The Science of Sustainability

The Science Behind Brining a Turkey

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Brining a turkey can help retain more moisture and flavor during the cooking process. Photo by Shawn Hatfield.

I grew up in a family of chefs. I think I was three when I cooked my first meal on our olive green gas stove. My brother proudly watched over my process as I burned scrambled eggs. Since then, my abilities have improved. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because I get to be in the kitchen for a good solid chunk of time. For those who love to cook, Thanksgiving is like the SuperBowl.

For the last couple of years, I have brined the bird. One of the things I hated growing up at Thanksgiving was overcooked turkey. It is dry, flavorless and feels like eating cardboard. I would often forgo turkey because of how dry it was. Meat, especially lean meat like turkey loses about a third of its moisture during cooking. One year, my uncle tried to alleviate this dryness by deep fat frying the turkey. However, he forgot to heat the oil before putting the bird in the cooker which is a fairly big no-no. Needless to say that year, I was very grateful that I was a practicing vegetarian.

Brining has been my preference for the past three years because it is far healthier than deep fat frying and it cuts the cooking time in half. Most importantly is creates a juicy delicious Thanksgiving turkey. Brining entails soaking the meat for a number of hours in a chilled solution of salt and water. I got my recipe off the food network site, specifically from Alton Brown on Good Eats and it includes salt, vegetable stock, brown sugar and various spices.

But how does brining work? The salt solution passes through the permeable meat cells during the soaking process using the method of osmosis. Osmosis is the diffusion of water through a semi-permeable membrane – in this case the meat cells. Through diffusion, the salt and water within the meat cells balance with the salt and water in the surrounding brine which results in a higher concentration of salt and water in the meat. Food chemists disagree about the mechanics of this diffusion and how salt travels across membranes, but at the end of the day, the diffusion results in more water and flavor within the cells of the meat.

The high concentration of salt also denatures protein strands. In their normal state, the strands are tightly wound; denatured strands unwind and tangle. During cooking, this unusual structure traps water molecules and holds onto them. The end result of this osmosis is less moisture is lost during cooking. This year, I couldn’t cook on Thanksgiving day so I invited friends over for pre-Thanksgiving. The turkey turned out just as good as last year. Even the leftover bird was moist after being reheated in a microwave. Which means that this is a recipe that will stay in the folder in my kitchen for years to come…

Happy Thanksgiving!

For more information about the science behind cooking, here are some great websites:

Cooking for Engineers
Exploratorium’s Science of Cooking
Good Eats on the Food Network

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Cat

About the Author ()

Cathleen (Cat) is the former Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and worked in the public programs division. Before working at the Academy, Cat got her start as an intern at Lindsay Wildlife Museum for four years and worked with animals ranging from snakes and hawks to foxes and bobcats. She has a deep curiosity about the natural world and native California wildlife.
  • Mags

    I appreciate your thoughts on this turkey issue.
    I too brinned (sp?) a turkey last year and it was delicious! I had no left overs and people couldn't stop bragging of how good it was. I have to mention it looked beautiful just like the ones on the cooking shows and I felt so proud. I used alton's recipe too from his good eats show.

  • Cristina

    We had the same issue for years – dry turkey. My sister-in-law introduced us to the process of brining a turkey and it has changed our Thanksgiving!

    I really appreciate knowing the science of why the brine soak works. I didn't realize that it cut the cooking time in half.

    Thanks! Happy Thanksgiving