Brining means to add flavor to the turkey by soaking in a salt/water solution (wet brining) or by rubbing the bird with salt and other seasonings. In wet brining, ingredients such as sugar, molasses, honey, or corn syrup, as well as herbs, are often added to the salt-water solution. Either way, the purpose of a brine is to produce a more tender and flavorful turkey, and sometimes to impart a golden color to the roasted bird. Brining works because the salt in the brine dissolves a bit of the protein in the muscle fibers and allows the meat to absorb the brine and retain moisture during cooking. This makes the meat juicier, more tender, and improves the flavor. Dry brining is an easy alternative to traditional wet brining methods. Rather than keeping a turkey and gallons of water in the refrigerator, dry brining means seasoning the bird all over with a salt/spice rub and letting the seasoned bird sit for a few days, or even hours, before roasting.
Frozen turkeys are often already flavored by injecting the bird with a combination of salts and other ingredients. If you see terms such as “basted,” “self basted,” “marinated,” or “for flavoring” on a turkey label, a solution has already been added during processing — up to 3% by weight. But if you are interested in brining a fresh turkey or other meats, here are some tips for doing so safely:
Wet brining. To prepare a brine solution for turkey, dissolve ¾ cup table salt in 1 gallon of water, or 3 tablespoons of salt per quart of water. If desired, dissolve 3/4 cup of sugar in the water (per gallon). Herbs and spices may be added to the brine, and liquids such as apple juice or apple cider can be substituted for the water. Place brining solution in food-grade plastic, stainless steel, or glass containers. Totally submerge turkey in the brine, breast side down, preparing additional brine if necessary to cover. Store turkey/brine mixture, covered, in the refrigerator. For best results, refrigerate at least overnight, and up to 2 days. When ready to cook, remove turkey from brine, discard brine, and immediately prepare turkey for the oven.
To prepare a dry brine, measure 1 tablespoon of kosher salt, or seasoned salt, for every 5 pounds of turkey. Additional aromatic ingredients may be added to the dry brine such as herbs, spices, citrus, or garlic. Rub the dry brine mixture over the entire surface area of the turkey, place in a food-grade plastic bag, press out the air, and seal tightly. For best results, refrigerate for up to 2 days and massage the mixture into the skin of the turkey every 8 to 12 hours. Remove turkey from bag, pat dry with a paper towel, and proceed to cooking.
Brining can be used with a variety of poultry and meats. More food safety tips on brining, including suggested recipes, can be found in the USDA’s Brining, Basting and Marinating fact sheet.
If you have questions about your Thanksgiving dinner, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert. You can also chat live at AskKaren.gov, available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish. If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Central Time.
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