining comes up since people have heard about brining turkeys and want to know if they should do it, and if so, how. This in turn brings up discussions of how it works, how best to do it, and all sorts of other questions. So for the Thanksgiving of 2008 we decided to do some experimentation and comparisons. While we have brined before, we have never done any side by side investigations. In addition, this year the technique of dry brining has come up, so we decided to add that to the mix.
So what we have come up with is a side-by-side comparison of a three turkey breasts of similar weight, prepared 3 different ways: plain, wet-brined and dry-brined. We also touch on the subject of air-drying in order to produce crispy skin.
A note about the photos on this page: In order to try to accurately represent the colors of the turkey skin for this web page, most of the photos were shot with Canon digital SLR cameras in Raw format using a WhiBal White Balance Reference Card, and processed into JPEGs with the Canon DPP raw converter. Photos with the icon in the corner can be clicked on to display a larger version of the photo.
What Is Brining?
Prior to this Thanksgiving we would have just told you about wet brining, but as we alluded to earlier, dry brining is another method. So here are descriptions of both:
Wet Brining: Wet-brining is essentially soaking a piece of meat or vegetables in a solution of salt and water. While sugar and spices and herbs may be added, all that is really required is salt and water.
The purpose of brining, wet or dry, is to "supercharge meats with flavor and moisture," according to Alton Brown. In addition, it can allow you to cook the meat to a higher temperature without drying it out.
Dry-brining came to our attention via the L.A. Times in a food column by Russ Parsons. He apparently came upon it from his friend Judy Rodgers, chef and owner at San Francisco's Zuni Cafe. According to Russ, "You just salt the turkey a few days in advance, give it a brisk massage every so often to redistribute the salt, and then roast it." He reports phenomenal results, a firm and meaty result with a deep well-seasoned flavor. And all without the "fuss and mess of wet-brining." You can read more about dry-brining in Russ Parson's column. In addition, the L.A. Times published this guide to the technique.
How Does Brining Work?
Brining works through diffusion and osmosis. Say what? Well, there is a different concentration of salt in the brine than there are of dissolved substances in the meat. Brining allows these different concentrations to come to equilibrium through the movement of water, salt and otehr dissolved substances back and forth between the brine and the meat. Water, salt and flavorings can make their way into the meat to make it more juicy and flavorful. In addition, the salt denatures protein in the meat. This means the tightly coiled proteins unwind and then can tangle together into a matrix that allows them to hold on to the water during cooking, making the end product juicier.
You will find various explanations that differ in books such as
What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke
Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed by Shirley O. Corriher.
For our money, however, we favor the explanation given by Harold McGee in his
"On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,":
"Brining has two initial effects. First, salt disrupts the structure of the muscle filaments. A 3% salt solution (2 tablespoons per quart/30 gm per liter) dissolves parts of the protein structure that supports the contracting filaments, and a 5.5% solution (4 tablespoons per quart/60 gm per liter) partly dissolves the filaments themselves. Second, the interactions of salt and proteins result in a greater water-holding capacity in the muscle cells, which then absorb water from the brine. (This inward movement of salt and water and disruptions of the muscle filaments into the meat also increase its absorption of aromatic molecules from any herbs and spices in the brine.) The meat's weight increases by 10% or more. When cooked, the meat still loses around 20% of its weight in moisture, but this loss is counterbalanced by the brine absorbed, so the moisture loss is effectively cut in half. In addition, the dissolved protein filaments can't coagulate into normally dense aggregates, so the cooked meat seems more tender."
But we suppose it doesn't really matter, does it? Brining can do some nifty things whether you understand why or not. So here are some handy brining guidelines.
Some Brining Guidelines
- What meats can you brine? Basically, poultry, pork and seafood can benefit from brining. Of course, beef brisket can be brined to produce corned beef. And contrary to some opinions, pork butts benefit from brining. (See Alton Brown's episode of Good Eats, "Q".)
