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Turkey Talk

To brine or not to brine, that is the question

Hopefully by now your tryptophan-induced coma has long worn off, you still have credit on your Master Card post-Black Friday, and you’re already planning the festivities for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

I know, I know. Now that Thanksgiving is all pau, you don’t even wanna’ THINK about turkey, let alone deal with all the leftovers taking up precious space in your ‘fridge.

But before we bid farewell to our gobble-gobbled feathered friend “Barney Butterball”, there’s something I’d like to share with ya’ all about this past Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day feast.

Namely brining a turkey. While I’m not considered (yet) to be a veteran domestic cook, I do have a few turkey roasts under my belt of experience. The last 2 of which I had brined due to lessons of enouragement from various cooking shows on the Food Network. Both times realizing how much better a brined turkey comes out, being much more flavorful and moist. Much, MUCH more.

So this past TG day my sister and I decided to do a little test comparison. Since we had two 16 lb. frozen Butterball turkeys to roast, she roasted one at her place that was unbrined, and I roasted a brined one at mom’s place.

One key point that must be noted is that these two frozen Butterball brand Premium Young Turkeys are, according to the label, treated with a 7% solution which includes water, salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphates, natural flavorings. After reading through a few online discussion boards on the subject, many folks discourage brining a turkey that’s treated with such a solution, mainly over concern that the results will be a bird that’s too salty and/or the brine a redundant method, thinking this salt-based solution already does the job. On the other hand, most do swear by brining, but only for a turkey that’s fresh (not frozen) and unprocessed (no solution).

Yet all opinions sounded like they were based on speculation and not tried-and-true results.

Putting our Myth Buster hats on, I set off to brine my test subject, which I’ll name “Butterball B”, while my sister roasted the other one straight outta’ the shrinkwrapped package.

Here goes test subject B in the soak…

“Butterball B” soaking in brine

The brine solution I used here is made-up of 1 cup Hawaiian Salt, 1/2 cup brown cane sugar, 4 bay leaves and 1/8 of a cup of black peppercorns in approximately (more likely a little more than) 1 gallon of filtered tap water. I used about 1 cup of hot tap water to initially dissolve the salt and sugar before adding it to the pot. The pot itself is a huge stock pot large enough (obviously) to accommodate the 16 lb. turkey. I’ve heard other folks use coolers, which would work too. I put the turkey in the soak while it was still frozen, allowing it to thaw and brine at the same time.

The turkey was kept soaking in the brine for 2 days prior to the Thanksgiving Day roast.

To roast it, I dried it thoroughly with a few paper towels, stuffed it with precooked Stovetop Stuffing, rubbed it all over with extra virgin olive oil and seasoned it with just fresh cracked black pepper. I popped it in a preheated 375º convection oven on a roasting pan with a rack. Thanks to that oven having a convection feature, the cooking time was cut almost in half. According to Butterball’s instructions, the turkey’s done when the meat thermometer probe reaches 180ºF at the base of the thigh, which is how is how I gauged it. It reached that in a little over 2 hours. Nice! Saves energy too.

The set oven temperature is supposed to be 325ºF, but I always start my roasts off with a higher temperature to “blast” it and give the outside a nice golden crust. Only thing, on this day, I had gotten side-tracked by some family activities outside, and by the time I got back (within minutes) to reduce the temperature to 325º, the breasts on top got a little scorched. But ah, minahz, small kine papa’a action, but no biggie. She go. I covered the top with foil and continued the roast at 325ºF until done.

Here it is pau roasting…

Butterball B done (with small ‘kine papa’a on da’ top, but minahz)

Here’s a backside view of an entire cut section of one of the breasts from that brined Butterball…

Looks moist ‘n tender to me!

Here’s entire “Butterball B” completely carved…

“Butterball B” carved

Look at the moisture just glistening off of it. Some of those pieces look pink and undercooked, but trust me, they weren’t. They were perfectly cooked through, far from even near “Turkey Jerky” dog treat status. Almost duck-like.

Here’s the unbrined Butterball my sister roasted…

“Butterball A” (unbrined) carved

Let’s take a look once again at “Butterball A”, the unbrined turkey and “Butterball B”, the brined bird..

