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All About Dry Brining (Salting) Meat

Dry brined whole turkey

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What’s Wrong With Wet Brining?

There’s nothing wrong with wet brining. It’s just that many people have come to the conclusion that dry brining is more convenient and in many cooking applications gives you a better result. It’s not about choosing one method exclusively over the other, it’s about choosing the right method for the job.

For many of us, our first experience with brining involved a turkey and a big bucket of salty water. That was certainly the case for me back in 2000 when I made this honey-brined turkey.

Wet brining has been around forever…think corned beef, olives, commercially produced bacon…but the popularity of barbecuing wet-brined meats in American backyards can be traced back to a few key events.

  • In 1993, Cook’s Illustrated magazine published its first brined turkey recipe.
  • In 1999, Alton Brown featured brined turkey in a special Thanksgiving episode of Good Eats.
  • In 1999, The New York Times and other newspapers began publishing brined turkey recipes.
  • In the early 2000s, food publications and websites jumped on the brined turkey bandwagon.

Our friends at Weber were paying attention to these trends, too. In the 1999 cookbook Weber’s Art of the Grill and in the Fall 1999 issue of the Weber Grill Out Times newsletter, the company published an apple-brined turkey recipe that became very popular with readers. I cooked and photographed that recipe for an article I published in November 2005 and it became the most popular brined turkey I’ve ever featured on this website.

Apple brined whole turkey, a recipe from Weber

By the mid-2000s it seemed like everyone was brining chickens and turkeys. But around 2006 we began to see an increase in the popularity of dry brining, and after that articles that questioned the use of wet brining in some cooking applications. In November 2008, influential food-science writer Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, wrote an article titled Miracle Cure or Just Water in which he argued that wet brining did little more than add water to meat and didn’t do much for flavor. In November 2012, food-science writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science and former staffer at Cook’s Illustrated magazine when they were singing the praises of wet-brined turkey, wrote an article titled The Truth About Brining Turkey. Lopez-Alt stated that wet brining is inconvenient; it improves moisture retention in meat but robs it of flavor; and many brine flavorings contain molecules that are too large to pass through the cell membranes of meat. He concluded that dry brining is a better approach for flavorful meat.

As I’m writing this in 2020, it seems like people are reserving wet brining for super-lean cuts like boneless skinless chicken breasts and pork chops and maybe their Thanksgiving turkey out of habit or ritual, but otherwise utilizing dry brining for everything else. Whole beef roasts, whole chickens, bone-in chicken pieces, whole turkeys outside of the holiday season, and boneless or bone-in turkey breasts are all more likely to get the dry brined treatment.

What Is Dry Brining?

Dry brining is the process of salting and resting meat prior to cooking to improve its flavor, moisture retention, texture and tenderness.

Benefits Of Dry Brining

When done right, dry brining results in meat that is deeply seasoned but not overly salty, with less of a “watered down” flavor compared to wet-brined meat. Dry-brined meat has better surface browning and dry-brined poultry has crispier skin. The meat retains more of its natural moisture during cooking but is not waterlogged, resulting in better texture and tenderness. And with dry brining, you don’t have to find a food-safe plastic bucket and you don’t have to make room for it in your refrigerator.

How Dry Brining Works

Salt applied to raw meat draws moisture to the surface via osmosis, a process by which water flows through cell membranes from an area of low salt concentration inside the meat to an area of high salt concentration on the surface. The salt and moisture form a briny liquid that is slowly reabsorbed back into the meat as it rests for a period of time based on the size and thickness of the meat. Sodium and chloride ions interact with meat proteins, causing them to denature. Tightly wound bundles of protein begin to unwind and push apart. The muscle fibers relax and weaken, forming a matrix that traps the meat’s naturally occurring water molecules and holds on to them tightly during cooking, so that the cooked meat retains more moisture than it would otherwise.

When eaten, the cooked meat seems more tender because 1) the muscle fibers have been weakened slightly in the dry brining process, and 2) our perception of tenderness is greatly affected by moisture content; moist meat is softer and perceived as being more tender than dry meat. As for flavor, many people believe dry-brined meat tastes better than wet-brined meat because the flavor is not diluted by the addition of water.

