How to Cook a Juicy Turkey: 2 Techniques

It’s a safe bet that most of us will eat at least one oven-roasted turkey over the holidays. Will it be dry and tasteless, or tender, juicy and seasoned to perfection? Thanks to the brining technique, you can stop worrying about the possibility of a ruined turkey.

Brining made an appearance in gourmet cooking magazines a good dozen years ago as an infallible weapon against the dry turkey. Indeed, brining results in seasoned, juicy meat, whether it’s cooked in the oven or on the barbecue (see “How It Works”). Did you know that there are two brining techniques? You can soak the poultry in liquid brine (the traditional method) or simply rub with salt (the trendy method found in cooking magazines).

Caution... Before brining, make sure you choose a “natural" turkey and not only already soaked in salt, such as Butterball seasoned turkeys, for example.

Here’s how two turkey preparation methods compare.

Liquid brine

This method consists of soaking the turkey in a water and salt-based brine. You should ideally use a big plastic bag, or a small cooler, that is then placed in the fridge. A bit of water and salt enters the turkey during soaking.

Amount of salt

Use 30 to 60 ml (2 tbsp. to 1/4 c.) of regular table salt per litre of cold water. There has to be enough brine to completely cover the turkey. Sometimes sugar or maple syrup is added (to encourage the skin to brown) as well as various spices (herbs, garlic…) for taste.

Brining time

It takes about an hour per 500 g (or 1 lb) of turkey, but it is advisable not to exceed 12 hours.

The result

Using liquid brine will result in a juicier turkey than dry brine because of the added water. However, all that absorbed water gives turkey flesh a spongy texture that some people dislike, especially after 12 hours of brining.

Advantages and disadvantages

It’s not always easy finding a large enough container or enough room in the fridge for the duration of the soaking. If the temperature outside is between 0 °C and 4 °C, you can leave the turkey outdoors.  

Dry Brine

This method consists of rubbing salt directly on the surface of the turkey, on its skin. The turkey is sealed in a big bag or closed container and placed in the fridge. The salt causes water to exit the turkey at first but the water is eventually reabsorbed, along with some of the salt, toward the end of the brining process.

Amount of salt

Use 2 ml (1/2 tsp.) of regular table salt per 500 g (1 lb) of turkey. Salt is rubbed uniformly over the surface. For added flavour, the salt can be mixed with spices (fresh rosemary or thyme, pepper, orange zest…) ground by a mortar or coffee grinder.

Brining time

2 to 3 days (ideally 3 days for a large turkey).

The result

The turkey is a bit less juicy than if you used liquid brine but the texture of the flesh stays the same. The turkey is well seasoned and not too salty.

Advantages and disadvantages

It requires little space in the fridge. Salt can be applied directly on a frozen turkey. The turkey thaws as it is brining so you kill two birds with one stone. You simply have to rinse the turkey (to remove frost) before drying it.

The principle of brining

Not only does brined meat taste better, it is also less dry after cooking. Here’s what happens.  All meat is made of long cells called muscular fibres. Every fibre contains proteins that are normally connected to each other by chemical bonds or “bridges.” These bridges break in the presence of salt (more precisely, its chlorine ions or Cl- and sodium or Na+), and the proteins separate, leaving spaces that fill with water.

In the case of liquid brine, the brine water is absorbed into the flesh and attaches itself to proteins. In the case of dry brine, water already present in the turkey attaches itself to proteins. Either way, some of this water stays between proteins while the turkey is being cooked and the result is more tender meat that is less dry. On average, brined meat loses around 10 to 15 % less water during cooking. This may seem insignificant, but that translates into 10 to 15 ml (2 to 3 tsp.) more water per portion of meat.

Tumbled store-bought meat

More and more fresh meats these days (mostly pork and poultry) are “tumbled”, meaning loaded with salt. This process consists of tumbling pieces of meat in a vat with water, salt, sodium phosphate and other ingredients to enhance the taste, such as hydrolyzed soy protein, sugar and seasonings. The meat is certainly juicier, but the process can increase the sodium content by eight times and dilute the protein content. So the consumer is paying for…. water. Meat that has been tumbled too much has a spongy, unpleasant texture and releases a lot of whitish water when cooked. If you brine the holiday turkey yourself, you at least know you’re eating a quality product with no additives.  

How to know if fresh meat has been tumbled?

Easy! The label will mention “seasoned.” Ex.: “Seasoned pork tenderloin.” The protein percentage is included in the list of ingredients or Nutrition Facts. The normal protein content of meat is around 22%. The more the protein percentage differs from this figure, the more water has been added to the meat. If seasoned pork tenderloin has a protein content of 16%, for example, this indicates that 40% of water has been added to the product.

3 tips

  • Brined turkey tends to cook faster. Use a thermometer. The temperature of the thigh should be about 82 °C/180 °F.
  • It is best not to stuff the cavity of a brined turkey beforehand: the stuffing could become too salty. Do it at the last moment before cooking.
  • You can make gravy from the pan drippings but there’s no need to add any salt.

Christina Blais

For Christina Blais, explaining food chemistry to the masses is as simple as making a good omelet. Holding a Bachelor and Master degree in Nutrition, she has been a part-time lecturer for over 30 years in the Department of Nutrition at the Université de Montréal, where she teaches food science courses. She has been sharing the fruits of her experience with Ricardo since 2001, during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. And diehards can also read her Food Chemistry on our website. You can follow her on Facebook at @Encuisineavecchristinablais.