The Science Behind Brining Your Thanksgiving Turkey

iStock.com/LazingBee
iStock.com/LazingBee

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 it requires finding enough room in the 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—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.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

20 Attempts to Describe the Taste of Durian, the World’s Smelliest Fruit

iStock.com/Worradirek
iStock.com/Worradirek

The durian is a beloved delicacy in Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Its taste and smell, however, take some getting used to. The creamy fruit is notoriously potent—in fact, it’s so smelly that Singapore’s public transit systems tell passengers not to bring them onto subways or buses. And yet, despite its stinky reputation, it can be found practically everywhere: In curries, cakes, and even ice cream. For visitors, biting into the fruit can be an utterly confusing and contradictory experience. Here are some outsider opinions from the past 400 years.

1. “The flesh is as white as snow, exceeds in delicacy of taste of all our best European fruits, and none of ours can approach it.” —Jacques de Bourges, 17th Century Missionary

2. “Comparisons have been made with the civet cat, sewage, stale vomit, onions, and cheese; while one disaffected visitor to Indonesia declared that the eating of the flesh was not much different from having to consume used surgical swabs.” —The Oxford Companion to Food

3. “Tastes lightly sweet and deeply musky.” —Frommer’s Guide to Malaysia

4. “[I]ts odor is best described as pig-sh*t, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away.” —Richard Sterling, food writer

5. "To eat it seems to be the sacrifice of self-respect.” —Bayard Taylor, 19th-century Journalist

6. “To anyone who doesn’t like durian it smells like a bunch of dead cats. But as you get to appreciate durian, the smell is not offensive at all. It’s attractive. It makes you drool like a mastiff.” —Bob Halliday, Bangkok-based food writer

7. “Vomit-flavoured custard.” —The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei

8. “The smell of rotten eggs is so overwhelming. I suppress a gag reaction as I take a bite.” —Robb Walsh, food writer

9. “Like all the good things in Nature … durian is indescribable. It is meat and drink and an unrivalled delicacy besides, and you may gorge to repletion and never have cause for penitence. It is the one case where Nature has tried her hand at the culinary art and beaten all the CORDON BLEUE out of heaven and earth.” —a "good friend" of Edmund J. Banfield, Australian Naturalist, as quoted in Banfield's 1911 book My Tropic Isle

10. “[Has a] sewer-gas overtone.” —Maxine E. McBrinn, Anthropologist

11. “Like pungent, runny French cheese … Your breath will smell as if you’d been French kissing your dead grandmother.” —Anthony Bourdain, Chef and Host of Parts Unknown

12. “On first tasting it, I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction, but after four or five trials I found the aroma exquisite.” —Henri Mouhot, French Naturalist, in Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China: Siam, Cambodia, and Laos, During the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860

13. “[Like] eating ice cream in an outhouse.” —As reported in Jerry Hopkins's Strange Foods

14. “I must say that I have never tasted anything more delicious. But not everyone can enjoy or appreciate this strange fruit for the disgusting smell that distinguishes it and that is apt to cause nausea to a weak stomach. Imagine to have under your nose a heap of rotten onion and you will still have but a faint idea of the insupportable odour which emanates from these trees and when its fruit is opened the offensive smell becomes even stronger.” —Giovanni Battista Cerruti, Italian Explorer, in 1908's My Friends the Savages

15. “It tastes like completely rotten mushy onions.” —Andrew Zimmern, Host of Bizarre Foods

16. “Like eating raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.” —Anthony Burgess, Novelist

17. “A rich custard highly flavored with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes." —Alfred Russel Wallace, 19th-century British Naturalist

18. “You will either be overcome, seduced by its powerful, declarative presence, or reject it outright. And run screaming." —Monica Tan, The Guardian Journalist

19. “Carrion in custard.” —A “Governor of the Straits” quoted in 1903's Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive

20. “Yes, I freely admit that when ripe it can smell like a dead animal. Yes, the fruit is difficult to handle, bearing likeness to a medieval weapon. But get down to the pale yellow, creamy flesh, and you’ll experience overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana and egg custard. That’s my attempt at describing durian. But words fail; there is no other fruit like it.” —Thomas Fuller, New York Times Journalist

What Is Nougat?

iStock.com/InaTs
iStock.com/InaTs

If you've ever had a Snickers, Three Musketeers, or Milky Way bar, you know what nougat tastes like. The sweet, creamy concoction can range in texture from chewy to fluffy, and it is the star ingredient in many popular candy bars. But aside from being delicious, what is nougat exactly?

In its simplest form, nougat is made of two basic ingredients: egg whites and a sweetener, traditionally sugar or honey. The signature texture comes from how it's prepared. Like a meringue, eggs and sugar are whipped together quickly until the mixture is aerated and stiff.

Nougat predates mass-produced candy bars, with the confection originating in the Middle East around the 8th century. It spread to southern Europe and gained widespread popularity in 17th-century France. Nougat is still a common component in many Middle Eastern desserts today, and torrone, a type of nougat containing nuts like almonds and pistachios, is enjoyed in Italy around Christmastime.

As more large candy companies have embraced nougat, its quality has suffered over the years, with corn syrup often standing in for the sweetener. But you don't need to head to the candy aisle of your local supermarket to get your nougat fix. If you have eggs and honey in your kitchen, you can make nougat at home today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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