Meats That Benefit From Dry Brining

Virtually any cut of whole muscle meat can be dry brined before barbecuing, including:

  • Chicken: whole, butterflied, pieces
  • Cornish Hens: whole, butterflied
  • Turkey: whole, butterflied, bone-in or boneless breast
  • Pork: roasts, loin, tenderloin, chops
  • Beef: roasts, steaks
  • Lamb: roasts, chops
  • Seafood: salmon, trout, shrimp

Do not dry brine hamburgers, just season them with salt immediately before grilling. Dry brining can result in burgers with an undesirable sausage-like texture.

Which Salt To Use

Morton Kosher Salt and Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt

The large grains of kosher salt make it the best choice for dry brining. It’s easy to see and distribute evenly over the surface of the meat, and it clings well to the meat, too.

The two most popular brands of kosher salt in the United States are Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt and Morton Kosher Salt.

Diamond Crystal is recommended by many chefs and it’s the kosher salt I use in my kitchen and for barbecuing.

See All About Salt to learn more about this important ingredient.

Kosher Salt Measures Differently Based On Brand

All kosher salt consists of big flakes, but Diamond Crystal flakes are much bigger than Morton flakes, so much so that the two salts don’t provide the same amount of saltiness when measured by volume. As a result, most well-written recipes will indicate the brand of salt used in their measurements, e.g. “measurements based on Diamond Crystal.”

Of course, you can convert between brands of salt if a recipe calls for one brand but you have the other.

To convert Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt to Morton Kosher Salt, multiply the volume of Diamond Crystal by 0.75.

  • 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal = 3/4 teaspoon Morton
  • 1 Tablespoon Diamond Crystal = 3/4 Tablespoon (2-1/4 teaspoons) Morton
  • 1 cup Diamond Crystal = 3/4 cup Morton

To convert Morton Kosher Salt to Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, multiply the volume of Morton Kosher by 1.34.

  • 1 teaspoon Morton = 1-1/3 teaspoon Diamond Crystal
  • 1 Tablespoon Morton = 1-1/3 Tablespoons (1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) Diamond Crystal
  • 1 cup Morton = 1-1/3 cups Diamond Crystal

While these two brands don’t provide the same amount of saltiness when measured by volume, they do when measured by weight. This is where a kitchen scale comes in handy. One cup of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt weighs about 5 ounces, whereas one cup of Morton Kosher Salt weighs about 7.7 ounces.

  • If a recipe calls for 1 cup (5 ounces) of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, weigh and use 5 ounces of Morton Kosher Salt.
  • If a recipe calls for 1 cup (7.7 ounces) of Morton Kosher Salt, weigh and use 7.7 ounces of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt.

How Much Salt & How Long To Rest

Salting the turkey cavity

The amount of kosher salt used for dry brining depends not only on the type, size, and weight of meat being dry brined, but also the preferences of the recipe author. Some recipes don’t specify a measured amount of salt, saying to “season the meat evenly”. Other recipes are very specific, saying “sprinkle 1 Tablespoon salt inside the turkey cavity, 1 Tablespoon salt under the skin of each breast”, and so on.

Applying kosher salt under turkey skin

There seems to be some consensus that small cuts like steaks, chops, and fish filets should be salted and rested for 45 – 60 minutes at room temperature and then cooked. For whole chicken and bone-in chicken pieces, salting and resting for less than 6 hours provides minimal benefit; longer than 24 hours and the meat starts to break down. So something between 6 – 24 hours is the right amount of resting time. Remember, poultry should always be rested in the refrigerator for food safety.

But just to get you started, here are some salting suggestions from Cook’s Illustrated magazine.

Steaks, Lamb Chops, Pork Chops

Beef, Lamb, Pork Roasts

  • Resting Time: 6-24 hours
  • Amount of Salt: 1 teaspoon per lb
  • Method: Wrap tightly with plastic wrap, refrigerate.

Whole Chicken

  • Resting Time: 6-24 hours
  • Amount of Salt: 1 teaspoon per lb
  • Method: Salt cavity, under skin of breasts/legs, refrigerate on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet pan. Wrap with plastic wrap if resting over 12 hours.

Bone-In Chicken Pieces, Boneless or Bone-In Turkey Breast

  • Resting Time: 6-24 hours
  • Amount of Salt: 3/4 teaspoon per lb
  • Method: If skin-on, salt under skin, leaving skin attached, refrigerate on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet pan. Wrap with plastic wrap if resting over 12 hours.

