Wild turkey can be juicy, tender, and absolutely delicious
Wild turkey has been derided as dry, stringy, and even flavorless. That’s a damned shame. As is the case with any wild game, it’s all about preparation. The simple fact is that these beautiful birds, when prepared properly, can be juicy, tender, and absolutely delicious, and completely deserve their place at the center of a Thanksgiving table, or any other table, for that matter.
Here’s Why You Should Be Brining Your Wild Turkey
The trick is in the brine. For me, it has become standard practice to brine all white-fleshed birds, from chukar, pheasant, and grouse to the kings of spring—wild turkey. Brining provides a food-safe environment for birds to come out of rigor and tenderize. Brining also transports salts deep into the meat for even seasoning and optimal moisture retention during cooking. Most importantly, when a well-brined bird reaches your plate, you enjoy tender, savory meat that is the furthest thing from those horror stories of dry or stringy birds. Instead, it’ll be something you will be proud to share with family or friends. Oftentimes, it’s good enough to get them interested in joining you in the hunt.
How Brine makes your Bird Better
To know what’s really happening, it helps to understand the structure of a turkey’s muscle and recall a few concepts from high school biology class. You’ll often hear osmosis credited as the phenomenon responsible for transporting salts as well as some water into the cells of the turkey’s tissues. The reality, as usual, is a bit more complicated. Some cells do indeed draw in salts from the brine solution with water following to reach equilibrium, but there are other anatomical structures at play.
Long bundled fibers called myofibrils are the primary impediment to tenderness in any meat. They’re present in particularly high concentrations in the larger muscle groups of wild turkeys. Generally, the more active the muscle, the more prone the muscle is to becoming tough and dry with overcooking. When these cellular structures are exposed to prolonged heat over 150°F, they will contract and expel moisture from your bird like a wrung-out towel. Thankfully, that’s where a brined bird really starts to shine. When exposed to the salt solution that is a brine, myofibrils, and other more tenacious proteins, will denature. Denatured proteins, or proteins that have had their structure altered, will not contract in the same way when exposed to heat, which really helps to prevent dryness in cooked meats.
Of course, the salt in the brine also has the additional effect of seasoning your meat evenly throughout. Other molecules, aromatics, and sugars can be added in this fashion to a lesser degree. However, there are far more efficient ways to impart the flavor of your favorite herbs or spices than a brine; we’ll cover those later.
The brining process can be accomplished in as little as a few hours. However, I have found, as much through procrastination as anything, that three to four days is ideal. Any longer than that and the denaturation process can start to show some adverse effects. Unless you have a walk-in fridge, the temperature can become difficult to control.
In short, brining your wild turkey increases the amount of moisture that stays in your bird throughout the cooking process. This massively improves both texture and flavor.
Brine Alternatives and Where They’re Appropriate
Now, I’d be remiss not to address the downsides of brining. Brining can be labor-intensive, require some big containers, and, especially when dealing with whole birds, it can be an inefficient use of ingredients. Some argue that it dilutes a bird’s natural flavor. This is entirely fair and it’s the main reason that, sometimes, I skip brining altogether.
One of the best alternatives is to salt your meat in advance of cooking. I’ve heard this called dry brining. However, it all accomplishes the same thing: providing you with well-seasoned meat that is both more tender and juicier than meat salted just before cooking. However, these benefits are superficial, and I mean that literally.
While a brine transports salt evenly throughout the tissue, surface salting results in an over-seasoned surface and unseasoned deep tissue. Fortunately, the cooking methods where this is acceptable are also ones where excess water is best avoided; think pan-roasted cutlets, or my perennial favorite, turkey schnitzel. It’s also the more efficient method for seasoning anything that will be subject to higher temperatures for long periods of time. This includes things like wings, thighs, and drumsticks. Tougher cuts headed for the slow cooker receive no tangible benefit from time in the brine bath. But it doesn’t hurt them, either.
The Best (Wet) Brine for your Wild Turkey
I shoot for around 6 percent salinity for a general-purpose brine. Not only have I found 6 percent salinity to be a nice baseline for seasoning, but it is somewhat easy to achieve in imperial units; it is roughly 1 cup of salt per gallon of water. Often, we can get away with one or two gallons, but turkeys are big. If you’re planning to bathe a whole bird, expect to build 3-4 gallons of brine. You’ll also need a suitably large container. At home, I like a 24-quart Cambro, and on the road, I’ll use a small cooler like a Yeti hopper. A large stockpot or even a very clean bucket will do just fine.
The Best Wet Brine for Wild Turkey
- Large bin, cooler, or bag
- Large amount of space in refrigerator
- Frozen waterbottles if you are unable to fit your brining container in the fridge to keep it cold
- 1 cup salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 gallon cold, clean water
- Aromatics of your choice I like bay leaves, lemons, halved and squeezed, rosemary, marjoram, black pepper, or pickling spice.
- Mix your brine until both salt and sugar is dissolved, and add any aromatics you like. I always throw in a couple bay leaves, some peppercorns, and a small lemon, but remember that we have better ways of imparting those later.
- Submerge your bird and allow it to soak for 8-72 hours, once again, making sure it stays nice and cool.
- After brining, remove the turkey and pat it dry inside and out. If you plan to roast it, allowing it to thoroughly air-dry will produce nice crispy skin. If your bird is destined for the freezer, pack it in an air-tight bag and place gently in the freezer . Just be sure to dry it again before cooking.
How to Make an Equalization (Dry) Brine
- kitchen scale
- Aromatics I like chopped rosemary or bay leaves, lemon zest, and black pepper.
- With a kitchen scale, weigh out your turkey meat.
- Weigh 1.5 percent by weight of salt
- Weigh 1.5 percent by weight of sugar
- Combine and spread evenly over all sides of your meat
- Seal in a resealable bag or container and refrigerate for 2 days to over a week. Because the salt is measured in precise proportion to the meat, there is no risk of the meat being over-salted, much in the same way as with a wet brine, but without additional water.
- Before cooking, remove the meat from its bag or container, rinse and pat dry.
Tristan Henry is a lifelong Oregonian and perennial student of wild food and wild places. Tristan spent his youth in wetlands and on farms of rural western Oregon, where he cultivated a sense for stewardship and love for cooking. After college, he relocated to central Oregon, where he manages a small advertising agency, co-chairs the Oregon Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, chases elk with his bow, and wanders the hills with his wife and dog in search of food and fun.