Brining 101

I’ll confess I’ve never been on Team Brine--until recently. That’s mainly because I’ve always achieved moist, flavorful results from grill-roasting turkey over a charcoal fire--especially when it’s spatchcocked and requires less cooking time. But 50,000 Elvis Fans can’t be wrong, and most experts and trusted chef friends agree that brining, in liquid or dry seasonings, improves a turkey’s ability to retain moisture and results in richer flavor. Nobody wants to serve a dry bird, so this year I dove into both methods.

Dry Brining

It’s just like it sounds--generously seasoning a turkey with salt and spices a couple days in advance. The salt tenderizes the meat, and helps to create a crispy, golden brown skin. Dry Brining also results in a more deeply seasoned and flavorful turkey than salting just before cooking. (Another benefit of dry brining? A bird in a sealable plastic bag takes up less space than a pot of brine.)

When it comes to seasoning beyond salt (ratio below), follow your nose. I think The Usual tastes like the essence of Thanksgiving, so I’m partial to that blend; this year I paired it with Holy Garlic to give the meat garlicky depth. (The Usual + Chika Licka, The Usual + Sweet Peeper, Chika Licka + Holy Garlic, Chika Licka + Potato Slayer are all excellent combos).

Dry Brine Ratio: As a general rule, use 1 tablespoon of salt (or 1 tablespoon salted seasoning + ½ teaspoon salt) per 4 pounds of bird.

Wet Brining

This method calls for marinating a turkey overnight in a mixture of water (or other liquids), salt, and aromatics. Via osmosis, the bird absorbs added moisture from the brine, reducing the risk of dry meat. The most important ratio in a wet brine is the amount of salt per water; aim for approximately 1¼ cups salt per gallon. Beyond that equation, personal preference kicks in, with additions of sweeteners and aromatics (onions, garlic, spices, and fresh herbs sprigs).

Easy Wet Brine: Combine 1 ⅓ cups sugar and 1 ⅓ cup salt in a saucepan with a quartered onion, 2 tablespoons The Usual seasoning, 2 teaspoon coriander seeds, 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper, 6 fresh bay leaves and 4 thyme or sage sprigs with 4 cups water. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking to dissolve sugar and salt. Stir in an additional 4 cups of water (or apple juice, cider, wine or beer); allow the mixture to cool to room temperature and you’re ready to brine. Add additional water as needed to submerge the bird.

The takeaway? It’s all about salt. Wet and Dry Brines both work, because salt breaks down muscle proteins, so they won’t contract while roasting (that means less tasty juice is muscled out of the bird). Wet brines infuse turkey with added moisture, but that plumping mostly comes from water, so there’s a risk of milder tasting meat.

I’m mostly on team dry brine, because that method provides moist meat and deeply concentrated flavor, without changing the texture of the meat. With the exception of a creamy liquid brine that delivered exceptional results--buttermilk. More on that in our Herb & Buttermilk-Brined Turkey Breast recipe.

Grill-side banter provided by food writer, cookbook author and grilling enthusiast, Paula Disbrowe.

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