To brine means to soak something in a salt solution, and it works because of a principle you learned in high school chemistry: osmosis, or the tendency of fluids to diffuse through cells in order to equalize ion concentrations. Techspeak aside, it means that when you soak a turkey (or other meat) in brine for long enough, it absorbs some of the moisture — 6% to 8% of its original weight, in fact — so when you cook the turkey, you start off and end up with a moister bird.
Now for the bonus part: Some of the salt and any other flavors you add to the brine also migrate into the bird, so your turkey becomes more flavorful. Not only that, but the salt causes a change in the turkey’s protein structure that allows it to better hold on to its moisture. What could be better?
Make a basic brine: In a pot that holds at least 6 quarts, combine 1 cup kosher salt, 1/4 cup sugar, and 2 quarts cool water. Put the pot over high heat and stir occasionally until the salt and sugar dissolve. Remove from the heat and let cool. Stir in another 2 quarts cool water and chill in the refrigerator.
Soak the turkey in the brine: Remove the neck, giblets, and tail (if present) from the turkey; reserve them for making turkey broth. Discard the liver. Rinse the turkey well. Double up two turkey-size oven bags and then roll down the edges of the bags a bit to help them stay open. Put the bags in a heavy-duty roasting pan and put the turkey, breast side down, in the inner bag. Pour the brine over the turkey (have someone hold the bags open for you, if possible). Gather the inner bag tightly around the turkey so the brine is forced to cover most of the turkey and secure the bag with a twist tie. Secure the outer bag with a twist tie. Refrigerate the turkey (in the roasting pan, to catch any leaks) for 12 to 18 hours. Rinse the turkey well before cooking, and see the tips below.
Note: If your turkey is kosher, don’t brine it, as it has already been treated with salt.
- Jazz up your brine with other flavors. Add herbs and spices, a little of a flavorful sweetener (like honey or maple syrup), or replace some of the water with another liquid like apple cider or coffee. Just remember that when you add sugar, foods tend to brown faster.
- Keep it cold and rinse it well. Raw meat is still raw meat, whether it’s in brine or not. Always keep foods below 40°F while brining, and then rinse them well to remove excess salt from the surface before cooking.
- Be careful when adding more salt. The brine provides just about all the seasoning you need, so be judicious about adding more just before cooking. Always taste first when making sauces with pan drippings, which tend to be quite salty already.
- Don’t overcook. Brining doesn’t completely protect meat against dryness, but it will give you more leeway.
- Brining isn’t just for turkey. Any lean meat — like pork, chicken, or shrimp — is ideal for brining. The smaller the item, the less time it needs in the brine.