KP Cooks: Brining Meat - Wet or Dry


Richard Gelinas

More than once, a dinner guest at our house has said, “That was the best turkey–chicken–pork I’ve ever tasted,” which is wonderful to hear. I think the guests may have noticed the uniform seasoning with salt that is the result of brining in a salt solution or directly salting (dry brining) the meat before cooking.

Wet or dry, brining meat, especially poultry and pork, not only seasons but tenderizes by promoting denaturation of the protein structure, which also leads to retention of water, keeping the meat juicy after cooking.

Feel like chicken? A whole chicken or parts (three to four pounds) can be seasoned in a brine made with ½ cup of table salt dissolved in 2 quarts of water and kept in the fridge for 30 to 60 minutes. For pork, use a slightly weaker brine (¼ cup of table salt in 2 quarts water) for at least an hour.

Chef Thomas Keller makes fried chicken after soaking in a lemony brine. For two whole chickens the brine is made with 1 gallon of water with 1 cup plus 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, ¼ cup of honey, the juice and zest of 2 lemons, and smaller amounts of bay leaf, garlic, black pepper, parsley, rosemary and thyme. Gently heat this more complex brine to get everything dissolved and soak chickens overnight in the fridge.

Alice Waters likes an even more elaborate brine for turkey. For a 12 to 14-pound turkey, she dissolves 1½ cups of sugar, 1 cup of kosher salt, carrots, onions, leeks, celery, bay leaves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, crushed red pepper, fennel seeds, star anise and thyme in 1 gallon of very warm water. When everything is dissolved and aromatic, she adds 2 more gallons of water followed by the turkey, where it sits for three days in the refrigerator.

I followed this recipe once and the guests raved, but it does take careful planning, a very large container, and an even larger refrigerator. Alice also likes to baste her turkey with a long branch of rosemary, but I cannot be responsible if you try this and it evokes comments from family and friends.

Chef Kenji Lopez-Alt prefers dry brining for turkey, since wet brining means you must give up valuable space in your fridge for a day or more and it can lead to meat that is moist but watery with a bland flavor. He specifically recommends against using broth or any acidic material (vinegar, cider) in a wet brine, which can lead to very dry meat with a desiccated exterior.

His recipe for dry brining is to combine “Half a cup of Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or six tablespoons Morton’s kosher salt) with 2 tablespoons of baking powder (which promotes browning) in a bowl.” Dry the turkey with paper towels and “generously sprinkle the salt mixture on all surfaces.” The salted bird is placed on a rack and set in the fridge uncovered for 12 hours. Then follow your favorite roasting recipe.

Finally, who wouldn’t like a great roast chicken from Samin Nosrat, who once worked for Alice Waters but has emerged as a popular chef, author and TV personality? Here’s a simplified version of her recipe for buttermilk-marinated roast chicken. Sprinkle salt all over (and inside) a 3.5 to 4-pound chicken and let it rest for 30 minutes. Dissolve 2 tablespoons of kosher salt or 4 teaspoons of fine sea salt into 2 cups of buttermilk (or yogurt). Place the chicken in a gallon-size resealable plastic bag and pour in the buttermilk, massaging to spread the buttermilk. Refrigerate overnight, turning the bag occasionally if you wish.

An hour before cooking, remove chicken and scrape off as much buttermilk as you can “without being obsessive.” Roast at 425. After about 20 to 30 minutes, when the chicken starts to brown, reduce the heat to 400 and continue roasting for another 30 minutes or so, until the chicken is brown all over and the juices run clear when you insert a knife down to the bone between the leg and the thigh.

As always, allow the chicken to rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving.