The Rise and Fall of Turkey Brining

Posted November 13, 2018 11:42 p.m. EST

Cookbook editor Rux Martin and her husband, food writer Barry Estarbrook, demonstrate brining a turkey in their home kitchen in Ferrisburgh, Vt., Nov. 6, 2018. After two decades of flying high, the wet-brined bird has lost altitude with many of the food-media influencers who sent it soaring. (Brett Simison/The New York Times)

Dear Thanksgiving cooks of America: On behalf of food writers everywhere, I apologize.

For nearly two decades now, many of us have suggested that you plunge your turkey into a bucket of flavored salt water for a day or two. 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.

“I’m so over it,” said Alex Guarnaschelli, the New York chef and television personality. Never mind that her turkey-brining recipe — thick with honey, molasses and soy — is still prominently displayed on the Food Network website.

“I’m not afraid to admit evolution has occurred with my cooking, and I’ll go on record as someone who has a great brine recipe,” she said. “But right now I am in a no-brining phase.”

Why the change of heart on brining?

“It’s enormous. It’s wonky. It’s ambitious,” she said. “And I don’t always love the texture.”

Still, in many homes the act of brining remains a sacred ritual of Thanksgiving. Pulling out the cooler and mixing up the brine, with its precise, unchangeable list of aromatics, is as much a part of the holiday as a game of front-yard football or complaining about the Jell-O mold your brother-in-law insists on making.

“I brine whether it is scientifically justifiable or not, because, well, it is a religious matter,” said cookbook editor Rux Martin. She uses a recipe from cookbook author Pam Anderson; it is dosed with some apple cider pressed by her husband, food writer Barry Estabrook. The method is in Anderson’s book “The Perfect Recipe,” which Martin published under her Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprint in 2001.

That was not long after Year One of turkey brining, or what many people refer to as 1999. That year, Alton Brown put forth a brine in his Food Network show “Good Eats,” and newspapers on both coasts suggested a fussy, sugar-salt brine developed at Chez Panisse to their readers for Thanksgiving.

One, seasoned with star anise and fennel seeds, came from the New York Times reporter R.W. Apple, who delivered a recipe for a turkey brined for 72 hours after he ate Thanksgiving dinner with chef Alice Waters.

The other was in The San Francisco Chronicle, where staff members (including me) roasted nearly 30 turkeys and declared that the best way to prepare a bird was using a slightly shorter version of the Chez Panisse brine, flavored with four juniper berries, five crushed allspice berries and a head of garlic.

“It’s essentially koshering,” said Miriam Morgan, the food editor who oversaw the newspaper’s project. Now retired, she will be brining again this year, as she has ever since that recipe was developed.

“The reason I think it all started was because back then pretty much all we had were mass-produced turkey, which had no flavor, so you were trying to put more flavor and moisture back into the turkey,” she said. “The turkey is delicious, so end of story.” Other food editors quickly jumped on board. Ruth Reichl, formerly of The New York Times, Gourmet magazine and the Los Angeles Times, can’t remember when she first advocated brining. She is not a fan of turkey, and has worked to forget all the ways she cajoled readers to prepare it; one unfortunate year, she suggested squishing the stuffing under the skin in a vain attempt to keep the breast meat moist.

“You’ll try anything,” Reichl said. “'Put it in the oven and take it out’ is my basic belief on this, but I did feel that once you started brining them, they tasted better.”

Thanksgiving brining recipes flourished through the early 2000s, when Cook’s Illustrated issued a definitive endorsement of the method. Christopher Kimball, its former editor, said brining was the most popular turkey method the magazine had ever developed when he led America’s Test Kitchen.

That’s in no small part because the process was ready-made for writers who wanted to dig deep into its scientific side. Articles explained how sodium attaches itself to intertwined muscle proteins, weakens them and makes them separate so salty water can force itself deeper into the turkey and stay there. Brined fibers don’t contract as much when they cook, and hold more moisture. Science eventually gave way to practicality. Even Kimball, who left America’s Test Kitchen and started the cooking media enterprise Milk Street in 2016, eventually gave up on brining the turkey.

