Yes, there are all sorts of fancy newfangled ways to cook an incredible Thanksgiving Turkey. But there's no Norman Rockwell picture of a Sous Vide. And there's something magical about a whole bird roasting in the oven. It's almost as hypnotic as fire.
No problem. If you want a super moist Thanksgiving bird without poisoning your family, just do what science says. Brine that domesticated Meleagris gallopavo! (That's Latin. It's kind of like science.)
Our buddy from Serious Eats, Chef J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, explained what it is, scientifically, about brining that makes a giant bird so moist and yummy: Salt. Duh, right? Yes, but contrary to Cousin Know-it-All's tableside posturing, osmosis is not at play inside your Thanksgiving meal. In fact, if osmosis were occurring, it would be taking moisture out of the meat. Sorry Cuz: Family dinner head-shot.
No, there's an entirely different chemical process going on: denaturing. When the salt penetrates the muscle fiber, it causes the fibers to deform and relax a little, to denature. Here's how that equates to juiciness:
If you look at muscle tissue under a microscope, it looks like a speaker wire: a bunch of strands contained within an external sheath. In between the strands is water. When those bundles are heated, the heat causes the strands—the muscle fibers—to tighten up as a group. This displaces the water like when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste. When you brine a turkey and denature the muscle fibers, they don't contract and deform as much, so not as much water is forced out.
Chef Kenji says a properly brined turkey will only lose about 15-percent of its weight after cooking for 6 to 8 hours; a no-brine turkey loses 24 percent. So that means a brined turkey will be about 12-percent juicier. Yum! Fun fact: Simply soaking the bird in plain water will actually make your turkey about 4 percent juicier. But why would you do that, when you can get so much yumminess with a little brine?
To make the best brine, Lopez-Alt recommends a solution of at least 5 percent salt by weight. (Salt can vary vastly in weight.) A liter of water is a kilogram so you want 50 grams of salt per liter. If you don't feel like doing the math, here's a cheat sheet: Check out Kenji's full brine recipe here.
So we hope you have a scientifically delicious Thanksgiving; let us know in the comments how your birds turned out. [Serious Eats]