Unbrined turkey (breast cut) on the left and brined turkey (breast cut) on the right

I don’t even need to tell you which one is which, as you can visually tell the difference. What you can’t do visually is TASTE the difference, which is where I come in to say the brined turkey beat the unbrined turkey by a KNOCKOUT. Everyone who tried it at our Thanksgiving feast agreed to that. While the unbrined turkey was still good, you just can’t beat the flavor and moist, tender texture of the brined version. Like “buttah”. Really, like “turkey butter” is the best way to describe it. Pâté comes to mind. To be honest, it might a little too tender to some. Salt-wise, it was prominent, but tolerable. On the plus side, that really punched out the turkey’s flavor, making it scream “I’m turkey!”, yet when I brine my next turkey, I’ll probably scale back the time and/or salt solution. I’d brine it for just one day, not two. That will probably come out just right as far as salt and tenderness.

Well there you have it. Brine your bird, whether it’s frozen or fresh, solution-treated or not. I can almost guarantee (almost) you won’t cook a turkey ever again without doing so. The “screaming I’m turkey!” flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture is absolutely fantastic.

Now, you can’t have turkey without all the other fixinz, so let’s take a look what else is on the table!…

Keanu’s Li Hing Mui Glazed Ham

Li Hing Mui Cranberry Relish

Candied Yams

(Stovetop) Stuffing

Mashed Potatoes

Most households in Hawaii gotta’ have rice, including on ‘Thanksgiving Day…

Oh yeah. Just gravy on that and I’m good!

Speaking of gravy, we had two full pots of the stuff…

A good gravy can cure even the driest of turkeys, and our gravy was great. Actually, my favorite dish is the stuffing with choke gravy on it. Love that!

The American classic…

Green Bean Casserole with Fried Onion Topping

Since you can’t see underneath, here it is on a plate…

Green Bean Casserole

This is really an easy recipe, made primarily with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.

Keanu’s simply awesome baked potato salad

Mom’s “Everything, including the kitchen sink” potato salad

Keanu’s Chocolate-covered Pretzels

Keanu’s Spiced Pumpkin Pie Crunch

A few plates that I made for myself and ate them all within 15 minutes…

Thanksgiving Day ’08 Plate 1

Thanksgiving Day ’08 Plate 2

Thanksgiving Day ’08 Plate 3

Thanksgiving Day ’08 Plate 4

Whoah. After eating those 4 plates, I was full, full full. Nah, juss’ kidding. No way I could eat all that! I can barely get through one, especially when I’m one of the cooks. I’m the type that barely eat after I cook due to tasting the food doing that job. How about you?

While waiting for the feast to commence, besides watching football, going over the Black Friday ads are a requirement…

Black Friday 2008 ads (Honolulu Advertiser)

Looks like the hot trends this holiday season are flat panel HDTVs, digital cameras, affordable Blue Ray disch players and GPS devices. Anything electronic is always hot as far as I’m concerned. Shoot, give me a diode, resistor and capacitor for Christmas and I’d be happy. lol

Anyway, once again, I highly recommend brining your turkey the next time you do one. It makes a world of a difference.

Oh, and remember, after turkey there’s Jook!

Turkey Jook
Turkey Jook garnished with Chinese Parsley

Happy Holidays!


25 thoughts on “Turkey Talk

  • November 30, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    That looks great pomai! i gotta try the brining technique the next time i attempt to cook a turkey. Question though. with your comparison picture of the brined and unbrined turkey picture, it seems the brined turkey meat could possibly come off as slightly mushy? (at least it was my first thoughts when looking at its texture). anyone complain that it could of been too soft or soggy?


  • November 30, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Danny, yeah, it was a bit too “buttery” and honestly could have perhaps stood another 15-30 minutes or so in the oven to tighten up. Also 1 day less brining (as mentioned) would probably be better than the 2 days it soaked. Still, even as is, I personally loved it, as did a the others who tried it. My sister was one though that thought it was a bit mushy. . Still, since most of the brined turkey went out as leftovers, it was gonna’ be reheated anyway, which is where that extra moisture benefited it.

  • December 1, 2008 at 12:59 am

    Pomai, we did a similar test at our house on Thanksgiving. Turkey A was brined using an Alice Water overnight recipe and Turkey B was salted overnight using a recipe in the Thanksgiving Issue of Bon Appetit. I was surprised that Bon App advocated against brining as it seems like all the rage these days! Both Turkey’s were Butterball frozen like your test subjects. I was very close to buying a heritage turkey from Whole Foods, but $5.99/lb seemed excessive.

    This was our first time brining. The entire defrosting process was a bit of an ordeal due to limited fridge space and concerns for food safety. We did the cooler with a water change every 30 minutes method. Then we put the brined bird in a huge (XL) Zip Loc Bag and stored overnight.

