Turkey Tester Throwdown: Brining vs Salting

Brining vs Salting a Turkey or Chicken

Our Thanksgiving menu is mostly set and we’re testing out the few new items that made their way onto the menu over the next couple of weeks. We ended up not being able to completely agree on the turkey recipe so we thought we’d just make both, throwdown style.

The winner’s turkey recipe would be served on Thanksgiving. Loser had to clean the kitchen after a day of recipe testing. Regardless of the whichever side I ended up on, I’d still win – cook once on Sunday and have dinner taken care of through Thursday.

We narrowed our turkey choices down to two:
Sweet Tea & Citrus Brine – I spotted a tea-brined fried chicken on a local menu when browsing for places for dinner a while back. I was instantly taken with the idea of using a sweet tea brine on a turkey for Thanksgiving.
Salted (“Dry brine”) with citrus & herbs – Instead of putting the turkey in the bucket with brine, you rub a seasoned salt mixture over the bird and then the magic happens. Jason was sold on the fact that the flavors should be more concentrated and the procedure sounded more convenient than brining.

After comparing volumes for brining turkeys vs. chicken, we did a 1/4-scale turkey recipe and used a whole chicken.

Round 1 – Assembly

The sweet tea brine comes together easily… just slowly: you steep a few tea bags, add sugar, salt, and aromatics and then chill before submerging the chicken in a pot with ic-e and place the covered pot in the fridge. Easy enough… but with a turkey, storing it in the fridge overnight won’t be an option. I’ll have to use the “turkey bucket” (a food-safe bucket I purchased from our beer & wine supply store; a very small cooler also works great but I find the bucket is narrower and more of the turkey is submerged).

The salted chicken was much, much easier. Salt, citrus zests, fresh herbs stirred together and then rubbed over the bird. We’re talking mere minutes. I wrapped it up in a roasting bag, placed it in a pan, and put it in the fridge. A turkey in a pan will fit in my fridge overnight.

Winner: Salted Turkey

Sweet Tea Brined Turkey


Round 2 – Cooking

Both recipes require that the birds be rinsed inside and out and patted dry. I stuffed both birds with a couple of lemon and orange slices, a sprig of rosemary, and some onion slices that I reclaimed from the brine pot and rinsed prior to stuffing. I drizzled olive oil over both and cracked black pepper over top and then roasted (specifics are in the recipe below) them side-by-side in the same pan. I didn’t baste or broil the last minute or do anything else to promote extra browning.

The biggest difference here? Color. After sitting overnight in brine, the sweet tea chicken had turned brown. Completely brown, except for the parts that were pressed directly against the bottom/sides of the pot. The brined chicken went into the oven darker than the salted turkey would come out. The brined chicken came out a beautiful deep, dark brown.

Winner: Sweet Tea Brine

Round 3 – Pass me a Fork!
First up was the dry salted chicken. It was really good. Great even. The meat was juicy, it had good flavor, and comparatively, was just a bit saltier than the brined chicken. Not too salty, but definitely saltier. If you serve the salted turkey to your family on Thanksgiving, they will be happy. You will be loved. And you won’t have to own something called a “turkey bucket.” That recipe is coming later this week.

But the sweet tea brine… that chicken was excellent. The meat was juicier, had more flavor, and wasn’t as salty. The skin barely just had the faintest hint of tea. And while it didn’t really matter, it was the prettier chicken. We both agreed that it’s the turkey recipe that we’ll be serving at Thanksgiving.

Winner: Close… but Sweet Tea Brine

As mentioned, we used a 1/4-scale of the following recipe for a ~3.5lb chicken. If you’re new to brining, check out Alton Brown’s recipe for the perfect roast turkey. There’s a link to a video clip from the Good Eats episode about brining – good resource.

Sweet Tea and Citrus Brined Turkey

Thanksgiving turkey gets a Southern makeover with a sweet tea and citrus brine.

