Dry Curing or Brining a Turkey | Which Method is Best?
Over the years, we’ve published many great recipes for brined turkey: Chef Sam Hayward’s 2004 recipe; a grilled, brined turkey from chef Geoff Gardner; our roasted brined turkey with giblet gravy; chef Frank McClelland’s cider-brined turkey with Madeira gravy. They are all delicious and we stand by brining as an excellent way to add flavor to your bird while also ensuring that the breast meat stays moist and juicy. Turkeys can be notoriously difficult to cook because you’re trying to cook two very different types of meat (white and dark) at the same time and temperature when, in fact, the dark meat takes longer and can withstand higher temperatures without drying out. Brining a turkey buys you the time you need to get the whole bird cooked without turning the breast meat into sawdust.
But brining a turkey does have two downsides: First, it can be messy, what with a huge turkey and all that brine. You need a big vessel to hold them both—either a lobster pot in the refrigerator or a big cooler, packed with ice, out on the deck. Also, soaking the turkey in all that salted, seasoned water can make the the breast meat a tad spongy. Not enough to spoil anyone’s meal, but just a bit of textural imperfection.
So, in this month’s issue, we present an alternate method, one that combines the benefits of brining without the sponginess problem. It’s called “dry curing” or “dry brining” and it involves putting salt, herbs, and spices directly on the skin of the bird, then wrapping it in plastic and letting it sit. It’s a technique that was first popularized about ten years ago in California by chef Judy Rogers of San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe. Judy’s excellent 2002 book, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, outlined the benefits of pre-salting large pieces of meat (roasts, loins, and whole birds) well in advance of roasting. Inspired by her advice, Russ Parsons, food editor at the Los Angeles Times wrote a November, 2006 column comparing this dry cure approach (he called it the “Judy Bird”) with other popular techniques, such as brining. And the dry cure won. West Coast cooks quickly embraced dry brining as the Next Big Thing, but the technique has been slow to gain traction here.
I learned of the method in 2005, when I was living in California and working at an associate food editor at Sunset magazine. We ran a Thanksgiving recipe contest that year, and one reader’s recipe for dry cured turkey was a hands-down favorite.
Dry brining works in much the same way as wet brining: First, the salt draws moisture out of the meat and out to the surface, but then (and I’m simplifying the chemistry here), the salt and water go back into the meat. As this happens, the salt alters the proteins, making it easier for the meat to absorb that liquid, as well as any seasonings you add. The result: moist, deeply flavored meat. And because the breast meat doesn’t absorb as much water as it would in a wet solution, it never gets spongy.
You might be wondering, doesn’t this make the turkey too salty? Do you need to rinse the bird when it’s done? The answer to both is no. In reality, you’re salting the meat only a little more than you would if you were simply seasoning for flavor, and the salt is so well distributed in the meat that there aren’t any “hot spots.”
The only downside? It takes time. While you can fully wet brine a turkey in 12 to 24 hours, the dry method takes 3 days (you can cut it down to 2, but the results aren’t as good). But as long as you can make room in your refrigerator for the turkey, set in a pan to catch any drips, it’s merely a matter of planning ahead.
So…should you dry brine or wet brine a turkey? If you have limited time and/or limited space in your refrigerator, get your cooler ready and go with the wet method. But if you have the space and can plan ahead, our dry-cured turkey, seasoned with rosemary, thyme, sage, and mustard seeds, is well worth a try.
Lastly, a tip: For extra-crisp skin, remove the plastic wrap from your turkey as it sits in the refrigerator for the final four hours of curing (or, even better, up to overnight). This allows the skin to dry out and crisp up in the heat of the oven.
Want to hear more? I’ll be talking about this technique next Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” at 3 p.m.