AI: To Brine or Not To Brine?

With the holiday season upon us, it’s time to start thinking about preparing meals – for those doing the preparing, anyway… the rest of us just need to sew some elastic into the tops of our trousers. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, and the multitude of other winter holidays are traditionally spent around a giant feast, which every host does differently (and if you tell them about your differing traditions, you’re likely to be looked at like you’re insane for doing it that way).

This Thursday, November 26 is Thanksgiving in the US. The standard Thanksgiving meal includes turkey, stuffing, potatoes cooked 5 different ways, green bean casserole, dinner rolls and cranberry sauce. Some people do ham. Some do faux turkey (tofurkey, if you will). Some pre-cook everything. Some baste their bird up to the last minute.rockwell_thanksgiving

As someone who has never hosted a Thanksgiving dinner or had any other reason to cook a whole turkey, I’m new to the idea of brining, or soaking the uncooked animal in a saltwater solution for hours before cooking. My cousin Emily (who happens to be hosting the dinner we’re attending on Thursday) showed me a link to a Food & Wine article from July which discusses whether or not brining meat is necessary.

According to the article’s expert opinion, Harold McGee, brining actually hydrates the meat. “He explained that while a high concentration of salt has a desiccating effect, which is helpful for curing meat, the small amount of salt used to season food has a hydrating effect: Salt helps the cells hold on to water.” Author of the article, Oliver Schwaner-Albright, tested McGee’s hypothesis by cooking multiple types of meat 2 different ways – 1 cut of each was salted in advance (like in brining) and the 1 was salted just before cooking. The consensus was varied among his dinner guests, depending on which type of meat they were sampling. Chicken was apparently much more succulent when salted in advance and the lamb shanks were richer when prepared the same way. Conversely, steak and pork loin were both considered better when seasoned just before cooking.

I know there are several of you out there who are passionate about food, and the preparation thereof. So… What do you think about seasoning? Do you do it in advance or as you make the meal? How do you prepare holiday meals? Do you have any special versions of traditional holiday foods that you’ve become known for? Will you cook for me? What time should I plan on arriving?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Chelsea is the proud mama of an amazing toddler-aged girl. She works in the retail industry while vehemently disliking mankind and, every once in a while, her bottled-up emotions explode into WordPress as a lengthy, ranty, almost violent blog. These will be your favorite Chelsea moments. Follow Chelsea on Twitter: chelseaepp.

71 Comments

  1. OMG I’m famous!

    I don’t brine – but that’s only because I don’t have a container big enough for the bird. I would if I had the supplies…heck, I start cooking most everything else days in advance, so why not? For example, I got all the pomegranite seeds for the cranberry relish prepped on Sunday night, after grocery shopping. Cranberries are to be cooked tonight!

    Chelsea, get excited/HONGRAY!

  2. You know, I’m not a huge turkey fan. It’s just … not that great-tasting, no matter how juicy or well-seasoned. It’s okay. I’ve found I’m not a huge poultry fan in general, though.

    I prefer ham. Mmmm ham.

  3. Brining is the bomb. My mom’s a wonderful cook and always manages to roast a delicious, moist turkey but the year she brined it, it was phenomenal.

    I love that you cited Harold McGee! I got his book for Christmas one year and actually read the entire thing. I are food nerd.

    I’m just making an apple pie and otherwise I’ll just be a kitchen helper. My apple pie is fucking awesome, though. And you can come on over any time for a slice of pie (or 12).

  4. @marilove: Blasphemer! Ham is of the devil.

  5. @Amanda: Well, I DO love apple pie! Does that make up for my love for ham?

  6. All the cooks I respect including McGee and America’s Test Kitchen agree that brining poultry is always a win. I learned early on, however, that turkey at its best is slightly moister than a shoe and slightly tastier than sawdust. It’s much easier to make a decent meal if you start with a bird with some flavor like game hen, duck, or a goose.

    Back when I was eating meat Peking Duck and Timpano were my holiday favorites. Timpano works especially well because serving it can be a most dramatic event a la The Big Night.