“Since I cook Thanksgiving in Vermont, I have a tiny kitchen and one not-too-large fridge, so there ain’t no room for it,” he wrote in a recent email. “I just braise the bloody thing.”

The appeal of turkey brining began to fade not quite a decade after it began.

Harold McGee, the food-science writer, was one of the first to make a case against it. In a 2008 article in The New York Times, he posited that brining did little more than fill a turkey with tap water, rather than flavor. The drippings were relentlessly salty, and thus useless for gravy. (Instead, McGee made a case for shredding turkey meat, which we will get to in a moment.)

A few years later, J. Kenji López-Alt, the food-science specialist who had worked at Cook’s Illustrated during its brining heyday, discredited the method in a column for the website Serious Eats called “The Truth About Brining Turkey.” He elaborated in his 2015 book “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.”

“I was saying brining works, if you’re OK with watery meat, essentially,” he explained in a recent interview. López-Alt’s tests involved cooking and analyzing three turkey breasts and 24 chicken breasts in various states of salting. Brining, he contended, gives poultry the texture of luncheon meat. In addition, the molecules in cider, herbs and other flavorings are too large to penetrate the membrane surrounding the meat before the salt molecules do, and so they fail to carry much flavor into the turkey.

“I don’t think it’s useless,” he said of wet-brining, “but it’s not worth the effort, because I think you get better results from dry-brining.”

What you might call the dry-brine era began quietly in 2006, when Russ Parsons, the food editor at the Los Angeles Times, was desperate for a new approach to holiday turkey.

He recalled that Judy Rodgers salted almost every piece of protein that came through the door at Zuni Café in San Francisco, which she owned until her death in 2013. She explained her method in great detail in “The Zuni Café Cookbook,” published in 2002. She had never applied the dry brine she famously used for her chickens to a turkey, although the book had a recipe for wet-brining one.

On Parsons’ suggestion, Rodgers tried dry-brining and liked it. In homage, he called it the Judy Bird. The method could not be simpler: Use a tablespoon of salt for each 5 pounds of meat. Rub it into the breasts and thighs, sprinkle some inside and let the turkey sit in the refrigerator for a few days. Allow it to air-dry in the fridge for eight hours if you want the skin crisper.

The result is well-seasoned, succulent meat without the hassle of all that water and the salt-choked drippings. You can even dry-brine a frozen turkey while it thaws, he discovered. The technique took off, and many people (including me) became dedicated dry-briners. On the cooking website Food52, it became a community favorite after Kristen Miglore wrote about it in 2011. A group of 13 BuzzFeed writers sampled turkeys cooked three ways in 2013, and 10 preferred the dry-brined bird.

Wet-brining still had its partisans: John Boehner, the former speaker of the House, bragged about his turkey-brining acumen whenever he could.

But it was clear that wet-brining was on its way out, and this year it seems to have hit bottom. Even dry-brining is losing its appeal in some households. Time seems more precious than ever. Politics have exhausted us all. Perhaps it’s time to simplify.

“Turkey is easy,” said the grilling and barbecue authority who calls himself Meathead Goldwyn. “All you’ve got to do is cook it slow and make a great jus.”

Goldwyn is known for cooking meat outdoors over smoke and explaining it all in scientific terms. He likes turkey. He doesn’t like wet-brining. A light sprinkle of salt a day or two ahead offers some advantages, he said, but it’s not necessary.

The trick, he explained, is to treat the meat the way barbecue pitmasters treat pork: Cook it low and slow, so the proteins don’t seize up and squeeze out moisture, then thinly slice the white meat (to an eighth of an inch if you can) and soak it in a jus made with wine, stock and drippings.

He puts his turkeys in a smoker and lets the drippings fall into a pan filled with vegetables and the wing tips, neck, gizzard and any fat he can trim from the bird, along with some wine and stock. He is adamant that a turkey be cooked on a flat rack, not nestled inside in a roasting pan, to better circulate heat. Then he strains the jus, reduces it and uses it to flavor and moisten the white meat.