- Can/should you brine "enhanced" meats such as turkeys that are injected with a solution to make it tender? Frankly, we don't know and we've read both yes and no. We will probably report on this at a later date when we can do a side-by-side comparison.
- Use the type of salt called for in your recipe. If you must substitute, be aware that recipes determine the amount of salt needed by weight and then give you a volume. However, all salts are not equal weights for equal volume. 1 cup of table salt is equal to 1.5 cups of Morton kosher salt. And 1 cup of table salt is equal to 2 cups of Diamond Crystal kosher salt.
- How long should you brine? We can only suggest you follow the recipe you are using. We saw one guide that said a turkey breast can be brined in 4-8 hours, yet a whole bird can take up to 2 days. We beg to differ. The breast is a breast, whether it is on the whole bird or cut away. As you'll see below, we feel 24 hours might not be enough.
- What type of container should you use? Any food-suitable container can be used. You might use a plastic food bucket or an ordinary bucket lined with a large zip top bag or turkey oven roasting bag. You can use coolers, zip top bags, turkey roasting bags, pots and bowls. Don't use anything made of aluminum and we feel that stainless steel can suffer from exposure to salt also, so you might want to line a stainless steel pot with a zip top bag or turkey roasting bag also. Also don't use any containers not approved for food such as garbage bags.
- How much brine should you make? Take your brining container and place the meat in it. Fill with water until the meat is submerged. Remove the meat and measure the volume of the water you added. That's how much brine you'll need.
- The brine MUST be kept below 40 degrees F for food safety reasons. Either do your brining in the refrigerator or in a cooler filled with ice, or outdoors in the winter when temperatures are low enough to keep your brine cold enough. Whatever you do, make sure your brining solution stays below 40 degrees F.
- Used brine should not be reused. Food safety issues aside (can you imagine what's in the brine after you put that raw piece of meat in it for several hours or days?), the brine will not be the same as it started once you are done, so it won't be able to do its magic on a second piece of meat.
The turkey breasts used for this experiment were Harris Teeter All Natural Fresh Young Turkey Breasts with no injected salt solutions. There were not frozen (at least, when we purchased them). The three birds were as close in weight to each other as we could manage and were prepared as follows:
Why air-dry all the breasts? Please read on. In a later section we thought we'd touch on the topic of crispy skin.
- Plain breast - 5.81 pounds, air-dried uncovered in the refrigerator for 48 hours.
- Wet brined breast - 5.78 pounds, brined for 24 hours using Alton Brown's Orange Brine (recipe provided below), air-dried uncovered in the refrigerator for 48 hours.
- Dry brined breast - 5.84 pounds, dry-brined for 72 hours (recipe provided below), air-dried uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
The Victims, How They Were Prepared
As we stated earlier, we prepared three turkey breasts. Here's how each one was done:
Plain breast - This breast had nothing done to it except for air drying uncovered in the refrigerator for 48 hours, and being brushed with oil just prior to cooking.
Wet brined breast - This breast was wet-brined for 24 hours using Alton Brown's Orange Brine (recipe provided below), air-dried uncovered in the refrigerator for 48 hours, and then brushed with oil just prior to cooking. Here is our version of Alton Brown's Orange Brine from his book, I'm Just Here for the Food: Version 2.0:
1 quart vegetable stock, chilled
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 quart orange juice, chilled
Bring 2 cups of the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, bay leaves and pepper corns to a boil in a pot. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Add the remaining stock, the orange juice and 2 quarts of ice water. Place a 2-gallon zip top bag in a large pot such as a dutch oven so that you can pour the brine into the bag. Close the top of the bag and place the pot/bag/brine into your refrigerator. Chill until the temperature falls below 40 degrees F. We used our Thermapen thermometer to do this. When the brine has reached 40 degrees, you can add your chilled, rinsed turkey breast to the bag. Close the top while ensuring that you get as much air out of the bag as possible. Return the pot/brine/turkey breast to the refrigerator and let sit for 24-48 hours.