    This year everyone I know is snowed under with coding projects so we’re going to meet up at a local restaurant. No cooking, no cleaning, no family beyond spouses. This is my idea of a holiday!

  7. I can’t really help you with this. I rarely eat any meat, especially at holidays. I’m not a vegetarian; it’s just that the taste doesn’t do much for me. I prefer to save room on my plate and in my stomach for the sides and desserts.

  8. I’f I’m doing a large turkey (over 12lbs) I brine it. However I’m doing a smaller bird this year so drying out isn’t as big a concern.

    I loosen the skin of the chicken or turkey, and spread a mixture of butter, salty, pepper, herbs, and garlic under the skin, give the outside of the bird a coat of melted butter and a little paprika for added color. I stuff the bird with fresh herbs and aromatic vegetables. Ditch the silly little pop up temp thing and use my digital probe thermometer to make sure I take it out at the right temperature and let it rest while I cook homemade stuffing in a casserole dish (add some of the liquid from the bottom of the roasting pan for extra flavor) and make gravy. This results in a tender bird with a lot of flavor.

    I bake the pies, biscuits, etc. and prep everything for cooking Wednesday. That will make Thursday much smoother. I love Thanksgiving, gives me an excuse to cook lots of food which I really enjoy.

  9. Gotta say, thanksgiving’s not really my bag. I’m all about Hallowe’en and New Year’s day. Now for those, I start preparing about a month and a week, respectively, ahead.

    BTW Chelsea – you’re more than welcome to pop by if you’re in L.A.

  10. Brine. The standard domestic turkey is bred for huge breasts, not for great flavor. Anything you can do to improve the flavor is a good idea. If you can smoke the turkey.

    What is even better is if you hunt or know someone who hunts is a wild turkey. They are delicious.

    Heritage turkeys are available but more expensive that what you are used to. But they have a much better flavor.

    I vote for ham or beef roast but almost always lose that vote. My family are traditionalist and want turkey.

    I usually do the baking for the holidays. I will be making pies and rolls for thanksgiving.

    Oh, also you should brine most any cut of pig but the ham.

  11. Oh Chelsea you and yours are welcome at our table. Just let me know when you all want to show up.

  12. @lemsroberts: I am very excited/HONGRAY! I lurve Thanksgiving, and doing it at your place rocked last year. Hooray, cousin-friend!

    @marilove: I’m with you in your love of ham, but I also love turkey. I particularly love the ham with brown sugar crust around the outside. OMFSM it’s delicious that way…

    @Amanda: I’m becoming a huge food nerd myself! This whole nesting thing is great for expanding your knowledge of food and cooking from scratch.

    @davew: I always go straight for the dark meat when it comes to turkey for that reason – the white meat does dry out if a careful eye isn’t kept on it, and once that happens it just kind of tastes like… meat. I’ve never had Peking Duck or Timpano, but I’ll gladly give them a try!

    @catgirl: Words cannot express the love affair I have with the side dishes at Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve been known to have a very small piece of turkey, while piling on the mashed potatoes, green beans, candied yams, etc etc etc. And I always take way more cranberry sauce than is needed for the amount of turkey I have. :)

  13. I’ll take this thread in a little different direction…..IMHO the best way to prepare a turkey is deep frying. Sure it turns a relatively healthy food into a calorie laden, artery clogging slice of death and there is a real possibility that you could burn your house down but it is oh so tasty.

  14. @faith: Halloween is my favorite. I didn’t get to celebrate it this year, but that’ll change, especially now that I’ll have a little one to share the love of the holiday with.

    @Gabrielbrawley: I’m very surprised that your “huge breasts” comment didn’t lead to an aside about boobies! Smoked turkey is delicious. And I’m a huge fan of roast beef, but I grew up doing that on Christmas with potatoes and Yorkshire Pudding.