Whole Turkey

  • Resting Time: 24-48 hours
  • Amount of Salt: 1 teaspoon per lb
  • Method: Salt cavity, under skin of breasts/legs, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, refrigerate on a rimmed baking sheet pan.

Apply Salt Evenly

Most recipes will say something like, “apply salt evenly over the surface.” Some suggest that the salt is sprinkled from 8-10 inches above the meat, which promotes even distribution across the surface. Make sure to apply salt to all surfaces of the meat, and in the case of poultry inside the cavity and all around the wings, legs, and thighs.

Add Baking Powder For Better Browning And Crisp Skin

Example of baking powder

When dry brining poultry, a small amount of baking powder is sometimes added to the salt. Baking powder raises the skin’s pH level which promotes the breakdown of proteins during cooking, resulting in crispier skin and better browning.

Some recipes like Whole Turkey – Salted aka Dry Brined use 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt + 1 teaspoon black pepper + 1 teaspoon baking powder rubbed all over the outside of the turkey.

Refrigerating a dry brined turkey

In the article The Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining Chicken or Turkey, Lopez-Alt suggests combining 1/2 cup Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt (or 6 Tablespoons Morton Kosher Salt) and 2 Tablespoons baking powder, patting the turkey dry, and sprinkling the mixture evenly over the entire surface. He makes no mention of applying the mixture inside the cavity. Lopez-Alt says you may end up using less than half of the mixture depending on the size of the turkey (you might consider making a half batch). Transfer the turkey to a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet pan and refrigerate uncovered 12-24 hours. Lopez-Alt says you can dry brine a turkey for 2-3 days and the meat will be even juicier and more flavorful, but wrap it in plastic wrap before refrigerating so as not to excessively dry out the surface.

Place Meat On Wire Rack

To promote air circulation around your steaks, roasts, boneless or bone-in turkey breasts, and chicken, place them on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet pan. You don’t want the meat sitting in a puddle of salty liquid. Whole turkeys can be placed directly on a rimmed baking sheet pan as we don’t care if the backbone rests in liquid.

Refrigeration Is Required Beyond 1 Hour Rest

Dry brining does not preserve meat. Large cuts of salted meat that rest for more than 1 hour must be refrigerated below 40°F. Small cuts like steaks and chops that rest for 1 hour can do so at room temperature before cooking. Poultry should always be rested in the refrigerator for food safety.

Do Not Rinse Meat After Dry Brining

The salt has worked its magic to season the meat and improve its ability to retain moisture. Don’t mess things up by rinsing the meat before cooking! Trust the process, the meat won’t be too salty after cooking.

Don’t confuse recipes that call for salting and rinsing as dry brining recipes. For example, many salmon recipes call for salting, resting, rinsing, seasoning, and cooking a center cut filet or a whole side of salmon. I’d call that “curing”, not dry brining because rinsing is not part of dry brining.

Improve Water-Chilled Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts With Dry Brining

A lot of chicken in the United States is water-chilled during processing. As a result, the meat retains water. The fine print on the label will say something like, “May contain up to two percent retained water” or “Less than 3% retained water.”

Cook’s Illustrated magazine says you can improve water-chilled boneless skinless chicken breasts with dry brining. Sprinkle evenly with 1-1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt per pound, place on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet pan, and refrigerate for 1 hour before cooking.

Don’t Dry Brine Enhanced Meat & Self-Basted Turkeys

Enhanced meat is injected by the manufacturer with a solution of water, salt, and other ingredients to enhance the moisture content and flavor of the meat. Examples include Butterball self-basted turkey and Swift Premium Guaranteed Tender Pork. Dry brining these meats will not improve the flavor or moisture retention of these meats as they are already wet brined.

See Enhanced Meat for information on how to identify enhanced meat in the supermarket.

BBQ Rub As A Form Of Dry Brining

If your barbecue rub contains a decent amount of salt and you apply it evenly over the meat and allow it to rest in the refrigerator overnight, then it functions as a dry brine. If any of the other rub ingredients are water soluble (e.g. sugar) or contain flavor compounds that are water soluble (e.g. paprika, chili powder, black pepper, cayenne) it’s possible for a small amount of these flavors to be drawn along with the salt into the meat. But the vast majority of the rub’s flavor is happening on the surface of the meat, not inside the meat.

More Dry Brined (Salted) Recipes & Related Articles

For more turkey dry brined recipes and information on TVWB, see these resources:

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