It’s easy enough to recreate the effect in the kitchen. Simply roast the turkey at 325 degrees on a rack over a roasting pan until the thigh hits about 160 degrees. (Goldwyn suggests just roasting the turkey on the oven rack itself, with a pan below it to catch juices. Proceed with that at your own risk, or just use your V-rack and call it a day.)

While the turkey roasts, simmer the ingredients for the jus on the stove. Then mix the drippings into the jus. You can even save some of the jus to whisk into a roux for gravy, which you’ll want for mashed potatoes and traditionalists.

Still, that method may end up going the way of turkey trends past. In some cooking circles, even turkey itself is on the way out.

“All of this insanity and these trends and this struggle about how we cook turkey are ridiculous, and we are continuously and always disappointed,” said Samin Nosrat, a New York Times Magazine food columnist whose book, “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” was recently turned into a Netflix series.

This year, Nosrat is taking a hard turn toward a turkey-free holiday. Guests at her Bay Area table will enjoy Dungeness crab and fried chicken with lots of vegetables.

“I get that it has a sentimental place,” she said, “but I am so over turkey.”


Pulled Turkey With Jus

Yield: 8 servings, with leftovers

Total time: 3 hours, depending on the size of the turkey

For the turkey:

1 turkey, preferably about 12 pounds, although the recipe produces enough jus for larger birds

2 tablespoons salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 celery stalk

1 medium carrot

1 medium onion

3 or 4 branches fresh herbs, including sage and thyme

For the jus:

1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil

Neck, giblets and wing tips from one turkey (don’t use the liver)

2 carrots, cut into 2 or 3 pieces

3 celery stalks, cut into thirds

1 large onion, peeled and cut into quarters

1 teaspoon salt

Ground pepper

1 1/2 cups good white wine

4 cups chicken broth (water can be substituted, but broth yields richer results)

1 clove garlic, peeled

A few sage leaves and 1 or 2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1. Prepare the turkey: Heat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare the turkey for roasting by pulling out the giblets, cutting off the wing tips with a sharp knife or a scissors and removing the neck. Reserve them for the jus.

2. Place the turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Sprinkle half the salt and pepper inside the cavity, and the rest over the bird. Chop the celery and carrots into large pieces, and peel and halve the onion. Push them inside the cavity, along with the herbs. Add 1 cup of water to the bottom of the pan and roast, about 11 minutes per pound. (Remove it when a thermometer in the thickest part of the breast near the bone reaches 162 degrees. The carry-over heat will raise the final temperature to at least 165 degrees.)

3. Make the jus: While the turkey roasts, turn a burner to medium high and heat the oil in a large pot until it shimmers. Add the neck and other turkey parts, and the carrots, celery and onion. Sprinkle with the salt and a few grinds of pepper. Allow the parts to brown, stirring now and again to prevent scorching, about 10 minutes.

4. Add 1 cup of the wine and scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the broth or water, garlic, herbs and soy sauce. Stir and bring to a boil, then immediately turn down the heat to a simmer. Partly cover and let it simmer gently for at least an hour and no more than two. Strain the stock and set aside. You should have about 3 cups.

5. When the turkey is done, remove it to a platter or cutting board, and set the pan across 2 burners. Over medium-high heat, get the juices bubbling hot and then add the remaining 1/2 cup of wine, scraping up the bits stuck to the pan. Let it cook for another couple of minutes until some of the wine has evaporated. Add the stock and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 or 6 minutes, until it has reduced slightly. Taste and adjust for seasoning. (It will probably need more black pepper.) Strain to remove any remaining solids, put it back into a pot and keep hot.

6. Remove the breasts and shred the meat. (Slicing it 1/8 inch thick helps speed the process on large birds.) Put the meat in a serving dish and pour 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the jus over it. The legs and thigh meat can be served alongside the shredded breast meat.