  15. I help my dad cook every year, and he brines his turkey and I have never had any turkey better than my dads.

  16. i’ve had great success with brining, particularly with turkey, which can tend to dry out. i brine in a solution of vegetable stock loaded up with adobo seasoning in a big bucket. i throw some cheesecloth over the turkey, brush with butter and throw some bacon slices across the top. it self bastes, although you should peek in and baste every 1/2 hr. then remove for the last 1/4 of cook time to make it brown and yummy. make sure you skim the drippings before you make the gravy, as the bacon fat will make it too fatty for even the fattest of fat lovers.

  17. Brining is awesome for poultry and, honestly, the only thing that can make me find a pork chop appetizing.

    The other key to roasting a bird is a good probe thermometer. Turns out that thing is done wayyyy before most people think it is. And much juicier and tastier if you don’t overcook it.

  18. @Chelsea: I’m trying to stop. Don’t want to be only known as Mr. Boobies.

  19. @Chelsea: I’ve never had Peking Duck or Timpano, but I’ll gladly give them a try!

    If you decide to give it a try there are many variations on Timpano, but this one is my favorite( although I do leave out the chicken livers at my wife’s insistence): http://www.thegutsygourmet.net/timpano.html

  20. @macleod57:

    I’ve heard about frying, but I’ve never tried it. I might like turkey better done that way. It can’t be any less healthy than all the other stuff we eat with it.

  21. I’ve never cooked a turkey before but I’d love to give it a try. My aunts always make the meal. They are not very experimental in their cooking or very good at cooking what they know. The turkey usually tastes like dry turkey. The stuffing tastes like mushy bread and the green bean casserole tastes like mushy beans. The first year I brought cranberry relish my family was like “Is that jello?” I was like “It’s home made cranberry relish. It has spices and brandy in it!” My husband, my sister-in-law and I were the only ones that ate it. It was by far the best part of the meal. This year I’m bringing homemade pumpkin cheesecake and apple pie. I’d love to make the whole meal and have even offered to my mom but she thinks it would be insulting to my aunts.

  22. I’d love to prepare a holiday meal for a large group, but, alas, I’m the invited, not the invitor. I’d love to stay up all night, sweating away while trying to make the perfect dinner. BTW, if you’re vegetarian, don’t even bother darkening my doorstep-nothing I serve is meat-free.

    I like turkey, I just don’t like eating from the turkey-it feels like forraging-there’s so much you can’t get to with a knife-you need to pull it off.

    I have no opinion about brining, but stuffing-is a big no-no. I like cooking shows, and the EXPERTS (arguement from authority in 3…2…1) say give the stuffing the bird. It adds unnessecary cook time, and it opens the possibility of a host of really lovely illnesses. Call me silly, but I can’t bring myself to by the “I HEART Salmonilla” bumper sticker.

    Chelsea-I’ll be more than happy to cook for you, as long as you can handle deviled eggs-they 3 kinds of awesome, and can pass as appetizers to keep the hungry crowds from rioting.

  23. @Gabrielbrawley: Our turkey is always a free-range heritage breed that my mom brings from CT. By “always” I mean, last year and this year…since I’m still new at this hosting gig! But you’re right – supermarket turkeys do taste bland and dry. Wild or heritage breeds are where it’s at!

    That turkey is gonna taste so good next to the five-spiced yams, smashed potatoes with creme fraiche and chives, braised kale, and cornbread-brussels sprouts dressing!

  24. @Gabrielbrawley: – too late

  25. I find that frying turkey meat in my iron skillet tends to soak up all the residual oily goodness of the char, and I have to restore the balance by frying up bacon to re-grease the pan.

    mmmMMMmmm! BCB’s* are good for you!

    If I can’t fry it in a skillet, I won’t cook it. It may be unhealthy, but it’s good eatin’!

    *BCB’s = Burnt Crunchy Bits – usually picked up from the char left in the bottom of the skillet from whatever was fried there last time. Maybe the time before that…. it’s kind of archeological gastronomy in some ways.

  26. Alton Brown says brine so I’d go with that.

  27. @lemsroberts: That sounds really good.

    @infinitemonkey: Maybe I should change my handle.

  28. Last year my wife and I hosted Thanksgiving dinner at our home for the first time, since we weren’t really excited about traveling all over with our 4 month old. Everyone else brought the sides and we did the turkey.

