There’s nothing like that feeling of knowing you nailed it. You’ve surpassed all expectations and earned the admiration of the roomful of family and friends. You have cooked that perfect winning turkey.
What’s the secret to that coveted tender and juicy meat hiding under a layer of crispy, golden skin? There’s more to cooking a good piece of chicken than just sticking it in the oven or tossing it on the grill. While some may like their meat well-done, nobody wants a dried-out, rubbery piece of chicken breast.
The trick to a moist and juicy piece of meat is all in the preparation. Whether you’re serving up turkey, fish, chicken, steak, or pork, the cooking process should ideally start hours in advance with a dry brine.
What is a Dry Brine?
Brining is the process of coating the food in salt and letting it sit in it for a while. This technique tenderizes the turkey – or meat, poultry, or fish while enhancing its flavor. The salt draws out the natural juices from the meat, which is then reabsorbed into the protein as it sits coated in the salt.
There are real scientific theories behind the magic of brining and osmosis at work. The salt denatures the protein, preventing its muscle fibers from shrinking and losing its juices during cooking. Brining allows the meat to lock in its moisture for a juicier and tender piece.
A wet brine is a process of soaking the meat in a solution of salt and water. Although the liquid solution will preserve the meat’s moisture, the water can dilute its flavor.
A dry brine, by contrast, is a coating of salt and sometimes other herbs and spices sprinkled onto the meat to lock in its natural juices and add flavor. In this case, the meat’s own natural juices will mix with the salt to form the brine solution.
Types of Proteins to Brine
Not all proteins will benefit from a dry brine. The best candidates to dry brine are leaner cuts of meat that have naturally mellower flavors. Poultry, especially turkey, has a high ratio of muscle to fat and can quickly dry out during cooking. These birds will benefit from a brine that will keep in their natural juices.
You do not need to brine meats with higher-fat content and intense flavors such as duck, lamb, and beef. These meats contain more moisture and flavor, but you can try preparing them with a brine if you wish. One protein that you should not dry brine is ground beef. The salt will pull out all of the moisture, and the burger will have a rubber-like consistency.
Note that you should not brine meats that have been pre-salted as they will be overly salty. Kosher meats, for example, have already been salted and would not do well being dry-brined. Some butchers and stores inject their turkeys with a saline solution. If your turkey is, you can halve the quantity of salt in your brine recipe to prevent it from being too salty.
Cuts of meat that are best to brine are:
- Leaner cuts of meat
How to Make a Dry Brine
Don’t let the word brine intimidate you; it’s just salt.
There is a difference in the type of salt you use to brine. Table salt, the most common salt that everyone has in their kitchen, has smaller crystals than other varieties, such as kosher salt. Most cooks and brine experts agree to use kosher salt or coarse sea salt, both of which have larger salt crystals than table salt. Table salt’s smaller crystals may clump together, while the larger ones ensure an even coating.
Although all varieties of salt will work, keep in mind that measurements will vary. Due to the crystal size difference, a teaspoon of table salt will contain a lot more salt than a teaspoon of kosher salt. Therefore, it will be much saltier. You probably want to think twice before you use Himalayan salt. Kosher salt or sea salt is the most popular variety to use to brine. Your best bet is probably sea salt.
To Dry Brine Your Turkey or Other Meat:
- Measure out about one teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat. You should not need more than a tablespoon of salt per side. Use a little less if you’re using table salt. If your turkey has a saline solution, halve the amount of salt.
- You can mix the salt with herbs and spices of your choice to add even more flavor. There are many recipes for brines you can try. Salt, black pepper, rosemary, thyme, sage, and lemon are winning brine rub for a turkey.
- Sprinkle the salt mixture over the protein. Make sure it falls on all of the sides and gets into all the surfaces. If you are preparing a turkey or whole chicken, you can rub the salt mixture into the bird’s cavity as well.
- Place the meat on a rack, dish, or rimmed sheet pan. Some cooks choose to let it sit in a large cooking bag, but It is preferable to leave it uncovered while it brines.
- Store the turkey or meat in the fridge for the recommended length of brining time. It may be from 2 – 24 hours, depending on the type of protein and its size. We’ve included a guide below.
- Rinse off the salt. Or don’t rinse it off. It’s a big debate amongst cooks. (Not to get political, but we’re on the no-rinse team). Some cooks opt to rinse off the salt before cooking to lower the sodium levels. Others rightfully claim that this will cause the meat to become soggy and will prevent poultry from developing that coveted crispy, golden skin.
Rinsing off the salt also raises a food safety concern. It may spread bacteria from raw meat or poultry, another reason many cooks opt-out of it. If you do choose to rinse off the salt, dry it off afterward very well.
- Dry off the meat very well by patting it down with a paper towel. Keep in mind that raw protein likely harbors bacteria that can cause illness. Practice proper food safety and wash hands after handling the raw meat.
