Brine Time: The Science Behind Salting Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Alison Marras, Unsplash
Alison Marras, Unsplash

At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that they have to find enough room in their fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound; that is, its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.
iStock

In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only, this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

You've Been Using Your Can Opener Wrong

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iStock

Opening a can with grace isn't easy. Even if your can opener is sharp enough to get the job done, you often end up with a detached lid floating in your food, forcing you to fish it out and risk getting a nasty cut. Fortunately, it is possible to remove and dispose of your jagged can lid seamlessly, and you don't need to buy a new kitchen gadget to do so: You just need to rethink the way you use the can opener you already have at home.

A tweet that was shared on August 10 demonstrated how simply adjusting the position of your can opener can improve your life in the kitchen. Instead of hinging the can opener on the lip of the can so that the crank faces out to the side, have it face up toward the ceiling. Turn the knob like you normally would, and then once you've completed a full rotation, lift the opener away from the can. Thanks to that extra strip of metal the lid should still be attached to the can opener. Now you can move it over to the trash bin without getting your hands dirty.

The original Tweet has since been deleted, but YouTuber Calvin Zolinas recreated the hack in the video below. After seeing how it's done you can dig a can out of your pantry and try out the trick for yourself at home.

Plenty of common kitchen problems—like fast-wilting greens and slow-ripening avocados—can be solved with some simple hacks. Check out this list for more culinary tips.

The Mystery of the Stinky Dairy Queen in Calgary Has Just Been Solved

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iStock

Walking into an ice cream parlor is supposed to be one of the most pleasant sensory experiences you can have, with the assortment of frozen treats giving off a very enticing aroma. This is particularly true of the Dairy Queen franchise, which offers signature items like Blizzards at hundreds of locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Unfortunately, one location in Calgary has been having trouble satisfying patrons who walk in expecting the scent of vanilla. This Dairy Queen has smelled like the explosive flatulence of someone who has just eaten rotten eggs. And someone finally found out why.

Sujad Bandali told CBC News that the mystery odor had been plaguing his location since it opened in January 2015. At first he was so concerned it might be something dangerous—like a gas leak—that he called utility workers and area firefighters to check for a burst utility supply pipe. He also had the building examined for carbon monoxide, which is normally odorless but may be accompanied by a foul smell as a result of incomplete combustion [PDF]. He made sure there wasn’t a sewage problem.

Nothing was found. His place just stunk.

Curiously, not everyone could detect it. Bandali said half his staff wasn’t bothered by it, while some customers exited as soon as they caught a whiff. Bandali posted a warning on his front door alerting people to the smell awaiting them upon entering. Predictably, this was bad for business.

A desperate Bandali offered a free Blizzard once a week for a year to anyone who could tell him where the smell was coming from, a move that was widely publicized. Help finally arrived Wednesday when the local gas company, ATCO, arrived for yet another inspection. (Presumably, they came at Bandali's request, not solely because of the Blizzard offer.) This time, a worker performed a “dead check,” turning off all the gas appliances in the building and then looking to see if the gas meter was still running. If it was, that would indicate a gas leak. It was running. A small leak was coming from the ceiling. With the repair made, the store finally smells of the welcoming aroma given off by their Peanut Buster Parfait inventory.

Bandali told CBC News that he was relieved that the source of the franchise’s fumes was finally located. This discovery, he said, proved that “I was not losing my mind.”

[h/t Munchies]

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