    Neither of us having cooked a whole one before we turned to our favorite foodie, Alton Brown, and followed his instructions on how to brine and cook the turkey. Everyone at dinner that day agreed it was the best, most flavorful, juiciest turkey they’d ever had. Even my sister’s vegetarian boyfriend tried a bit everyone was raving about it so much, and he ended up having more than just a little taste.

  29. Brine, definitely brine. After brining be sure to rinse the turkey thoroughly, pat it dry somewhat, and leave it unwrapped in the cooler overnight so the bird will fully dry. Coat the skin in olive oil and season lightly (the olive oil will negate the need to baste). Use a meat thermometer (a wireless one if you have one) and cook to about…oh, let’s say 150 F. Prepare a stuffing-like garnish in a roasting pan separately.

    When the turkey is done, the skin should be nice and crisp. If not, a propane torch can be used to finish the crisping (this is a rather impressive table side maneuver as well).

    For presentation, place the bird on the platter and partially stuff the bird with the separately prepared stuffing-like material, trailing it out of the bird onto the platter as if spilling out. Optionally, if you know how to airline the breasts, you can pre-carve the breasts in the kitchen and place them back on the turkey. This will make serving much easier.

    Or you can do whatever you like, of course.

    No, I don’t cook for family gatherings. I do this for a living, so cooking for the family tends to become everyone’s chance to badger a professional cook and tell him that he is doing things wrong. Not fun.

  30. I’ve been brining for fifteen years and add orange slices, garlic, pepper corns and other goodies with the salt and brown sugar. It makes all the difference in the world and the leftovers and sandwiches are better as a result too.

  31. my grandmother does something really amazing with the Thanksgiving leftovers. I’ve found recipes online but i’ve still never met anyone else that does this. She takes the leftover turkey and the leftover stuffing/dressing and mashed it up in to balls. Then she fries the balls. We call them either cannon balls or croquet balls and they’re amazing. Anyone else do that?

  32. I absolutely love the big traditional meals at this time of year and luckily I married someone who loves to cook them. The one thing she does that I still have to work to wrap my brain around though is that she uses “basting bags” for our turkey. The birds always turn out moist but there is something unwholesome about the whole thing (“That’s not the way mom did it!”).

    We discussed brining but decided against it until we did a test-bird and worked out the right protocol. If we get it wrong, we’ll have the entire family down our throats so we thought it was better to wait.

    Along those lines, she and I occasionally get into a…ummm…”discussion” about alternative stuffing recipes. Of course I am always in the “keep it traditional” camp around the holidays whereas she always wants to introduce something new. I try to convince her that other times in the year we can experiment (yes, we do cook turkey throughout the year for no other reason other than because we are both in the mood for it), but Thanksgiving is all about family and tradition and it’s not OK to mess with that. Not only will it disrupt my delicate constitution, but since her family are bigger traditionalists than I am, they’ll make such a fuss that it just isn’t worth the risk.

    But the best traditionof them all? That’s when she and I sit down for a nice stiff drink about an hour before all of the family arrives just to brace ourselves. (Or does this answer belong in Sam’s AI about girding our loins from a few days back?)

  33. @Brian’s A Wild Downer: Well, I do now.

  34. @dpaul: ”That’s not the way mom did it!”

    Dude…my husband is obsessed with having things the way his mom did it. He won’t use the damn Swiffer because his mom used a mop and he was sad about passing on his mother’s Revereware when we got AllClad. He eventually comes around but for Maude’s sake, it’s progress! Get with it!

  35. Never brined here, we always cook our turkey in the Kettle BBQ. Never found any guests wanting in the flavor department.

  36. @nickelking:
    Never found any guests wanting in the flavor department.

    Now there’s a side dish I hadn’t thought of.

