Brining: that time-consuming, pain-in-the-behind piece of Thanksgiving turkey prep everyone hates to do, but feels is necessary. Why do we do it? Why is it important? Is it actually important? Does it make a difference in taste? Is it worth all the extra effort? Well, we heard your questions (and your confusion) and decided to test it all out. We’d get to the bottom of brining through a controlled taste test in our Test Kitchen. Here’s what we did and what we found out.
When we designed our methods, we wanted to take into account many things, not just the general taste, but also the color, texture and juiciness of each bird. We created a ranking system for judging both the white meat and dark meat separately, and we ranked the different birds on aroma, appearance, color, juiciness, tenderness, texture, flavor, aftertaste and overall impression. Then, we decided to test four different brining methods.
A) Plain salt brine - 24 hours
B) Highly flavored citrus salt brine - 24 hours
C) Plain salt brine - 4 hours
D) No brining
We chose these different brines because they are the most common. The plain salt brine (A) is your standard brine. We let it brine for 24 hours in the fridge. The flavored brine (B) contained orange, salt, sugar and lots of herbs. It was highly flavored compared to a standard salt brine. The other plain salt brine (C) was a brine we imagined people might try if they forgot to brine their turkey the day before. It was a quick brine you might try out on Thanksgiving morning when you realized your mistake. The last turkey had no brine (D) at all. All of our turkeys were about 16 pounds, and they were all cooked in Hamilton Beach roaster ovens until the thigh temperature met 165°F. All the turkeys used our favorite turkey recipe.
We employed six testers of the taste test, each with varying levels of experience cooking turkey. We sat around the table and tasted the turkeys one by one, with water and saltine crackers to clear our palettes between each bird. We discussed the turkeys as we tried them and took some notes. No one knew which bird they were trying, as it was important to us to do a blind tasting.
Turkey A was moist and flavorful, with equally good light and dark meat. Even the testers who preferred dark meat were surprised with the texture and tenderness of this bird. Everyone thought it tasted very fresh. Some comments were “Mmmmmmmmm” and “Wow, I’m surprised how good this turkey is”. Our favorite comment was, “I can’t believe how much this one brings out the flavor of...well, turkey!”
The second turkey we tried received less than stellar results. Tasters described Turkey B as tasting a little “off” and noticed the turkey had an almost greenish tint. This was far less noticeable in the dark meat than the white meat, but no one chose this turkey as their favorite.
Turkey C was our “Oops, I forgot to brine!” turkey, with only four hours in the salt brine. Testers described this turkey as flavorful, but a little saltier than they’d prefer. The color was good and the texture was okay, but not a little chalky. After we discovered this turkey was only brined for a few hours, we talked about why it might not be as good as the first turkey we tried, which was brined for a full 24 hours.
We concluded that the short brine was a pretty good idea in theory, but the short timeframe didn’t allow the salt and water to fully permeate the turkey and create the ideal equilibrium of salt in the fibers of the turkey.
Turkey D was flavorful, and ended up being the taster’s second favorite bird. We were all surprised that we liked the unbrined turkey so much. It was tasty and had a good color and aroma, but it was admittedly not as tender as the fully brined turkey.
Afterward, the Test Kitchen cooks who administered our blind tasting gave us the descriptions of each turkey we tried. We were very surprised that we all overwhelming chose Turkey A as our favorite - that was the fully brined bird in the plain salt water brine. We were also very surprised that the other bird in a 24 hour brine (Turkey B) was our unanimous least favorite. We all agreed the citrus and herbs in the brine added a strange flavor to the bird we didn’t love.
In the end, we highly recommend brining your Thanksgiving turkey. It made a big difference in flavor and texture that all the testers agreed was worth the extra effort. However, we are disappointed to say that if you forget to brine your turkey the day before, it’s not worth doing a short brine the day of. The tasters felt the unbrined turkey was better than the turkey with a short brine, so if you forget, just skip it altogether and you’ll be alright. If you’re thinking of trying out a uniquely flavored brine, we suggest you go easy on the citrus. We hope this helps with your Thanksgiving planning. Gobble, gobble!
For the roaster oven turkey recipe we used for these tests, please click here.
For 10 ways to use your roaster oven for more than just turkey, please click here.
Hamilton Beach® Roaster Ovens are handy for cooking at home or feeding larger groups of friends and family. These popular roaster ovens bake, roast and cook like traditional ovens, and you can use them to steam and slow-cook as well. Innovation is evident in the buffet-friendly lid; it’s the first one to pivot out of the way for serving.