Wet Brining vs. Dry: Give That Bird a Bath

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

At last, I'm convinced. My friends will hear no more whining about brining from me.

I was an early brining convert years ago, but the procedure involved a lot of fuss: buying clean plastic buckets, tossing containers before their expiration dates to create turkey space in the fridge, combing Cook's Illustrated research and subjecting beautiful, fresh organic birds to special seasoned-salt concoctions. (Brining is not necessary for kosher or self-basting turkeys.)

Some brining methods are less trouble than others, though, which led me to test the recently popular "dry brining" technique vs. the salt-solution procedure. Dry brining pretty much means salting, sometimes with spices or herbs mixed in. A salted turkey or chicken needs to sit, refrigerated, for several hours or even a day or two. In a bit of culinary alchemy, the salt draws moisture from the interior of the bird to the surface, where it mixes with the salt and is then reabsorbed, taking the salt along and basically brining the bird with its own juices. The process can't be rushed; if you roast the turkey after the salt has drawn out the moisture but before it has been fully reabsorbed, the meat will be dry. You still have to find cold space, but the buckets and sloshing are eliminated.

Over the past two months, I used both wet and dry methods with four fresh turkeys in the 10-to-12-pound range and with one 6- and one 8-pound bone-in turkey breast, roasting them with extra attention to timing and temperature. All of the turkeys were basted with a white-wine-and-butter mixture in their first oven hour, with a high-heat start.

The result? I'll stick with a refined wet brine.

For the dry brining, I inched fingers and chopsticks between turkey skin and flesh to nudge in the salt as evenly as possible along the back, legs and breast. My efforts improved with each attempt, but for Thanksgiving, most people usually have one shot to get it right; not a confidence booster. I rinsed some and merely patted dry the others. Once roasted, the white meat of the dry-brined turkeys and turkey breast was slightly dry -- closer to the turkey of my pre-brining youth. Most significantly, I could not avoid creating pockets of meat that were saltier than others. For me, that was a deal breaker.

When I salted just the outside of the turkey (and the turkey cavity), of course it created crisp and delicious skin. But no one in my house needs any greater incentive to snack on that.

For the wet brines, I used a basic modern recipe that called for gallons of water, kosher salt, sugar, bay leaves, peppercorns and garlic cloves. Seasoned brining salts seem like a good idea, but I found that I wanted greater control over the flavor in the end. Brining recipes from a decade ago called for solutions that needed cooking and cooling, or long brining times in the cold. By adjusting the amount of water and type of salt, I was able to wet-brine the turkey breast in two to four hours. Less havoc was wreaked in the confines of the fridge.

Because the birds were not as large as the ones I usually roast for the holidays, I was able to mix the brine in one of the heavy plastic brining bags now widely available and place the bagged, brined bird inside a large pot in the refrigerator -- no new bucket needed.

Before roasting, I rinsed off the brine and patted the turkey dry. The roasted white meat was uniformly seasoned and moist, sometimes tinged with pink (which was okay, temperature-wise). The skin was no less delectable.

Judging by search-engine hits on the Web, the dry-brine technique certainly has its fans. But it's not for me this year.

TIP: One Way to Brine

For a 12-pound turkey, line a bucket with a large brining bag. Add 2 gallons of very cold water, 3 cups of kosher salt, 1 tablespoon of black peppercorns, 2 bay leaves and 2 peeled garlic cloves; mix well. Add the bird (giblet packet, etc., removed) and seal the bag; refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours.

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