  37. Brine? What’s wrong with you america? Unless by Brine you mean Goose fat and a “Streaky Bacon Jacket”.

    The best stuffing, in my opinion is a “meat” stuffing of 4lb sausage meat, sage, rosemary, tyhme, a handful of bread crumbs and a chopped onion boiled with the giblets (the onions are drained out and the giblet liqour used for gravey) stuffed into the Turkey with a whole onion plugging the hole, and then sown up with needle and thread. Turkey goes really well with boiled then fried in bacon fat sprouts and roast chesnuts. I’d like to claim that as my own recipe but it’s by Augustiné Escoffier (what really? google him)

    Try Goose instead of Turkey and if you must have Turkey, Wild shoot-it-yourself is best.

    I personally prefer a goose as all the meat is of high qaulity, so there’s no need to by such a massive bird (and less waste). Unlike Turkey, Goose has a more flavoursome meat and, crucially, a higher fat content so needs NO basteing and doesn’t dry out or need a complex flavour stuffing

    AND Goose fat has a much higher smoking point than any other availible oil of fat and therefore the fat from the bird can be stored and used later for make roast potatoes (or used on the day) at a higher temperature than otherwise would be availible. Which makes for the best roast potatoes (which are even better with a coating of semalena)

  38. I don’t know what happens. My moms makes it all. ‘Cept the Jiffy corn muffins. That I can do my self. All’s I know is that we’ll never host a family gathering where I have to actually create something for the masses. Hecks noes.

  39. @faith: See, that’s the problem with the written word – the lack of nuance that comes with voice inflection and facial expression. I was attempting to be facitious. Well….and using the phrase that’s one of my favorite ways to get my girl’s goat…just like I seem to have gotten yours. ;-)

  40. I will be brining for the first time this year. I hope it’s not a disaster!

  41. @bug_girl: It really is nearly foolproof. As mentioned above rinse off the brine before baking because of all the salt. I’ve added a bottle of white wine to the brine before which was quite nice and fresh rosemary and thyme would also be good.

  42. My family (Cherokee) always bucked Thanksgiving tradition and has had, for no good reason whatsoever, lasagna for Thanksgiving dinner for as long as I can remember. My mum makes badass lasagna!

  43. @SJBG: I can sympathize. My Mom’s side of the family (while Italian) would have turkey with all the trimmings AND lasagna. WTF? Recently, we decided to tell my grandparents (who always do the cooking) to KNOCK IT OFF, THERE’S ONLY 8 PEOPLE HERE!!!(In a nice way.)

  44. @russellsugden: I can’t believe that ‘flavo(u)rsome’ is an actual word… BUT, it is!

  45. @Skept-artist:

    “Flavorsome” sounds very polyamorous.

  46. @Elyse: You’re super :)

  47. @russellsugden: I’ve never had goose but I have had duck. I think it must be similar. I’ve never even seen goose for sale in the stores. The only people I know who have had goose shot them out of the sky. They get themselve extra long barreled 8 gauge shotguns so they can’t shoot down the high flying canadian honkers when they are commuting.

  48. @Skept-artist: It isn’t about the eating it is about the cooking. I always cook too much. It is a way of showing people. Not telling them. But showing them how much you love them. In a very real and tangible way.

  49. @Gabrielbrawley: Of course you are right. But there comes a point where there is just too much and it goes to waste. It’s a vestige of when there used to be 20 people at Thanksgiving dinner.
    As your Facebook friend, I always know what’s on your dinner table! And I know how important the process is as well.

  50. @Gabrielbrawley: I’m of the same mind. I love to cook and enjoy doing it for company and family, and I love leftovers for lunch.

  51. @Skept-artist: @James Fox: I love cooking, I love feeding friends and family and I lvoe leftovers. The kids and the wife might want omlets and pancakes and waffels but I love leftovers, breakfast lunch and dinner.

  52. I would dearly love to get as many of you together as I could and cook for you all, get as many cooks in the kitchen as we could fit, bottles of wine open all over the place, some people working the bartending, and eating for as long as we could.

  53. @Gabrielbrawley: That sounds so nice. Maybe when we get to Skepchick Island…

  54. Brine. That. Shit.

  55. @Skept-artist: Or maybe at some upcoming TAM, I don’t know which one yet, or maybe a Dragon Con or a Comic Con or Skepti con or something. There are a lot of cooks in the skeptic communtiy and we should be able to make a lot of good food.

