Maple Brine for Thanksgiving Turkey

18 Nov

Holy crap, it has been a while! I finished classes for the time being a while back, but I still haven’t found the time to update and provide recipes for tasty morsels. Jack has been keeping me busy, for sure. He’s in the crawling phase, and he races around the whole place in his walker, getting in to things, knocking stuff over, and sometimes breaking stuff. But the boy and I have fun 😉

So, I didn’t even have the intention to write up a post today. However, I was trying to do some internet searching for good information on brining. The food industry standard for making a brine is one cup of salt and one cup of sugar for every gallon of water. Then you can add whatever additional herbs and flavorings you’d like, such as peppercorns, bay leaves, and spices. Imagination can take off from there.

However, I’ve never particularly enjoyed that ratio of salt to water. I’ve always thought it produced a very salty brine, especially when brining for a full 24 hours, which I feel like most people do. So, while looking for information on different brines, I noticed that there was a real lack of consistency of how much salt is called for from one recipe to another. Some recipes stuck with the idea of using one cup of salt for one gallon of water, but many were suggesting that a cup of salt could be used for only half that amount of water. That’s a salty brine. In addition, almost every recipe called for kosher salt. This is another huge inconsistency, as different brands of kosher salt are ground differently, and can have a significant weight difference in a cup. Not to mention kosher salt is no different from regular table salt, unless it is iodized. Salt is salt is salt. I’m talking to you, sea salt snobs. I digress.

Generally, when I look at recipes online, I’m merely looking for inspiration so that I can do my own thing, but in this case I was looking for specific info. After seeing recipes that seemed to be all over the place, I tried to dig further to find information on brining in general. Everything I found was quite lackluster. Even the’s article on brining was unimpressive.

Looks like I found an instance where the internet didn’t know it all. I pulled out one of my favorite books, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee, to see if I could find what I was looking for. Even this book, which is one of the most comprehensive books on food that I know of, only had a very small section on brining. But the information was good enough.

Now that I am armed with great information, it’s time to share. So, what is brining, and why the hell should I do it? Those who brine will notice that their meat comes out juicier than usual. It is also seasoned throughout. Ever eat that piece of chicken where the skin tastes absolutely delicious, but the meat is bland? That’s because all the salt and seasonings are only on the surface. Marinades can help but still won’t fully penetrate the protein structure of larger cuts of meat, such as roasts and (of course) turkeys.

A brine is defined as such because of its salt content. It differs from a marinade because it lacks, in most cases, an acid. So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty of brining. As Mr. McGee puts it:

“Brining has two initial effects. First, salt disrupts the structure of the muscle filaments. A 3% salt solution dissolves parts of the protein structure that supports the contracting filaments, and a 5.5% solution partly dissolves the filaments themselves. Second, the interactions of salt and proteins result in a greater water-holding capacity in the muscle cells, which then absorb water from the brine.”

When meat is cooked to well done, as we often do with poultry and pork, it loses up to 20% of its weight in moisture. When meat is brined, it can weigh 10% more than before brining. While brining doesn’t reduce the rate of moisture lost when the meat is cooked, adding an additional 10% of weight in moisture means that brining can counterbalance the lost moisture, effectively cutting it in half. The bottom line is a juicier product

Brining the Thanksgiving turkey has become more and more popular, with people trying their hardest to avoid the dried out and bland poultry often remembered from childhood. It isn’t fool proof, but it will definitely help in achieving a juicier and well seasoned bird. Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to brining a turkey. First of all, over brining can make the turkey overly salty. Many people are sensitive to salt, especially if on low sodium diets because of high blood pressure. In this case, it would be safest to go with the 3% salt brine, as it will take longer for the salt to fully penetrate the muscle tissue, and using a less salty brine for less amount of time will reduce the total sodium of the bird. Another disadvantage, one I continue to combat every year, is that brining hinders the crisping of the turkey skin. Crispy skin is absolutely my favorite part of the roasted turkey, but the added moisture that is absorbed into the skin hinders the crisping greatly. The first thing you can do to counteract this is to make sure to air dry the turkey for a few hours before cooking it. Just pull it out of the brine, pat it dry with paper towels, and then place it back in the fridge without a cover. I have another method I’m going to try this year to increase the crisping, but I won’t know if it will work until I do it.

I hope this information has brought some light to those seeking to brine their Holiday turkey this year. I’ll be doing a maple brine, so that recipe will follow if you’re interested in using it. Happy Turkey Day!

Maple Brine for Turkey

Makes one gallon


  • 1 gallon of water
  • 7 ounces of salt (this is a 5.5% salt solution. Half it if you’re looking for a 3% solution)
  • 1 cup of maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup of brown sugar
  • 6 Tablespoons of dijon mustard
  • 1 Tablespoon of red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon of whole cloves
  • 2 sprigs of rosemary
  • 2 Tablespoons of thyme
  • 12 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1/4 cup of peppercorns
  • 3 bay leaves


  1. Combine one quart of water, the salt, the maple syrup, and the brown sugar in a pot. Bring to a boil and ensure the salt and sugar are completely dissolved.
  2. Combine the boiled mixture with the rest of the water and the remaining ingredients. Stir well.
  3. Make sure the brine is cool enough before immersing a turkey in it. The brine can be made ahead of time and refrigerated.
  4. When I cook the turkey, I’m going to melt a stick of butter with 1/4 cup of maple syrup and brush it on the bird while it’s in the oven. Hopefully this will help with crisping the skin.

OK, so what’s the take away from this? Brining penetrates muscle tissue to allow it to hold more moisture, effectively making for a juicier product. The best brines are between a 3% and 5.5% salt solution. That means about 3.5 ounces to 7 ounces of salt per gallon of water. For comparison, a cup of regular table salt weighs about 9.6 ounces. For best results, brine for 8 to 24 hours, but not more than that. Brining is good! Go brine stuff!


Posted by on November 18, 2012 in Entree/Main Dish, Food


Tags: , , , , ,

2 responses to “Maple Brine for Thanksgiving Turkey

  1. Sean

    November 21, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I agree that–when dissolved–salt is salt, but I love me some kosher for the texture.

  2. Letei

    November 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Neat, I’ve never seen a sweet/salty brine before. Thanks for sharing it and explaining how brining works too!



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