YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Bird Brine


If someone told you to go soak your bird, you might take offense. But it could be the best cooking advice you've ever gotten.

Brining--essentially soaking meat or poultry in a solution of salt and cold water--has long been used as a preliminary step in smoking. It flavors the meat and also plumps it, giving it the needed moisture to withstand the long, slow, dry cooking that the smoking process involves.

But what's good for the smoker is also good for the roaster--and for the grill too. Campanile's Mark Peel figures he brines about 100 turkeys a year before roasting them at his restaurant. Most wind up in sandwiches at lunch.

"We started brining the turkeys about three years ago and, to tell you the truth, I can't remember why," he says. "My sense, in an unscientific way, is that it gives a tenderness to the meat.

"That's especially necessary with turkeys. With the turkeys you buy, even the organic ones, the breast meat is pretty dry. That's because they've been bred for big breasts. The white meat has very little blood circulation and very little fat in it. But if you brine it and roast it properly, it doesn't turn out dry."

There's a very good reason for that, according to Alan Sams, an associate professor of poultry science at Texas A&M University. Sams, who has published several papers on brining poultry, says it's basically an electrical thing.

"What is happening is that salt [the chloride part more than the sodium] penetrates into the muscle," Sams says. "The charged ions cause the muscle fibers to swell, and that sucks in even more water. It also binds the water to the protein, meaning the meat holds more water during cooking. That's what causes the juiciness effect.

"The three big benefits I've seen are increased juiciness, better flavor because of the saltiness and improved tenderness," Sams continues. "Brining generally creates a looser protein network. It's the discharge propulsion--the negative ions repelling each other and loosening the muscle fibers."

All of this was documented in a 1977 paper by five scientists from the University of Florida. They compared roast chickens that had been brined, chickens that had been soaked in plain ice water and chickens that had not been treated.

They found that the brined chickens scored much higher with testers in terms of flavor and tested better for juiciness and tenderness (the difference in tenderness was much greater for white meat than for dark). Microbial testing also showed slightly lower populations of various bacteria in the brined chicken than in the others.

I knew none of that the first time I tried brining. Having read something about it somewhere, last summer on a whim I tried soaking some cut-up chicken in a weak brine (a couple of tablespoons of salt to about a quart of water) for an hour or so before grilling. The results were decidedly favorable. The chicken was plumper and juicier, had real seasoned flavor throughout and didn't scorch nearly as quickly.

As the holidays approached, I thought I'd try brining my turkey. I started small, running through a few roast chickens before stepping up in class. I wound up with a brine of about 2/3 cup of salt to a gallon of water--about a 5% saline solution. If you're going to smoke your bird, it can handle a more forceful brine. Try using a full cup of salt per gallon--that's about 7%.

I tried concentrations from 10% down to 2%, and the main difference was in the amount of saltiness--the texture was improved even with a fairly weak brine. Incidentally, if you're worried about sodium intake, remember that the meat absorbs only 10% to 15% of the brine--roughly 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt per turkey.

When Thanksgiving arrived, I took the plunge--and so did my bird. Finding a bath big enough to brine a 14-pound turkey can be a bit of a bother. (And so can clearing enough space in the refrigerator to store it.) I ended up using the biggest stockpot I had, and a plain 5% salt-and-water brine. I turned the bird occasionally to make sure it was evenly cured.

After six hours, I removed the turkey from the brine and dried it. Then I returned it to the refrigerator in the empty stockpot to dry further overnight. I wanted it to have a nice crisp skin--something that's difficult to achieve if there's much moisture present.

The next day I stuffed the turkey and roasted it in my usual way--450 degrees for the first 45 minutes, then 325 degrees until a thermometer registered 160 degrees when poked in the fat part of the thigh. (The USDA recommendation of 180 degress, by the way, allows a considerable margin of error. With a 20-minute rest, a 160-degree turkey will reach 170 degrees--more than enough to kill any bacteria.) When I checked the temperature of the stuffing, it was still a little cool, so--mindful of the danger of salmonella--I returned the turkey to the oven until the stuffing reached 160 degrees.

Los Angeles Times Articles