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?