Tired of dry turkey? Try adding water.
Every Thanksgiving, millions of Americans look for new ways to cook the same turkey—and an onslaught of food television and writing is there to make some recommendations. Numerous strategies have been proposed to ensure that the turkey stays moist, and all of them come down to water management. One way to have more water in your turkey is to add it, and a popular way to do that is through brining.
The main part of the turkey that we eat is its muscle, which naturally contains a large amount of water—some of which is lost as the meat cooks. Soaking meat in a solution of water and salt, known as a brine, allows both water and salt to enter the meat, adding moisture and flavor.
A common misconception is that salt moves into the meat cells because it is present at a higher concentration outside than inside, but that’s not quite right. In fact, individual cells have a semipermeable membrane that salt does not readily pass through. The membrane does allow water to move through, and water is drawn into the cells because it exists in a higher concentration outside of them than inside, a process called osmosis. This leaves the salt behind in the surrounding tissue, in between the cells. (You can prove to yourself that water, but not salt, can pass through a cell membrane by playing with a Naked Egg.)
Muscle tissue (left) is made of bundles of muscle fibers (center), which are made of muscles cells. In osmosis, water, but not salt, enters the muscle cells (right).
Muscle cells are bundled into tubes called muscle fibers. These fibers are surrounded by proteins, fat, and other connective tissue to make up the muscle. Salt breaks down some of these proteins, which are normally responsible for squeezing out some of the meat’s natural moisture when it’s cooked.
Salt breaks down orderly, folded proteins (left) into relaxed, loose chains (right).
These broken-down proteins help retain more water in addition to the water that entered the cells during osmosis. As a result, brining increases the amount of moisture in the meat and also serves as a way of delivering salt into the muscle tissue for better flavor.
Want to try it for yourself? Here's a recipe for a basic brine to get you started.
Finding a container large enough and cold enough to brine a whole turkey can be a challenge. One solution popularized by the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe is to skip the water and generously salt the meat directly a few days in advance. Curiously, this method is sometimes referred to as dry-brining.
dry = minus water
brine = salt plus water,
dry brine = salt plus water minus water.
A better word for this technique might just be salting. Since there’s no water, salting doesn’t increase the amount of water in the turkey to start, but the salt diffuses into the muscle tissue and breaks down some of its proteins, which helps it retain more water during cooking and seasons this seasonal treat.