Dry brined breast - This breast was dry-brined for 72 hours, air-dried uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours, and the brushed with oil just before cooking. Here is our description of the dry-brining process as obtained from the L.A. Times article mentioned earlier:
Dry-Brined Turkey Breast
Kosher salt, see text
Large zip top plastic bag
Measure out 1 tablespoon of kosher salt for each 5 pounds of turkey breast. Coat the skin of the breast all over with the salt. You may wish to do this in the plastic bag so as to not lose any salt. If the salt falls off the breast, take some of it with your hand and rub it into the turkey meat. Any salt left in the bottom of the bag will get rubbed onto the meat during the next 3 days. Place the bag with turkey breast in the refrigerator and let sit for 72 hours. Several times a day, massage any remaining salt back into the turkey skin. Keep doing this even after all the salt has disappeared. After 72 hours, remove the breast from the bag and air-dry the breast uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Note: if you would like to dry-brine a whole turkey, you should read the L.A. Times article noted above with describes the technique, as it goes into more detail for dry-brining a whole bird.
Other Brine Recipes
You can find many brine recipes on the web. There is one recipe which shows up time and time again, and that would be "Shake's Honey Brine" from Rick Schoenberger.
Shake's Honey Brine
1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons Morton Tender Quick
1 cup honey
3 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon pickling spice
Combine all ingredients in a large pot and heat to 160°F. Temperatures above 160° will harm the flavor of the honey. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Makes about 1 gallon of brining solution.
Inject brine at least night before, 24 hours if possible, 48 hours is best for soaking bird in brine. If you are going to soak the bird in the brine, then you need to chill the brine to at least 40 degrees F before you immerse the turkey.
Also, who can forget Alton Brown's brine from his Thanksgiving special, "Romancing The Bird":
Alton Brown's Good Eats Turkey Brine
1 gallon vegetable broth
1 gallon heavily iced water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon peppercorns
1/2 tablespoon allspice berries
1/2 tablespoon candied ginger
Use regular vegetable broth, not low- or non-sodium types.
Combine all ingredients except for the ice water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from heat, allow the brine to come to room temperature and then place the pot in the refrigerator until the brine comes to 40 degrees F. You can do this several days in advance if you like, just keep the lid on the pot.
In a large non-reactive container, combine the brine with the gallon of ice water and mix. Add the turkey to the brine, breast side down. Use a weight to keep the turky submerged if necessary. Refrigerate the container with the brine and bird for 6-8 hours, turning the bird over once during the interval, half-way through.
When the brining is complete, give the turkey a rinse and then pat dry with paper towels. Apply a thin coat of your favorite oil to the skin before cooking.
Also there are many books available which contain recipes for brining including:
The best way to get crispy skin is to dry it out and then coat it with oil before cooking. Poultry skin is approximately 50% water, 40% fat and 3% connective collagen. According to Harold McGee in "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," the way to crisp skin is to "dissolve the collagen into tender gelatin in the skin's water, and the vaporize the water out of the skin." High heat does this quite well, whereas lower heat cooking only serves to dry out the skin and make it leathery. It is easier to achieve crispy skin if you start with a bird with dry skin, and since we brined two of the three birds in this experiment, drying the skin is critical. You can achieve this by air-drying the bird in the refrigerator, leaving it uncovered for 2 days. The skin will turn dry and the transformation to a somewhat transluscent skin is a sign that the skin is drying out:
This is one of the turkey breasts (the one we did not brine), removed from the plastic packaging, rinsed and patted dry.
This is the same turkey breast, after 24 hours of air-drying in the refrigerator. Notice the color change in the skin and how parts are becoming translucent.
And finally, the same turkey breast, after 48 hours of air-drying in the refrigerator.
We air-dried the wet-brined bird for 48 hours, but the dry-brined bird was only air-dried for about 24 hours as we wanted to follow the recipe posted by the L.A. Times as closely as possible. Here are what all three birds looked like after their drying was complete:
The plain breast after 48 hours of air-drying in the refrigerator.