    The brined turkey came out deliciously moist and permeated with good saltiness. I put slightly less salt than the recipe called for as we were using those frozen salt injected birds. I should also note we used one of those oven roasting bags. It cook time in half (to about 2 1/2 hours) which I was very pleased with. The only draw back is that the pan juices collect in the bag, making the skin soggy on the bottom.

    Turkey B was the salted bird. We simply made a dry salt rub per the recipe instructions, slathered it on the defrosted bird, and left in the fridge over night. Next day we rinsed the bird (stuffed with some herbs and lemon and unsalted butter under the skin) and roasted in the old fashioned way. Supposedly the salt penetrates the meat when left over night…so it’s kind of like a dry brine.

    Both birds were the best we’ve ever had. Both were ono and eye pleasing. I think the dry brine of Turkey B may have won out, only by a small margin, as it was much easier to execute. One thing I noticed was cooking time can vary a lot from what it suggests on the bag. Investing in a digital probe thermometer is crucial. Once it hits 175-180, pull it.

    As always Pomai thank you for your excellent run down!


  • December 1, 2008 at 4:00 am

    Oooh, I was hoping you would do a Thanksgiving potluck post for your blog and I wasn’t disappointed. My Thanksgiving grindz were good, but not potluck style so no creative local style dishes like Li Hing Mui Glazed Ham, kahlua turkey, tempura, or sushi like at other people’s houses. My boss brined her turkey and it came out really moist, but had lots of watery drippings. Did you have the same thing happen or should she have drained her turkey or something? (By the way I gained 5 pounds just looking at your family’s delicious spread!)

  • December 1, 2008 at 6:11 am

    Looking at your photos made me go into carbo-overload shock and I mean that in a good way!

    Now I’m inspired to bring a turkey. Maybe I’ll start small and just brine a turkey breast? And maybe I’ll wait until the many pounds of leftover turkey I have sitting in my fridge are consumed first.

    BTW, I took some of the leftover turkey meat and carcass and made turkey jook. Do you guys do that?

  • December 1, 2008 at 7:03 am

    We always brine our bird. We’ve had great success with our friends’ apple juice, ginger and orange peel brine. Makes it nice and sweet. We also do the high-heat blast at the start, but the extra sweetness of the brine turns the skin really black. No biggie. She go!

    In the past, when we brined a pre-brined bird, I did not find that the brine’s flavor passed into the bird. But that was only for a one-night soak. Maybe 2 days might be better.

    Next time we’re going to try “dry-brining” which is just to rub the turkey down with salt and let that sit in the fridge for 4 days. That might help keep the turkey from getting too mushy.

    I am floored by the “li hing cranberry sauce”. What a concept!

  • December 1, 2008 at 9:10 am

    Turkey skin, stuffing and gravy, with a little cranberry – #1

  • December 1, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Ever since my first brined turkey over 7 years ago, we can’t have turkey any other way. I’ve done brining with various brands of turkey and have found that Butterballs are always the best. I brine “frozen-thawed” and fresh Butterballs and both turn out wonderful. I haven’t done a side-by-side yet on the two. Maybe I’d see a difference then?

    This year, though, we tried our first deep fried turkey. We had 2 turkeys, an organic from Costco and of course, a Butterball (frozen). Both had rubs, both same size. Butterball was hands down the winnah! The organic was dry and not very flavorful. Maybe if I had brined the organic turkey first and then deep fried, maybe it would have been better.

  • December 1, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    Li Hing Mui Cranberry Relish?? Recipe please, please! Oh yum!

  • December 1, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Pomai, I found out mom secret turkey recipe and it shock me. She cut up turkey and steam it (yes steam cook). She let it cool and brush a browning glaze on it with is dark soy sauce honey and cooking oil. and broil it till brown. No wonder it so moist , She make two kind of stuffing one is chestnut and other regular sage one. it easy sage, pourtry seasoning celery, onion and turkey stock or chicken stock salt and pepper to taste or yes bread cut up.

    Ham is glaze made of brown sugar, regular prepare mustard and pineapple. It the mustard and brown sugar that give it a certain taste to ham.

  • December 1, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    I dunno–I was looking at the li hing mui ham and thinking–wow, expensive for li hing mui flavor. But those pictures. You’re right, it looked like duck. I did a fried turkey and it was…okay. Next time, maybe brined. :)

  • December 1, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    Amy, someone just shared with me how they cut the turkey up prior to roasting, separating the white meat sections from the dark meat sections (thighs and wings), then roasts them separately. With that, they’re able to cook the whole bird (cut up) within about 2 hours in a conventional oven without overcooking and drying out the white meat.

