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.

Wisconsin Brewery Rolls Out a Candy Corn Beer

iStock.com/AleksandarNakic
iStock.com/AleksandarNakic

Move over, pumpkin ale. A brewery in the Milwaukee area has brewed up some candy corn beer just in time for Halloween. According to WMUR News 9, the sugary cream ale will be served on tap at the Westallion Brewing Company in West Allis, Wisconsin, throughout October.

The divisive confection is typically made from sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, and artificial coloring, but the brewery decided to make its own flavoring. “Instead of smashing up some candy corns and throwing them in our beer, we made our own candy corn out of less beer-destructive ingredients and threw them into our beer!” the brewery said in a Facebook post. “At the base, we created a cream ale using lactose sugars to keep some sweetness, but added Simcoe hops to create a bit of a bite and a balance (and maybe help remind us that it’s still beer?).”

While candy corn beer is likely to be less popular than its seasonal pumpkin counterpart, other breweries have taken on the challenge in the past. In 2016, The Star Tribune reported that a candy corn imperial ale was “scary popular” at Urban Growler, a microbrewery in St. Paul, Minnesota. "It started as a joke three years ago when we needed to come up with a fall beer," co-owner/master brewer Deb Loch told the paper. "It went over so well that we had to make it every year."

Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, has also made a Candy Corn IPA in the past, and one brave soul sought advice from the Homebrewtalk.com community in 2009 on how to brew an appropriate beer for a “Hate Candy Corn Party.” Some inspiration for your next Halloween bash, perhaps?

[h/t WMUR]

Find the Best Wine to Pair With Your Favorite Halloween Candy

iStock/vadimguzhva
iStock/vadimguzhva

When you're a kid, Halloween is all about the candy. Unfortunately, the more sophisticated palate that often comes with adulthood can dampen the former thrill of a holiday that’s largely about cheap scares and even cheaper candy.

Thankfully, the folks at Vivino, a popular wine app, have found a way to help elevate the Halloween candy game (and with it, your joy). Their “Halloween Candy and Wine Matchmaker” pairs popular candies, from Skittles to Swedish Fish, with wine selections, to make sure your many treats complement one another.

As Vivino founder Heini Zachariassen told The Huffington Post, "Our candy and wine matchmaker is a fun way for our users to learn and talk about wine in a way that feels relatable and fun. Besides, Halloween is scary enough, we don't think picking a wine needs to be."

The best news of all? Many of the wines and candies have multiple pairing options—which means you can try out different flavor combos faster than you can say “trick or treat.”

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