Turkey Tester Throwdown: Brining vs Salting

by Shawnda on November 4, 2012

in Chicken & Poultry,Thanksgiving

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.


  • 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


  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.


Yields: ~10 servings

Adapted from Hugh Acheson and Alton Brown

Estimated time: 15 hours

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