It's the stuff of nightmares for Thanksgiving cooks: serving dry, bland turkey.
A plump, juicy and tasty Thanksgiving turkey, with evenly roasted white and dark meat, is the Holy Grail of home cooks across the nation. The solution, we were told, was to plunge our massive birds into coolers filled with ice and flavored, salty water — known as a wet brine — a day or two before the big day.
Then, after two decades of food experts and food media influencers explaining and showing us how to master the act of wet brining, New York Times food columnist Kim Severson told us she and many of the food media elite were "so over it."
"The promise was an end to dryness and a bulletproof solution to the conundrum of cooking a bird with both light and dark meat. But like the length of a trouser leg, turkey fashion shifts. Interviews with the big players in food media over the past few weeks suggest that the wet, salty turkey has lost its appeal among many of the people who once did the most to promote it," Severson wrote in her 2018 column, "The Rise and Fall of Turkey Brining."
While not everyone she interviewed was ready to give up their Thanksgiving ritual of the wet brine, many others had abandoned the practice in favor of the less taxing dry brine — applying a seasoned salt rub the night before cooking.
So what's a home cook to do? Wet brine? Dry brine? Forget about brining altogether?
We took our questions to Michael Dolle, owner and lead butcher of Mountain Top Country Meats in Savoy, and New Marlborough's Jake Levin, author of "Smokehouse Handbook" and head butcher at Hudson Valley Charcuterie/Raven and Boar Farm in East Chatham, N.Y., in hopes of gleaning some insight into the brining process to help you decide whether or not to brine your turkey this Thanksgiving.
"There is no question that brining renders a more moist turkey," Levin said in an email. "The way brining works is that the salt from the saline solution enters the meat and disrupts the protein structures, causing normally tight fitting sheathes around the muscles' cell to start to breakdown. This reaction creates space within the muscle structure for the saline solution to enter. The moisture, and flavor components in the brine, are then retained in the muscles, usually adding about 10 percent to the weight of the meat.
"This allows you to start cooking the meat at a higher moisture content then you would have without brining. As the turkey cooks, the protein cells don't contract as much as they would without the brining because of the protein breakdown, which means the cells maintain more moisture. This results in moister finished product, as well as enhancing the flavor and making the meat more tender. Since poultry, especially turkey and chicken, has a very low fat content, brining is a great tool for ensuring you have a moist and flavorful turkey."
But after years of wet brining his turkeys, Levin said he's come to favor "what some people call the dry brine method, which is really an application of a salt rub or cure."
Dry brining, he said, involves rubbing the turkey, inside and out, with a mixture of salt, sugar and other spices and herbs.
"It works on the same principle as wet brining. But rather than the saline solution entering the protein structures, it is just the salt itself entering and disrupting the protein structures," Levin said. "This happens through osmosis. As the salt sits on the surface of the turkey skin it draws out the moisture from the turkey itself. The salt then dissolves in that moisture and is then reabsorbed into the flesh of the turkey, disrupting the proteins cells just as happens in the wet brine."
But, he said, unlike in a wet brine, there is not all that extra moisture in the turkey.
"The turkey is just able to maintain its own natural moisture content during the cooking process," Levin said. "That is why I have come to prefer a salt-rubbed turkey over a [wet] brined turkey."
Despite the popularity of the dry-brine method, Dolle, during a recent interview at his butcher shop, said he still prefers wet brining turkeys.
"With a wet brine, you can always rely on your turkey being juicy," he said. "And nothing says you have to use water. You can soak it in a mixture of cranberry and orange juice. Or you can have a lemon pepper turkey by using a mixture of fresh lemons, fresh cracked pepper corn and smoked paprika."
A dry brine or salt-rub, Dolle said, simply does not add the same amount of flavor to a turkey as a wet brine does.
"With a wet brine, the flavor gets sucked into the meat. You don't have to have a flavorful crust on a turkey," he said, referring to the trend of creating crispy turkey skin (by leaving the turkey uncovered in the refrigerator) during the dry-brining process.