With a little tinkering, you certainly can have a turkey with juicy meat and crisp skin—and brining is a great start. Turkey, especially the white meat, is prone to drying out because it’s very lean and also because white meat cooks faster than dark meat, so the breast ends up overcooked by the time the legs and thighs are done. When you soak a turkey in salty water, or brine, the meat’s tightly wound protein strands loosen and form a spongy matrix that sops up brine, and the meat becomes packed with extra moisture, which helps the white meat stay juicy until the dark meat is fully cooked.
All that extra juiciness, though, can potentially interfere with the molecular reactions that turn turkey skin brown and tasty. Brining leaves extra moisture on the surface of the turkey, which prevents the skin from getting hot enough for browning reactions to occur. Browning reactions, which alter the amino acids and sugars present in the skin, require hot, dry conditions.
But brining and browning aren’t mutually exclusive. Simply pat the turkey’s skin dry before it goes into the oven, preferably a very hot oven—the hotter the oven, the more quickly the skin will dry out completely and the browning can begin. Once you’ve got the browning underway, you can lower the oven temperature for the remaining cooking time.
For more turkey know-how, see our 21 Tips for Better Turkey and visit The Guide to Thanksgiving Dinner.