Can I dry-brine a frozen turkey? 16 questions about dry brining answered

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
16 questions about dry-brining a turkey answered

Still have questions about dry-brining your Thanksgiving turkey? I’ve been writing about dry-brining turkeys for several years now, and can guess what some of those might be. So here’s a shot at answering some of the most commonly asked ones.

How much salt should I use? Having tried various ratios, 1 tablespoon of salt for every 5 pounds of turkey turns out to be the best. Plus, it's easy to remember. Therefore, a 15-pound turkey will take 3 tablespoons, a 20-pound turkey will take a quarter cup, and so on. For weights in between, estimate and round down. You'll be fine; this is not rocket science.

What kind of salt? That's a very good question, because different salts have different flake sizes and so have different volume measurements. I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Other coarse salts will be close, but if you're using finely ground salt, reduce the amount used to 2 teaspoons for every five pounds. I'm sorry, that's harder to remember.

How does brining work? Without getting all Mr. Science-y: During cooking, the protein strands in muscles tighten, squeezing out liquid. The salt in a brine solution changes the chemistry of the protein in a way that allows it to retain more moisture during cooking.

Do I need to do the full 3 1/2 days of brining, or can I shorten it? You can shorten it, though the brining won't be as effective. You'll just need to be more careful not to overcook it -- keep a close eye on the internal temperature of that bird! The final half-day of drying is optional as well; if you're pressed for time, just pat the skin thoroughly dry with a paper towel.

Can I use a kosher turkey? Yes. Though koshering does involve salting, it's only for a very brief time — just long enough to remove any traces of blood in order to comply with religious dictates. There is little to no appreciable effect on flavor.

Can I use a frozen turkey? Yes, in fact, we experimented with this a couple of years ago and found that salting a frozen turkey and letting it defrost and brine at the same time works just fine. Just rinse the bird in cool running water to start the defrosting (and to sufficiently un-freeze the bag of giblets so you can pull them out). Pat the bird dry with a paper towel and you're ready to go.

Can I use an already brined turkey? No, that'll simply be too salty. If you've already bought it, save the brining recipe for next year.

Can I use just the turkey breast? Yes, simply adjust the appropriate amount of salt for the weight. Since most turkey breast halves weigh 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, you should use about 2 teaspoons of salt for every 5 pounds.

Can I barbecue a dry-brined turkey? Oh. My. Yes. In fact, that's one of my favorite ways to cook them. Just take a look at the photo above.

What kind of bag should I use? Any sealable plastic bag will work. You'll need one that will hold about 2 1/2 gallons. As this technique has become more popular, grocery stores have started stocking these at the holidays and I've found Smart & Final to be a fairly reliable source. Note: This is also a perfect size for stowing clothes when you travel and for putting away your sweaters in the spring. Just remember to set one aside for Thanksgiving.

I've always used my mom's recipe for roast turkey; can I adapt that to use dry-brining? Yes. Simply dry-brine the turkey as described above, and then eliminate any salt from any further seasoning and cook according to your mom's recipe. If you want a treat, incorporate some of her seasonings into the salt for the dry brining (measure the amount of salt, then grind it with the seasonings). You'll find the flavoring penetrates the meat this way.

It's only been a day, but there's some moisture in the bag, should I worry? No. The salt pulls moisture from the turkey, but almost all of it will be reabsorbed. That's the way this thing works. If you're using a frozen turkey, there may even be a little moisture in the bag at the end of the brining.

Does dry-brined turkey taste salty? No, it simply tastes well-seasoned. You only use a little more salt than you normally would, and because the salt is absorbed into the meat rather than sitting on the surface, the saltiness is mitigated.

Can I make gravy from the pan-drippings? Yes. While the pan drippings from wet brining are usually too salty for gravy, that's not the case with dry brining, though you should taste the gravy before adding any additional seasoning.

Can I stuff a dry-brined turkey? Yes, though a warning is necessary: In order for stuffing to be safe, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it must be heated to a temperature of 160 degrees at the center. By the time the stuffing reaches that temperature, the breast meat will almost certainly be above 170 degrees. Even dry-brined birds will begin to dry out at that point.

Speaking of food safety, I notice that you call for a final temperature for the turkey of 165 degrees, but some of my cookbooks and my meat thermometer call for 180 degrees. Until recently, the USDA called for a final internal temperature of 180 degrees for turkey. But salmonella (the great health threat with poultry) is dead after 30 seconds at 160 degrees. When contacted about the change last year, no one at the agency was able to recall how the higher number had been reached in the first place, and eventually (probably after many meetings) they changed it.

Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1

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