I received a letter from an old … I mean “former”… colleague that bears sharing:
“Now that Thanksgiving is around the corner I am reviewing all my many recipes. I note that brining became popular in the last decade or so. Because of my hubby’s heart and kidney issues, we are on a “no added salt” regime, which has put me back into the kitchen pretty much full time.”
“I wonder what happens to the sodium content of turkey — or any poultry — with either the wet or dry brine. Can you give us any information? Has anyone analyzed and published the difference between a brined turkey and an “older style” roasted turkey that may have — gasp — drier flesh?”
— Anne W.
So nice to hear from you, Anne! I’m not a brining expert, but this is what I’ve learned:
Wet brining involves soaking poultry for several hours in a solution of water, salt, sugar and spices prior to cooking. Cooking experts say this process causes the bird to absorb more moisture, thereby increasing the juiciness of the meat.
Dry brining is more like a rub where salt, sugar and spices are applied directly to the skin of the turkey for a day or two and then removed before the turkey is cooked. Some cooks say this enhances the flavor more than wet brining. I have no idea.
In 2014, the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine sent samples of brined food to an independent laboratory for analysis. One of the samples was a skinless chicken breast that had been wet-brined for one hour in 2 quarts of water mixed with 1/4 cup of salt. Another sample that had been prepared with plain water. When the two samples were compared, the brining process added 270 milligrams of sodium. That’s less than 1/8 teaspoon of added salt.
How much sodium is absorbed into a brined turkey depends on how much salt is used and how long it is brined, say nutrition experts at the University of California at Berkeley. Even the type of meat — dark versus white — influences how much sodium is absorbed.
For example, Cook’s Illustrated conducted another test on turkeys soaked in a solution of water and 1/2 cup of salt. After 12 hours, four ounces of white meat had 150 milligrams of sodium while the dark meat had 235 milligrams. After 24 hours of brining, the white meat had 220 milligrams of sodium and the dark meat had 260 milligrams. (The daily goal for most of us is less than 2300 milligrams.)
Let’s face it. On this holiday, brined turkey may be the least of our sodium worries. A cup of prepared stuffing can easily contain more than 500 milligrams of sodium. Four tablespoons of turkey gravy hovers around 300 milligrams.
Some experts say we don’t really need to go through the process of brining to get juicy tasty turkey. Seasoning the bird with herbs, pepper and a bit of salt and basting with oil or butter is still a tried and true … and probably least salty option.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.