- Your turkey or meat is now ready to be cooked! Brined proteins can be roasted in the oven but are even better in the smoker or on the barbecue grill.
- Bon Appetit!
Length of Time to Dry Brine Proteins
How long should the protein sit in the salt solution? That depends on the type of meat, its size, and the thickness of the cut. A 3-ounce chicken breast will need a lot less time than a 12-pound turkey. Experimentation has shown that it takes about 40 minutes for steaks to start reabsorbing their juices from the dry brine.
An approximation of brining time based on average protein weights for some common proteins are:
|Chicken breast||4 – 6 hours|
|Chicken bottom (thigh and leg with the bone)||8 – 12 hours|
|Whole chicken||24 – 48 hours|
|Porkchop (with the bone)||2 – 8 hours|
|Whole pork loin||2 – 12 hours|
|Fish fillet||½ – 2 hours|
|Whole fish||1 – 3 hours|
|Shrimp or scallops||30 minutes|
|Whole turkey||12 hours – 3 days|
|Turkey breast (with the bone)||3 – 6 hours|
|Steak||About an hour per inch of thickness of the steak|
It is possible to dry brine meat for too long. The protein is ready to cook when the surface feels dry. If you leave it sitting coated in the salt for too long, the inside will start to dry out and the meat will get a sponge-like texture.
We do not recommend allowing a turkey to sit in the dry brine for longer than three days.
The Advantages of Dry Brining
There are many additional benefits to dry brining than just getting that perfectly juicy piece of meat. As if that isn’t reason enough…
Salt is the most common flavor enhancer for all foods. Even if you rinse off the brine before cooking, enough salt is absorbed into the meat to give the protein the extra boost of flavor inside. Add even more flavor by mixing in spices with the salt.
Crispy Poultry Skin and Meat Crust
Moist and tender inside with a crisp and crunchy outer skin layer? That sounds like the perfect chicken or Thanksgiving turkey!
The salting process draws out the protein’s juices to its surface before reabsorbing them back into the meat. This process leaves the outer layer, the skin, dry and primed for perfect browning and crisping when cooking. To get an even crispier skin, add baking powder to the salt when you brine the chicken or turkey.
Since the meat reabsorbed the moisture, the outside of your steaks will be dry and primed for that crave-worthy crisped crust.
Brining doesn’t require any exotic ingredients or professional tools and gadgets. Every home cook has what it takes to dry-brine a chicken: salt.
As opposed to wet-brining, which requires the meat to sit in a large container in the brine solution, dry-brined meat can sit in any pan, cooking sheet, or dish in the fridge.
It doesn’t require much skill to dry brine. Sprinkle the salt onto the meat and sit back for a few hours while the salt does all the work.
A dry brine is also much neater and cleaner than a wet brine. Pouring salt and seasonings onto a turkey is much easier than hauling a giant, wet bird out of a bucket of water!
Firmer Fish Fillets
Fish fillets are delicate cuts and tend to fall apart when you transfer them for cooking or serving. The brining process will firm them up and make them easier to handle without breaking.
Dry Brine Turkey
Turkeys are the most popular protein to dry-brine, possibly because of how easy and delicious the process is. Many, or most, or everyone, has experienced their share of a dried-out bland turkey. Dry brine will ensure it is moist, juicy, and delicious.
- Choose a bird that has not been pre-salted or injected with saline.
- Make sure to defrost the turkey before you start the brining process. It takes about 24 hours to defrost 4-5 pounds of turkey, so plan accordingly!
- Make a brine rub with kosher salt, baking powder, ground black pepper, rosemary, and thyme. You will probably need one tablespoon of kosher salt per five pounds of turkey.
- Thoroughly rub the brine all over the turkey. Get the salt under the skin and into the cavity. Focus on the breast, which is dryer than the bird’s legs.
- Put the turkey on a rimmed baking sheet, or a large tray and move it to the fridge.
- Let it sit for a minimum of 12 hours and up to 3 days.
- Do not overcook it! The best way to dry out a perfect turkey, or any protein, is by overcooking it. If you’re cooking the turkey in an oven, the length of time depends on its weight. It needs approximately 13 minutes per pound at 350°.
While salt is the main requirement to make a brine, you can add other ingredients to take your poultry, fish, and meat to the next level.
- Mix the salt with herbs, garlic, lemon, and olive oil for a delicious savory rub to dry brine turkey or chicken.
- Use orange rinds and allspice to dry brine poultry for a richer flavor.
- Add sugar to the salt when making a brine for fish for added flavor. The suggested ratio is half the amount of sugar as salt.
- If you are dry brining poultry, add baking powder to the salt for a crispier skin.
Whether you’ve got a turkey, chicken, some steaks, or a salmon side on the menu, try preparing them with a dry brine before cooking. It’s an easy, simple, and cheap technique that will take your protein to the next level.
The dry brine will lock in the protein’s juices and leave you with a tender piece of meat and golden crispy skin.