The wet-brined breast after 48 horus of air-drying.
The dry-brined turkey breast, after 24 hours of air-drying in the refrigerator. Notice that it looks like it could have used another 24 hours.
Oil the skin just before cooking as oil assists in the transfer of heat from the hot air in your cooker to the moist meat. And remember, even the crispiest of golden brown skins will reabsorb moisture from the meat rather quickly after cooking. So serve the bird as soon as possible to preserve the crispy skin.
Cooking The Breasts
The three breasts were cooked side-by-side in a Komodo Kamado cooker. No spices, herbs or rubs were added to the birds since we wanted to compare the flavor of the breasts. The breasts were cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees and then were allowed to rest for about 15 minutes before we cut into them for tasting. Here are the before and after photos on the cooker:
The three breasts: plain breast on the right, wet-brined on the left, and dry-brined in the back. There was a foil drip pan underneath each breast.
Roasting is done! The pop-up timer on the right went first. The timer on the left popped after a few minutes of resting in the kitchen as did the timer in the back.
And finally, here are the three turkey breasts photographed back in the kitchen with the white balance adjusted to show the true color of the skin after cooking:
The plain breast had the deepest color.
The wet-brined breast had a medium color.
The dry-brined breast had the palest color.
Did the Brined Breast Finish First?
Search the web for brining and turkey and practically every hit you get will say that a brined turkey will cook faster than a plain breast. Frankly, we aren't sure if this idea applies to true brined turkeys or if it might apply to the "enhanced" turkeys injected with solutions that you find. Whatever, we can only report our results, which you can see in the following graph of the internal temperature of the plain breast vs. the wet-brined breast:
As you can see from the graph, the two breasts cooked in essentially the same time. The temperature difference between the two breasts at the time we pulled them off the cooker was 0.3 degrees. Granted this is a single data point, but it certainly casts doubt on the conventional wisdom. It is also worth noting that neither Harold McGee nor Alton Brown make any mention of this alleged reduced cooking time for brined meat.
Tasting The Breasts
We don't claim to have the palate of an expert, but for what it's worth, here's what we thought of the results:
The first thing you should notice was that each of the three breasts was very juicy. We really didn't detect any difference in the juiciness of the meat between the three. We didn't find the texture of either of the two brined breasts to be objectionable. As for flavor, for real unadulterated turkey flavor, the plain breast was best. If you want some flavor added to the meat, the wet-brined breast was great. However, we didn't care much for the dry-brined breast. We suppose if you rubbed it with herbs and/or spices in addition to the salt, the meat might have had a more acceptable flavor.
- Plain breast - Very juicy. The meat had the flavor of turkey. The skin was moderately crispy.
- Wet-brined breast - Very juicy. The meat near the surface had a slight taste of orange, and overall the meat was not too salty. We think we'd try brining for 48 hours next time. Skin was slightly less crispy than the plain breast.
- Dry-brined breast - Very juicy. The meat's flavor was too salty for us. It even might have had a slight off flavor. Clearly this breast was our least favorite. The skin was similar to the brined breast.
Brining Other Foods
Keep your eye on this space because we intend to brine shrimp in the future, and you'll read about it here!
So, like we have been saying for about 6 years now since we brined our first turkey breast, we see no reason to brine a turkey for juiciness reasons when cooking on a ceramic cooker. If you want to modify the flavor of the meat, then you should look into wet brining. Especially if you are doing a breast, it really isn't that much trouble since it is easily done in the refrigerator. Dry-brining? Well, it is more convenient and like we said, if you added herbs and/or spices to the salt, the flavor might be improved. You can't, of course, achieve the same kind of results as soaking in orange juice, but for a whole bird, the convenience might be worth it. We will probably try the orange brine for 48 hours next time we cook a turkey breast, but otherwise, we'll probably stick with the plain breast suitably seasoned with herbs and spices on the outside.