Mainstream food punditry maintains that brining the turkey practically guarantees a moist, tender roast. I agree, it does. But I’m still a no-briner.
Brining has plenty of advocates, and understandably so. It’s a flexible technique that makes a remarkable difference in the moistness of the meat, especially the breast. All you have to do is dissolve a few tablespoons of salt in a few quarts of water, keep the turkey covered with the solution for a few days, then let its surface dry out uncovered for a day or two before roasting.
What simple brining does to meat turns out to be complex and pretty cool. The main driving force is osmosis, the natural shifting around of water and substances dissolved in it so as to even out any imbalances in their distribution. Meat contains a lot of water and very little salt. When we first immerse it in salty brine, salt moves from the brine into the meat, and water from the meat into the brine. The meat becomes saltier and drier.
But then the salt begins to modify the meat. The sodium attaches to the long, intertwined muscle proteins and causes the proteins to push apart from one another. This makes room for more water, and salt, and weakens the muscle fibers. The water flow reverses, so that water and more salt move from the brine into the meat.
All this shifting around takes time, especially in a cold refrigerator. In one laboratory study, little meat logs about a half-inch square and an inch long were still gaining weight after three days in the brine.
Brined meats end up gaining 10 percent or more of their original weight in water and salt. Then when they’re cooked to well done, their swollen muscle fibers can lose moisture and still have enough left to seem juicy. And the weakened fiber structure makes them seem tender as well.
So what’s not to like about a brined turkey?
To begin with, the unrelenting saltiness, which it shares with its commercial cousins, the so-called “moisture-enhanced meats.” These ready-to-cook supermarket roasts can be up to 10 percent brine, with eight times the sodium content of the original meat. And saltiness doesn’t necessarily enhance turkey flavor. When I made two turkeys and compared brined and unbrined breasts side by side, the unbrined meat tasted meatier, more intensely turkey-like. That’s not surprising, because the added juiciness of brined meat comes from tap water, not the meat itself.
Worst of all, you can’t use a brined turkey to prepare one of the highlights of the Thanksgiving meal: gravy. Roast a plain turkey and you end up with a panful of browned turkey juices, which you can defat and deglaze and aromatize into a delicious pan sauce. But juice up the turkey with tap water and salt, and its drippings become too salty to use.
The best way to keep an unbrined turkey breast moist is to cook it separately, gently and precisely. It’s just done at around 145 degrees, and getting dry at 155.
But to me Thanksgiving is an occasion for roasting the whole bird, and as unfussily as possible. I’ve tried many methods for keeping the breast meat under 155 degrees while getting the tougher legs to 165 degrees and up. None has worked reliably.
So I’ve shifted tactics. Instead of trying to avoid what’s pretty much inevitable, I try to make the best of it. My current approach takes its inspiration from the world of barbecue and its ways of dealing with well-cooked meat. In particular, pulled pork.
Roast an unbrined turkey as you wish. While the turkey rests, make a delicious pan sauce from the drippings. Keep it runny. When it’s time to carve, start with the breast. Either slice it very thin, to an eighth of an inch or less, or cut thick pieces and pull them to shreds, to create as much surface area as possible. Then turn and coat the meat thoroughly with some of the pan sauce, and keep it warm while you carve the leg and thigh.
Unlike casual last-minute saucing at the table, an extended and intimate bath gives the sauce a chance to penetrate into the meat’s smallest crannies and seams. The meat fibers may have been cooked dry in the oven, but they end up on the plate with abundant moisture clinging to them.
And it’s their own meaty moisture, genuinely enhanced.