Recipes engineered for perfection—what exactly does that mean? The Science series takes you inside the experiments behind 50 cooking concepts featured in our new book, The Science of Good Cooking, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated.
We’ve brined a lot of turkeys here in the test kitchen. It’s a great way to prevent chalky, dried-out meat. But the moisture of a brine can make it difficult to get a good bronzed, crispy poultry skin, and sometimes we prefer just straight-up salt. How does it work?
Poultry naturally contains some salt and a lot of water, which normally exist in balance. When you apply salt right to the meat, however, it begins drawing moisture from the bird out to the exterior by osmosis. On the exterior, this moisture dissolves the applied salt.
Drawing water out of the bird doesn’t make salting sound like a good idea. But with a little time, this surface moisture forms a super-concentrated brine with the salt it has dissolved. Because salt diffuses from a higher concentration to a lower concentration, the dissolved salt will eventually move back into the chicken. And once inside? It causes some muscle proteins to swell, making room for more liquid.
Above: When salt is applied to the exterior of the bird, it draws water from the center out to the surface, creating a shallow brine. With time, however, the salt and water begin to move back into the bird. This gives us a moist, tender bird after cooking, while the dry surface helps to promote crisp skin.
It also dissolves other proteins, which then act like a sponge to soak up and hold moisture. Along with the salt, the moisture on the surface of the bird is gradually drawn back inside as well in another attempt to strike balance. (This process isn’t quick. We’re basically brining the bird in its own juices.) But after all that moisture and salt is sucked up into the bird, we’re left with a dry surface. This means that when we roast, crispy skin happens.
To test this, associate editor Dan Souza brined one chicken breast (for 1 hour in a solution of ¼ cup of table salt and 1 quart of water), salted another (with ¾ teaspoon of kosher salt) and left it uncovered in the fridge for 18 hours, and left the third alone.
He roasted the breasts in a 450-degree oven until their internal temps hit 160 degrees.
Then he took off the skin.
The salted and untreated chicken had equally browned and crisp skins. They could balance straight as a board on an overturned cup.
The big difference between these two samples came when tasting the meat. The salted breast meat was juicy and well seasoned while the untreated sample was seasoned only at the surface and definitely dry.
The brined skin, however, was paler and soggier and wrapped limply around the overturned cup. While brining is equally effective at helping the meat retain moisture, all that water does negatively affect the crispness of the skin.
So if crispy, bronzed skin on your poultry is the goal, look to straight-up salt, no water added.
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Our recipe for Roast Salted Turkey is free through November 26, 2012.
Got any salty questions? Leave 'em in the comments.