    As for the steaming method vs. brining method, looking at it from a food science perspective, those are two very different approaches to retaining moisture. While I’m not knocking your mom’s steamed turkey down by any means (especially with that dark soy honey sauce glaze on it!), I’m willing to bet you’d like the internal flavor (below the skin) more on the brined turkey due to that salt-based water solution encapsulated within the meat’s proteins. It takes it from “ah, turkey is turkey”, to “this turkey is fantastic!”.

    Nate, Nichole and Amy, I got the Li Hing Mui Cranberry Sauce idea from a Turkey-to-Go package we ordered several years ago from the Pacific Beach Hotel. One taste of that and we were hooked! So the following Easter, I made my own from scratch. I took the basic cranberry sauce recipe of simply sugar, water and fresh cranberries, cooking it as directed, then adding Li Hing Mui powder in it (Enjoy brand snacks sells that in a package). Easy!…and so ono! You can adjust the amount of Li Hing Mui powder to your taste. You don’t want it too strong. Just subtle where folks ask, “whatever’s in this, it’s good!”. Instead of “I taste Li Hing Mui in here”. Ya’ know? Really easy to make.

    The Li Hing Mui “relish” was made by my aunt, which she prepared in a different method than mine. The one I make is more gelatinous and cooked down.

    Nate, Turkey skin eh? For me, I dunno, it has a strange texture in and of itself. Perhaps if were deep fried turkey I’d like it more, but not so much from the roasted type, which reminds me almost of paper. Obviously attributed to a turkey’s overall lower fat content (in comparison to chicken).

    Nate, that Apple juice, ginger and orange peel brine sounds like a winnah! Now you mention “pre-brined” turkey, which I’m not sure if that’s a misnomer, as on the package it just says “solution”, not “brine”. I’m thinking this solution doesn’t have have the same effect on the turkey meat’s protein molecules as brine does. It looks to be more a preservative than a brine. If the package clearly stated “pre-brined”, why would anyone brine it again? But it doesn’t say that. It just says “Treated with a 7% Solution”.

    That dry brining method sounds interesting as well. Especially if you don’t have the refrigerator space, or pot or cooler large (or clean) enough to soak it in.

    Jenny, I just added a link to my Jook entry I posted a few years ago at the end of this post. You’ll see it.

    Molly, you know, now that you mention it, there was some watery drippings in the pan, but it wasn’t a problem. I was still able to make a good gravy out of the drippings.

    Lauren, wow! Thank you for sharing so much info’ on your little brining “test”! Your results with the dry brine vs. wet soak method is even more encouraging for Nate and I to try that out next time!

    Using a turkey roasting bag is another moisture-preserving time buster I’m familiar with. Some of the Turkey-to-Go packages we’ve had from the hotels included a roasting bag to heat up the turkey at home in the oven. IIRC, the Hyatt was one of them.

    I also use an oven-safe meat thermometer, especially for turkeys and prime rib roasts. For the turkey, I inserted the probe at the lower part of the thigh (drumstick), making sure it wasn’t touching any bones, which would otherwise give an inaccurate (higher temperature) reading. I certainly trust a thermometer reading much more than the minutes-per-pound method for determining proper doneness. Especially when you’re using a convection oven such as I was.

  • December 2, 2008 at 2:41 am

    I see I’m not the only one digging the li hing!

    Is there anything it doesn’t make better?

  • December 2, 2008 at 8:16 am


    you’re right, pre-brined is a misnomer. That implies the meat was simply soaked in a salty solution. But I *think* the actual processing involves injecting the meat with the solution while it is being tumbled in a vacuum chamber. It’s a quicker way to introduce the salt solution deep into the meat mechanically instead of using osmosis.

    Whether the solution gets locked up in the meat proteins the same way as brining is another question.

  • December 2, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Pomai, marinade the turkey before steam cooked is old Chinese recipe and broiling it I use hosine sauce with dark soy sauce and oil. I try quick huli huli chicken by marinading in sauce and steam cooked and broil it and basting sauce on chicken. I also add liquid smoke to sauce and it make best indoor huli huli chicken that quick and easy. My Pake grandfather taught me this.

  • December 2, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    I use leftover turkey to make summer rolls and fried eggroll and also chopped turkey up with cabbage to make potstickers serve with soy sauce and vinegar. Mom use leftover if any to make turkey potpie.