Ingredients

  • For the brine:
  • 1 gallon water
  • 8 family sized tea bags
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 lemons, thinly sliced
  • 2 navel oranges, thinly sliced
  • 1 heaping Tbsp black peppercorns
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 12 cups of ice
  • 12-14 pound turkey, thawed and inner bag removed.
  • For baking:
  • Kitchen twine
  • Olive oil
  • Cracked black pepper

Instructions

  1. Bring the water to boil in a large pot and add the tea bags.
  2. Turn off the heat and let steep 10 minutes.
  3. Add the salt and sugar, stirring until dissolved (turn the heat back on if necessary).
  4. Add onion, lemon and orange slices, peppercorns and garlic and let cool completely and then refrigerate until very cold.
  5. Add the brine to a clean bucket or very small cooler with ice and put the turkey breast side down.
  6. Leave the bucket in a cool place for 12 hours, flipping the turkey halfway through.
  7. Remove from the brine, rinse well, and pat dry.
  8. Use a slotted spoon to remove enough of the aromatics from the brine to fill the turkey cavity (rinse them well before stuffing).
  9. Preheat oven to 450.
  10. Tie the legs together, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with black pepper.
  11. Roast 30 minutes and then reduce the temp to 350, roasting for ~2 more hours, until a thermometer inserted into the thigh reads 160F.
  12. Let rest for 15 minutes before carving.

Notes

Yields: ~10 servings

Adapted from Hugh Acheson and Alton Brown

Estimated time: 15 hours

36 comments… add one

  • Kath

    Very intriguing- would you make gravy from the drippings? Would it taste like tea? Also, when you make gravy from a brined turkey is it on the salty side?

    • I will at Thanksgiving and have in the past – the gravy isn’t overly salty. The gravy won’t taste like tea – there’s just barely the slightest hint of it in the skin as it is.

  • What a fun post to read!

  • It was SO fun that you did a throwdown! Back when I still ate meat, I was always a major supporter of brining, so I’m glad the sweet tea version won!

  • Can I be honest? Im a little scared of brining..I don’t know why..but the idea freaks me out! I really want to try it though. You’ve inspired me!

  • You know, we’ve been brining the turkey that we smoke in the summers, but somehow it never occurred to me to brine the Thanksgiving turkey; I’ve always used a dry rub. I think I’ll have to try the brine this year! Love the throwdown!

  • Darn. I was hoping for a non-brine win. My problem with brining is also that a bucket just won’t fit in my fridge, not with everything else that has to go in there. And thus begins my case for a second fridge…

    • The salted turkey was still very, very good! Without a comparison dish, no one will know there’s a potentially slightly better option :)

    • Tracy Bomgardner

      Kitchen Mommy, I brine mine in the bottom drawer of my fridge. I double bag the turkey in turkey size oven roasting bags and set it in the drawer, then add the brine mixture. Works out great!

  • I did a sweet tea brine for pork tenderloin over the summer, but it is totally genius for turkey! Definitely will be trying it this way for our trial run.

  • I have always gone for a wet brine, I absolutely love how tender the meat is and every section is flavorful and juicy! It’s not as scary as people might think, I’ve used Alton Brown’s brine for the past few years, but I’m tempted to try the sweet tea brine. It’s sounds delicious!

  • Brandi

    The sweet tea bird is beautiful! WOW!

  • Rachel

    Hi! I loooooove the idea of a sweet tea brined turkey. I live in the south and I am sure my family would love this as well. I have a small family and would like to do this with a chicken as you did for the testing. Would I just quarter all of the ingredients and proceed with the recipe. How long did you roast your chicken? Thanks!!

    • Yep! I baked for 20 mins at 450, lowered the the temp to (correction) 400 and the thermometer beeped ~40 mins later.

  • Okay, walk me through this, hold my hand, if you will. How do you brine in a food bucket? How do you keep it cold? I’d love to wet brine a turkey, but I have no idea how to make the logistics work, i.e, a big enough container, keeping it at a safe temp, etc.

