Evidence suggests: Don't bother brining your turkey

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the chief creative officer at the Serious Eats Blog, is a mad kitchen-science genius. Here at BoingBoing, we've posted about his past experiments demonstrating that there's no reason to waste money on expensive cleavers; that foie gras isn't necessarily evil; and that McDonald's hamburgers will, in fact, rot (under the right conditions).

Now, just in time for your Thanksgiving planning, Lopez-Alt puts turkey brining to the test, running a series of trials comparing the meat-moistening results of various brining solutions, dry salt rub, tap water, and a plain control turkey breast. His conclusion: Don't bother with the brine. Not because it doesn't work — brined turkey does produce nice, moist meat. But because it also produces meat that's kind of soggy. You'll get nearly as good results, without the texture problems, out of dry salt.

I particularly enjoyed this part, where Lopez-Alt explains why the results of brining with water aren't any different from the results of brining with broth.

There are two principles at work here. The first is that to the naked eye, broth is a pure liquid, in reality, broth consists of water with a vast array of dissolved solids in it that contribute to its flavor. Most of these flavorful molecules are organic compounds that are relatively large in size—on a molecular scale, that is—while salt molecules are quite small. So while salt can easily pass across the semi-permeable membranes that make up the cells in animal tissue, larger molecules cannot.

Additionally, there's an effect called salting out, which occurs in water-based solutions containing both proteins and salt. Think of a cup of broth as a college dance party populated with cheerleaders (the water, let's call them the Pi Delta Pis), nerds (the proteins, we'll refer to them as the Lamba Lambda Lambdas), and jocks (the salt, obviously the Alpha Betas). Now, at a completely jock-free party, the nerds actually have a shot at the cheerleaders, and end up co-mingling, forming a homogenous mix. Open up the gymnasium doors, and a few of those cheerleaders will leave the party, taking a few nerds along for the ride. Unfortunately, those gymnasium doors are locked shut, and the only folks strong enough to open them are the jocks. So what happens when you let some jocks into that party?

Learn the answer by reading Lopez-Alt's full article at SeriousEats


  1. If memory serves Alt and several other had suggested this a few years ago. For the last 2 years its the way I’ve been doing my turkeys and its definitely what I’m sticking with. Nice moist turkey, but with a better texture and gravy that isn’t heavily over salted.

  2. The reason why he and Harold McGee (whom Kenji kind of ripped off to write this article) are wrong is because of the faults of scientific reductivism: yes, the flavor molecules are too big to get into the tissue itself. But that’s only true for the tissue itself, which you only deal with in the situation of a perfectly uniform block of meat, such as the above chicken breasts, or any other uni-muscular cut.

    The thing with turkeys (or any other complicated cut or roast, which has bones and other complex structures) is that they have lots of larger nooks and crannies: interior cavities, facia between smaller muscles within large muscle groups (such as thighs), gaps between muscles and bones, between muscles bones and skin etc etc. All of those places are in fact plenty large enough for flavors to get into, and they stay there and reduce down during cooking, and are there when you eat the food.

    So, for brining a whole turkey in a flavored brine or broth it DOES make a flavor difference. Brining a smaller uniform isolated muscle like a chicken or a pork loin, flavored brines are not worth it.

    Scientific reductivism is bad. Zoom out of and step back from your microscopes a little and see the bigger picture. Your dinner guests will thank you.

    1. Absolutely. This is trivial to see in something like a pork roast: brine it with warm water, salt, maple syrup, juniper berries and bay leaves, and guess what: the final roast will taste like maple syrup, juniper berries and bay leaves. Whether or not this is what you want is a different matter (and, as the article says, you’ll get much waterier meat), but it’s completely clear that the flavor of your brine can be transferred to the plate — whether it’s actually entering the cells or not.

    2. Well the point both (and many others) have been making in that regard is that flavoring the brine does exactly what your saying. Its a surface flavoring, in a brine or marinade it may even penetrate a few millimeters into the meat. Its just a fairly awkward, inefficient, and unreliable way to do so. Especially on something with the surface area to volume ratio of a turkey. I’ve done brined turkeys that picked up a nice subtle but noticeable flavor from the brine. Same brine, similar sized turkey on another occasion and none of the flavorings were noticeable. The brining/salting question is mostly about the base flavor and texture of the meat itself before any additions. 

      That said who really cares, if you like your turkey or other meats brined then go for it. My father’s family vastly prefers the watery, spongy and soggy texture of the brined turkey. Almost no one else in the family does, and I certainly don’t. So I’ll be salting my turkey with a spice rub this year, maybe find something worth basting with to give the skin a little something extra. 

      1. The point I am making is that in a complex structure like a whole turkey, it is in fact more than a surface flavoring agent, because it gets into physical spaces between the turkey’s myriad components.

        1. So essentially you’re agreeing with everything that they’re saying, but nitpicking because you disagree about the definition of “surface”. Brining still does not do what adherents claim it does.

          1. There is clearly only one way to settle this disagreement. Both / all of you bring turkeys and brine to my place next week, cook them all, and I’ll judge which is best.

  3. We’ve used Alton Brown’s recipe as found here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/good-eats-roast-turkey-recipe/index.html

    There are over 4,000 reviews with most of them being 5 stars. Evidence suggests brine it!

    1. I’ve had unbrined turkeys and Alton’s brined turkey. Alton’s is the best turkey I’ve had, every time our family makes it. I’ll go with brining.

    2. Food network viewers’ anecdotes are totally irrelevant towards whether it works as indicated, not whether the end result is tasty. 

      If reality worked exclusively on anecdotes alone, homeopathy would be real.

      1. Oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.

    1. The most recent CI issue contains a discourse on dry-salting, in fact.  And actually concludes that doing so w/ a turkey for about 48 hours yields best results.  

      The problem with brining is that it can tend, as mentioned above, to yield mushy meat.  It also can make it difficult to obtain a crisp skin on the bird.

    2. And you can bet that they used whole turkeys when they tested. I believe you need at least 24 hours for the brine to fully penetrate the turkey.

  4. One of my local James Beard Award-winning chefs believes in brine.  He published his brine recipe in a regional magazine.  I used it a couple of years ago at Thanksgiving, and everyone agreed that it was the most flavorful and moist turkey they had ever eaten.  It was the first one I’d ever had that I actually enjoyed rather than just thinking it was “meh.”  So yeah… Not gonna change what works.

  5. Buy a v-shaped rack. Roast the turkey upside-down for half the time, then right-side-up for the remainder. Baste liberally, first with melted butter then with drippings. 

    Honestly, this results in a turkey that’s as moist and flavorful as I’d ever want. Especially if you serve with Julia Child’s gravy (from The Way to Cook) made with French vermouth. No brining necessary.

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