If we’re all being honest here, the “turkey” part of Thanksgiving dinner tends to be the least impressive aspect of this yearly feast. That’s generally because, as a roasting protein, turkey dries out easily and lacks the natural flavor of heartier meats like lamb, pork, and prime rib (unless it’s this turkey). So, on a typical Thanksgiving table, the turkey plays second fiddle to more interesting side dishes like mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing, and Brussels sprouts.
However, enterprising cooks are always seeking out ways to elevate the Thanksgiving turkey and turn it into a meat dish worth craving rather than simply enduring. For pro chefs, a tried-and-true solution to the flavorless-turkey problem comes in the form of “brining,” a pre-roasting process designed to seal in moisture and add touches of spices, herbs, and other seasonings.
In the simplest terms, brining a turkey involves coating it with salt (either using a “wet” bath of salt and liquid or a “dry” rub of salts and spices) and allowing it to rest and fully absorb both the flavor- and the moisture-saving properties of the salt. From there, the person prepping the turkey can get creative, playing with different wet and dry ingredients to achieve a flavor blend that suits their tastes.
If you want to give brining a try this year, here are some tips offered by professional chefs that will help set you off on the right track.
Don’t be afraid to customize your brine with herbs, spices, and alternative liquids
As we mentioned previously, a brine offers plenty of space for experimentation and flavor preferences. When it comes to wet brines, chef (and Top Chef alum) Chris Scott of the Institute of Culinary Education explains that “the essentials for [wet] brining are salt and water. Whatever else you add to it is up to the chef’s discretion for flavoring. After making your brine, you can heat it to infuse all those flavors. Make sure you cool it completely before pouring it over raw poultry so it doesn’t cook it. Through osmosis, the flavors infuse into the bird.”
Chef Joshua Smith, formerly of The Four Seasons Boston and now of New England Charcuterie in Waltham, MA, also likes to put his own stamp on a classic liquid brine, “brining [his] turkeys in buttermilk, fresh thyme, crushed garlic, and freshly cracked white pepper. We let this sit for at least 24 hours, and [the brine] yields great results. The great thing [about using buttermilk] is that the lactic acid starts to break down the muscle structure [of the turkey] while adding flavor and drawing out any blood. With 3-4% lactic acid, buttermilk also acts as a antimicrobial on any potential pathogens that may be present.”
There are benefits to both “wet” and “dry” brine styles
“Wet” brining requires a long soak and “dry” brining requires a thorough rub, and both versions are completely equipped to do the job. Chef Chris Carter of Porter Road in Nashville, TN tells us that “choosing a wet versus a dry brine is a personal preference. Both styles of brining add incredible flavor to the turkey through the combination of salt and any other seasonings you choose to add, which penetrate into the meat over several hours (or, ideally, overnight). Wet brining allows the turkey to absorb additional moisture, whereas dry brining dries out the skin, so it can become deliciously crisp during the cooking process.”
Measurements don’t need to be precise; play around with flavors and adjust based on the size of your bird
Cooking a full Thanksgiving spread is stressful enough, and most hosts would probably prefer to avoid another round of ingredient measuring and weighing. Luckily, chef Ryan McCaskey of Acadia in Chicago, IL says that “the exact measurements aren’t as important [in a brine]. It’s more about adding and subtracting ingredients for the flavor profile you’re looking for and for the size of your bird!”
Really take your time with the brining process
Brine aficionados emphasize the importance of allowing your turkey to hang out in the brine (whether wet or dry) for a significant period of time, in order to reap all of the positive results. Chef John Lechleidner of WP24 by Wolfgang Puck in Los Angeles, CA really embraces the “slow burn” brine technique, describing his method of brining and roasting like so:
“First, you need to brine for 24-36 hours [Lechleidner prefers a ‘flavorful liquid’ brine]. When I make my brine, I keep it simple with just salt, water, sugar, peppercorn, garlic, onion, and celery. Once your turkey is brined, let it sit in the fridge for 24 hours uncovered, so the skin dries out. Before you cook your turkey, let it sit out for about 3 hours on the counter uncovered to help do a final push to dry the skin out. You can roast your turkey covered for about an hour, then finish roasting uncovered. This should give you a moist and crispy turkey skin. Let the turkey rest for 30-40 minutes before carving the turkey. While it is resting, you can make your pan gravy and have it ready at the same time.”
A slow roast followed by a heat “blast” will offer an ideal blend of juicy meat and crispy skin
Chef Eli Collins of a. kitchen and a. bar in Philadelphia, PA likes to add some roasting-temp variety to highlight the flavors imparted by a brine. He advises our readers to “roast [the brined turkey] at a low temperature and take it out when it’s about three-quarters of the way done, Let it sit for an hour, then blast it with high heat. The crispiness of the skin comes from drying it [post-brine], then cooking it at a low enough temperature so the skin renders. Blasting it is almost like air-searing it; the turkey emerges juicy with savory, crispy skin.”
If you’d like to give turkey-brining a shot this year, we have a couple of unique brine recipes well worth trying:
Ceylon and Herb Turkey Brine Recipe
(Created by Heather Pelletier, Executive Chef, Chumley’s, New York City)
Chef Heather Pelletier of Chumley’s, a historic NYC pub where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were once regulars, likes to infuse her turkey brine with Ceylon tea, appreciating the citrus notes added by this ingredient.
- 6 quarts water
- 1.5 cups salt
- 1-3 bags of Ceylon tea
- 2 heads garlic
- 1 bay leaf
- Peels and juice of several lemons and oranges, to taste
- Rosemary, to taste
- Thyme, to taste
- Sage, to taste
- Black pepper, to taste
- Coriander, to taste
- Place all ingredients in a pot with 3 quarts water and bring to a boil.
- Turn off heat and add 3 quarts freezing-cold water (if you want, half of this could even be ice) to quickly cool the boiling water.
- Once the water is VERY cold, add the turkey and then put in the fridge for 24 hours.
- Remove turkey and pat the skin dry. Put back in the fridge for 24 hours to continue to dry out.
Sweet, Spicy, and Sour Whiskey Brine Recipe
(Created by Will Harris, Executive Chef, Linger, Denver)
When it comes to a proper Thanksgiving turkey dinner, whiskey can do more than just get you properly sauced for the football games on TV. It can also serve as a crucial ingredient to a bold and lively turkey brine, according to Chef Will Harris of Linger in Denver. “The key to a brine is a balance of acid, salt, and sweetness. Everything else is for extra flavor and surprising elements. This brine can be used for chicken, duck, pheasant, pork … and, of course, turkey. The whiskey will give the [meat] a rich and supple balance. This is a great way to add complex flavors to your roast of choice,” Harris tells The Manual.
- 3 cups salt (Harris recommends kosher salt, but also mentions that sea salt can be used, with a reduction to 2 cups)
- 1 cup cane or brown sugar
- 1 large onion, roughly chopped
- 1 whole bulb of garlic, sliced in half (no need to peel it)
- 3 whole limes, sliced and squeezed
- 2 whole oranges, sliced and squeezed
- 2 tbsp whole peppercorns
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 tbsp. mustard seeds
- 3-4 jalapeños, sliced, seeds and all
- 6 lime leaves (if you can’t find these, just use bay leaves)
- 1 cup maple syrup or agave
- 2 cups whiskey of your choice
- 2.5 gallons of water
- Add water and salt to a pot and bring to a boil.
- Add the rest of the ingredients, turn off the heat, and cover. Let sit for 2-3 hours for flavors to develop.
- Once the brine is cool, add your meat and refrigerate overnight, or up to 3 days. Remove meat and let air dry before cooking.
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