  56. @Gabrielbrawley: You can count me in. The only conference I’ve been able to attend so far was NECSS. But hopefully, we can all come together at some point, rent a badass house with a monster kitchen and just have a great time.

  57. @Gabrielbrawley: It isn’t about the eating it is about the cooking. I always cook too much. It is a way of showing people. Not telling them. But showing them how much you love them. In a very real and tangible way.

    COTW.

    And I agree wholeheartedly.

  58. @Skept-artist: Sounds good, I hope we can.

    @davew: Thank you.

  59. I’m an English teacher living in Korea. I’ve hosted an annual Christmas party for the last 5 years and have served turkey. I learned how to cook by reading tons of material over the internet and through trial and error. I do recommend that you brine your turkey. The turkeys I soaked in brine came out moist and delicious. Another tip to keep the white meat juicy is to put butter under the skin over the breast area. Lastly, make sure you use a meat thermometer to check for doneness.

  60. @Gabrielbrawley: Shooting is quite a big deal in the country here so there’s all ways loads of “Game Birds” availible at Markets and Butchers. They usually can’t get rid of them all, and this is the sickening part, most of the birds get ploughed into the ground as fertilizer.

    It’s because on shoots, guys (it’s mostly guys) want to shoot as many birds as is physically possible, so they can brag about numbers.

  61. @Gabrielbrawley: I am so IN.

  62. @Amanda: Blasphemer! Ham is of the devil.

    You have no idea of what you speak. Ham is akin to bacon, and bacon is the source of all goodness.

  63. @Mark Hall: Bacon is of the gods. Bacon cast ham out of pork heaven when it saw what a blasphemy its disgusting pink flesh was was.

  64. Screw all the above comments. THIS is how real men prepare turkey the proper way:

    http://www.eatmedaily.com/2009/11/deep-fried-turkey-disaster-videos-youre-doing-it-wrong/

  65. @Mark Hall and @Amanda:
    I have a vegetarian friend who went home for a holiday and his mother told him, “I know you’re a vegetarian so don’t worry, I made you a ham.” Er…

  66. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina): Oh come on. Really?! Like, she made it as a joke? Wowzers.

  67. I might have missed it, but brining is definitely the way to go, UNLESS you purchase a kosher turkey or one that has been injected. Essentially, these turkeys have already been brined.

  68. deep fried turkey is wrong, wrongest thing ever. salt, pepper, bacon (slide it under skin, turkey is a dry bird), thyme then roast the guy. Get a black turkey, those are the best. White turkeys flavour sucks compared to the black ones. Black ones went out of fashion since some of the feathers stay stuck in and people thought they looked ugly. Stuffing is a must – one large freshly baked granary loaf, rip the thing into chunks mix with 2 eggs, a bag of chopped walnuts, 3 peeled and chopped braeburn apples, chopped celery, chopped parsley, chopped small onion, some sage (all lightly fried in butter beforehand). Throw it in a bread tin and throw it in oven. Roasted parsnips, potatoes and garlic with thyme and fat from turkey. yorkshire puddings (look em up yanks, you’re all missing a trick there). And that is xmas.

    Now……what’s thanksgiving?

  69. @Skept-artist: No, she was serious. She really thought he would eat that.

  70. We are brining the bird as I type this. There will also be cornbread stuffing, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, twice baked potatoes that I’m making myself, green beans with crunchy deep fried onions and a selection of cheesecakes. And for those of us who don’t eat red meat or poultry there is wild caught salmon and lobster cakes.
    We’re serving at noon and we’ll set a place for you. There’s always room for one more at the table.
    OH And there are pumpkin doughnuts for breakfast while we cook and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

  71. I think Elton Brown puts it most clearly when he endorses brining a turkey in his how to deep fry a turkey episode of Good Eats.

    Here is his recipe:
    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/deep-fried-turkey-recipe/index.html

    And here is the full episode:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E270Qx5OpxU

    And of course wikipedia explains brining as a way to hydrate (make more juicy) by the process of osmosis and denaturation:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brining

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