  • December 2, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Pomai, not sure it happening in Hawaii but there is a shortage of Rice Krisppy cereals in many stores. It happen every holidays season after Thankgivings. So many people like to make Rice Krisppy Treat to give out. I like to make Rice Krisppy Cookies. Must buy ahead of holidays rush.

  • December 2, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Mmm the li hing cranberry relish looks ono. Don’t think my family would sell on the li hing ham tho! Damn! Any recipe on the baked potato salad? That looks delish too!!! I’m so turkeyed out it’s not even funny!

  • December 3, 2008 at 5:12 am

    aloha pomai…looks like i’m a tad late to the comments here–awesome pics and write up as usual. say, i tried a new thing: dry brining a turkey. i’ll link you the article through LA Times food blog here: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-turkey19-2008nov19,0,4842837.story Essentially you rub liberally salt on turkey and then leave in a bag, massaging it every so often for 3 days; then you uncover, and leave in fridge for 1/2 a day for skin to dry out a little before roasting. i did only 2 days and skipped the drying out. it’s as perfect as perfect could be. and a lot less messier than wet brining. lemme see if i can get the pic of the roast from my wife–it’s on her camera. cheers! :P

  • December 3, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    In California now is some what a shortage of rice krisppy cereals or other brands rice cereals. Must Rice Krisppy Treat is so popular now during the holiday. Safeway is out so other markets must hot.

  • December 5, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    My family have been using the brine method since the 1980’s (learned it from a chef friend). We always used frozen turkeys and it turned out great. The ratio of salt and water is like mine: 1cup salt to 1 gallon of water. I like to use Hawaiian salt since it is milder and better tasting. I don’t stuff my turkey since can add additional time to cook and I don’t like the idea of raw poultry touching my food. I also did use the stuffing method once and my turkey came out a bit drier than usual. Here’s my recipe which is good up to 20 lbs.:

    1) Dissolve 1 cup of Hawaiian salt to 1 gallon of water
    2) Brine frozen turkey with the wrap removed (believe it or not some people had left the plastic wrap one when I taught them this recipe so I have to tell people this step)
    3) Place frozen turkey in container to thaw. Insure that the entire turkey is covered with the brine (I would place the turkey breast side down during this step and may have to make more brine to cover the turkey). Suggestion: Begin at 8:00pm the night before and it should be ready to roast at 2pm the next day.
    4) Use the lowest oven rack and preheat oven at 500 degrees.
    5) Wipe outside and cavity of turkey dry with paper towel.
    6) Wipe 2 tlbs of sherry wine inside the cavity.
    7) Place turkey in shallow bake pan or roasting pan.
    8) Cover entire turkey with butter (not margarine) ~about 1/2 stick to 1 stick.
    9) Quickly put the turkey in the oven at 500 degrees and roast for 30 minutes.
    10) Reduce heat to 375 degrees and then pour one cup of tap water on the entire turkey (do this rather quickly since we do not want to minimize heat loss from the oven.
    11) Roast to 1 1/2 hours at 375 degrees; however, five minutes before the end of the roasting period, cut a slit on both joints of the thigh and but baste the turkey with the juices at the slits.
    12) At then end of the 1 1/2 hours, remove the turkey immediately from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes.
    13) Carve turkey.
    14) Pig out!

    Like I’ve said before, my family has been doing this before this method got trendy. On top of this, it only takes a short time to roast. Most people did not believe me with my 2 hour turkey recipe and had to demonstrate it for them to believe. Hope this is helpful.

  • December 7, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Pomai, you could go into business online for the turkey brine recipe. They sell the turkey brine mix at Safeway in California for 6.95 a bottle. I will mariade the turkey for a few days and steam cook it and broil it with browning glaze. I will cut up turkey also and mariade it cook faster.

    Boy, all this li hing food make search also for chips with li hing but found none. Mac nuts with li hing sound not bad too but none also.

  • November 17, 2009 at 11:03 am


    You have any recipe on Kalua Turkey?

    I want to try it this year using your Kalua Pig recipe and may even use your brine, I already use brine with my turkey but I am always open for anything new.


  • November 26, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    Thank you for your article! I am making turkey for the first time this year and found a great apple cider brine that I really wanted to try. However, it was really adamant about not using a prebrined turkey. Unfortunately the turkey I just picked up from the supermarket was prebrined. I was bummed until I read that you tried it and it still came out well! Yours was 7% while mine is only 3%. So I’m going to pick up the final ingredients for the brine tomorrow and let it soak until the morning. Thanks for giving me the confidence to try it anyway!!


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