Dry brining, also referred to as pre-salting, works along the same lines as wet brining with one significant difference: There is no water. The greatest advantage of dry brining is that the turkey has a purer, richer turkey flavor because its juices have not been diluted with water. Instead of plumping the turkey the way a wet brine does, the salt-only dry brine enhances the bird's tenderness and improves its ability to retain moisture without watering down its natural flavor. In essence, it brines the turkey with its own juices. And, because the skin hasn't been soaked in water, it actually becomes thinner and drier. In the oven, this translates to a lovely crisp skin that your guests may fight over.
How to Dry-Brine a Turkey
To dry-brine, sprinkle kosher salt over the entire surface of the turkey, including the cavity (there's no need to rub the salt in), and then let the bird sit for at least 12 hours and up to 2 days loosely covered in the refrigerator. As with any brining, the salt on the surface initially pulls moisture from the protein, but then as the surface salt begins to dissolve, these juices are reabsorbed into the meat, taking the salt along with them. Leaving the turkey uncovered for the last 4 to 6 hours will help dry—and thus crisp up—the skin. Resist any temptation to rinse the turkey after brining. There will be no trace of salt on the surface and rinsing would only make the skin less prone to browning.
Tips for Dry-Brining a Turkey
- Use the Right Salt
Only use kosher salt for dry brining. Fine table or sea salt is too concentrated and won't disperse as evenly, nor dissolve as readily, as kosher salt. Dry-brining a turkey creates a crisp, golden skin, and brings out tremendous flavor and juiciness. You can also dry-brine by eye, sprinkling a generous amount of kosher salt (preferably Diamond Crystal brand) in the cavity and over the entire surface of the turkey. When you're done, the surface should sparkle as though it's been dusted with fresh snow.
- Add Herbs and Spices
If you'd like to season the turkey with something other than salt, mix these flavorings into the salt. Some good choices are cracked black pepper, smoked paprika, ground coriander, or ground fennel seeds. Fresh herbs are best tucked under the skin.
- Take Your Time
You'll get the best results if you leave the turkey in the dry brine for the full 2 days. In fact, you can leave it up to 3 days and it will be every bit as good. Unlike wet brining, where you can ruin the protein by leaving it for too long (it can begin to dry out in spite of the water present), dry brining is forgiving with regards to time.
- Make Minor Adjustments
Dry brining firms up the turkey, making it less flexible and making the skin likely to tear if you try to stretch it in any way. If you want to slide any decorative fresh herbs under the skin, do so immediately before dry brining. Along these same lines, if you intend to truss the turkey (even just tying together the drumstick ends), do this immediately after dry brining and before putting the bird into the refrigerator. Remember, it's best not to stuff a brined turkey, as the stuffing will be overly salty. Instead, bake stuffing in a casserole dish alongside the turkey.
A dry-brined turkey tends to produce very few pan drippings (the absorbed salt does too good of a job of retaining moisture during roasting). To prevent the few pan drippings from scorching, pour 1 to 2 cups of turkey or chicken broth into the bottom of the roasting pan before roasting.
Use these pan drippings to make your gravy. As you should always do when using the pan drippings from a brined turkey to make gravy, taste the drippings before determining what quantity to use. Often the drippings from a dry brined turkey will be less salty (and therefore you can use more of them) than those of a wet-brined bird.