At its most basic, a wet brine is a solution of water and salt, though aromatics can be added. “Salt in the brine seasons the poultry and promotes a change in its protein structure, reducing its overall toughness and creating gaps that fill up with water and keep the meat juicy and flavorful,” according to “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.”
Here’s a wet brining method former deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick shared in a comparison test back in 2007: For a 12-pound turkey, line a bucket with a large brining bag. Add two gallons of very cold water, three cups of kosher salt, a tablespoon of black peppercorns, two bay leaves and two peeled garlic cloves; mix well. Add the bird (giblet packet removed) and seal the bag; refrigerate for four to six hours. When you remove the turkey from the brine, thoroughly pat it dry with paper towels to get crisp skin.
“The roasted white meat was uniformly seasoned and moist,” Benwick wrote. “The skin was no less delectable.”
If you’re using a turkey breast (bone-in, 6 to 8 pounds), America’s Test Kitchen recommends using a wet brine of 1 gallon of water with 1/2 cup of table salt for three to six hours.
The main downside of this technique is finding space in your refrigerator for this raw turkey bath. You also run the risk of spilling the brine all over your refrigerator and kitchen floor, if you’re not careful. Other wet-brining detractors state that though it results in a plumper bird, this extra moisture is mostly just water that dilutes the flavor of the meat — even when aromatics are included. “Flavor molecules, unlike salt, are for the most part too big to penetrate the cell membranes of a piece of meat; your brine may taste flavorful, but your roast will not,” Sasha Marx wrote in Serious Eats.
(Update: Benwick tells us that while wet brining was the method she preferred 14 years ago, she no longer brines her turkeys at all.)
Dry brining is simply salting the turkey, sometimes with herbs or spices mixed in, and letting it sit in the refrigerator for several hours or up to three days. The salt draws moisture from the meat to the surface, this moisture mixes with the salt and then this salty solution is reabsorbed into the bird, thereby brining the turkey with its own juices.
“Meat that’s been salted in advance is not only more flavorful, it’s also more tender than meat that hasn’t,” per Samin Nosrat in “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” Another huge benefit of this method is that it dries out the exterior of the bird, thereby encouraging super crispy skin.
Some techniques ask you to get salt under the skin and then wrap it in plastic wrap, which, Benwick noted, made it difficult to evenly distribute the salt. However, I don’t think salting under the skin is necessary, and a sprinkle just on the outside makes things much easier. My method is to sprinkle one tablespoon of fine sea salt all over a 10- to 12-pound bird, set it atop a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, for up to three days.
“When salting meat for cooking, any time is better than none, and more is better than some,” Nosrat wrote. But there is an upper limit, so you shouldn’t dry-brine a turkey for more than three days for risk of a “leathery texture and cured, rather than fresh, flavor.”
Dry brining has similar refrigerator space requirements as wet brining, but without the risk of spilling the brine and spreading salmonella everywhere.
However, some, like Benwick, say there is no reason to brine at all.
“I don’t brine my birds, because I like my birds to taste like birds, not like watered-down birds,” J. Kenji López-Alt wrote in Serious Eats. “Even advance salting is not a necessary first step. I see it more as a safeguard against overcooking. It provides a little buffer in case you accidentally let that bird sit in the oven an extra 15 minutes.”
That’s certainly true. I’d never even attempted to brine a turkey until this year because of lack of refrigerator space, but now that I have, I favor the dry brining for the crispy skin, moist meat and flavor it delivers.
If you do choose to cook a brined turkey, do it yourself — wet or dry — rather than buying a “self-basting” or already-brined turkey so you don’t accidentally end up with a salt bomb.