  • Diane

    I am *so* glad you did this throwdown because I’ve been struggling with which type of turkey to make. Lately Cook’s Illustrated has been saying the brined birds are a little spongy and so salting is the way to go, but I kept vacillating. I’ve never tried Alton Brown’s recipe but did recently see the episode on YouTube. Thanks again for making steering me in that direction!!
    Diane

  • I was another person hoping for the salted turkey to win! I just don’t have the fridge space for a turkey bucket and it’s about 40 degrees too warm to keep it on the balcony! I made a salted turkey last year and we were really happy with it, so until we get a second fridge or move to much colder climate, I guess I’ll stick with it. 😉 Still very fun to see your results!

  • That is a great little throwdown. I make a salted turkey throughout the year. I use smoked salt and it is so delicious. And anything w/ sweet tea has my attention. Yummers!

  • I absolutely love how dark it turned out!

  • Such a super fun challenge! Both birds look beautiful but that sweet tea chicken is totally mouthwatering!

  • I love that you did this. I brined a turkey years ago. It was a recipe featured in Bon Appetit that year. I was fabulous and we still talk about that turkey flavor. You just sealed the deal for us too…going with the brined turkey at Thanksgiving!

  • Sweet tea brine?! Who would have thought? I think I may also have to try this on a single chicken. It looks gorgeous!

  • What an awesome throwdown idea. Can’t wait to try the sweet tea brine!

  • Becky

    So I just tried the Sweet-tea brine on our family’s chicken for dinner tonight – SCRUMPTIOUS!!!! Oh, so delicious! Thanks so much for posting!!

  • Christian Friborg

    Sweet tea brine seems interesting. I wonder how my turkey will taste after. Can’t wait!

  • Stephanie

    Quick question– do you take the tea bags out after the 10 minute steep or leave them in through the brine? Thanks for the awesome idea!!

  • Ken

    Aren’t you suppose to salt the turkey under the skin? Otherwise, how does osmosis function with that skin in-between?

  • Caroline

    Would you say that this turkey can run the risk of smoking too much? I have made Alton Brown’s turkey in the past and I generated a lot of smoke which flavored the turkey…not in a good way. It could be that my oven is on the smal side but not sure. Is this still your number one choice for turkey? Thanks

    • Number one choice for turkey, absolutely. I don’t recall having any smoke issues with the oven – do you know what exactly is generating the smoke?

      • Caroline

        I am guessing it was the high temp roast combined with the canola oil rub.

  • Brandi

    I just made my “test run” chicken to practice for Thanksgiving. It was DELICIOUS! I can taste the slightest hint of tea and citrus on the skin, but the gravy didn’t have those flavors… just a good basic dripping gravy. Thanks for the recipe, I can’t wait to wow the family as we host our first Thanksgiving this year :)
    A+

  • Lynne

    2 questions:
    1. Brining time: Is more better? Would brining it for 2-3 days be better than the 12 hours in this recipe? I have read some recipes that brine for 3 days, and some say “no more than 24 hours”.

    2. How much would you adjust cooking time for a larger bird? In my case, i bought a 16 pounder.

    • 1: 24 hours is the max I usually do with the salt:water ratio of this brine. It’s what I’ll be doing this year – I plan to buy my turkey and have it go into the bucket still partially frozen. You can definitely brine for longer, but make sure it stays cold and you’ll probably want to reduce the salt.
      2: At 2-4 extra pounds, your cooking time will be only *slightly* longer – we’re talking maybe up to 1 hour. Just be sure to verify with a thermometer that the temp gets to 160F (it will rise to 165F or more while resting).

      • Lynne

        Thank you. Very Helpful.

  • Leigh Dever

    We use your brined recipe is year. TOTALLY beats Alton Browns recipe that we have used for the last three years! Will be using your recipe from now on! Aaaaannndddd we made you yeast rolls, too! Delicious!!

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