If you buy a fresh turkey directly from a reputable farmer, you know the bird is all-natural. When it comes to frozen turkeys, it’s harder to find specimens that haven’t been treated or processed in some way.
How can you tell if the turkey you’ve purchased from the supermarket is pre-brined or not? Fortunately, the information should be readily available. Here’s where to look.
How Do I Know if My Turkey is Pre Brined or Not?
Pre-brined turkeys should be labeled with a note that reads “Contains up to 8 percent solution of water, salt, spices, and other natural flavoring.” They might also include similar information on the list of ingredients. Most turkeys that you buy in the supermarket have been treated with some type of brine solution to preserve freshness.
What Does “Pre Brined” Mean?
When a turkey is pre-brined, that means it’s been treated with a solution of water and salt before being packaged for sale. Often, there are other ingredients included in this saltwater solution as well.
Most manufacturers will clue you in by putting a disclaimer on the label. This usually reads “Contains up to 8 percent of a solution of water, salt, spices, and natural flavoring,” or something similar.
Just because the label reads “up to 8 percent” doesn’t mean that the package really contains that much brine. Sometimes, the solution makes up just 3 to 4 percent of the total weight.
When you consider the average weight of a turkey that’s been raised for commercial sale, though, that’s still a lot of brine. This is why we don’t recommend brining turkeys that carry this label.
Also, be aware that a turkey isn’t necessarily all-natural just because it doesn’t include this disclaimer. If you’re not sure, check the label. When the ingredients list water and salt in addition to turkey, the bird may be pre-brined.
Understanding Common Terms
Manufacturers will use lots of misleading terms in order to sell more product. As a consumer, it’s up to you to familiarize yourself with their definitions.
Many consumers will happily shell out cash for a “natural” turkey without understanding what this term means.
If the turkey contains no artificial ingredients or preservatives and the meat was minimally processed (or not at all), it can be labeled as “natural.” However, some people assume that this means the animal was humanely raised, when that’s not necessarily true.
No Hormones Added
Since the USDA forbids the use of hormones in poultry products, this is a given. Read the label closely—it should also tell you that federal regulations prohibit hormone use.
Raised Without Antibiotics
When the birds have received no antibiotics in their water, feed, or through an injection, their labels may read “no added antibiotics,” “raised without antibiotics,” or “no antibiotics ever.”
Note that the USDA has not approved the use of the term “antibiotic-free” for meat and poultry labels.
Save this distinction for the days when you’re shopping for eggs. Commercially raised turkeys are never kept in cages, but in huge sheds.
To earn this designation, the producer must prove that the turkey in question had unfettered access to the outdoors for more than half of its natural life.
Since the USDA doesn’t define the term “humanely raised,” it could also simply mean that the bird was allowed to roam free. In essence, terms that haven’t been USDA-approved can mean whatever the producer intends them to.
Benefits of Brining
Why would the food processors include a brine solution with the turkey to begin with? The answer is simple: to prolong the shelf life of the meat.
The saltwater solution acts as a preservative, so the turkey will stay fresh longer than one that hasn’t been given the same treatment. If you want to keep the turkey in the fridge for a few days after it thaws, this can come in handy.
Brining has another benefit, which makes it popular with home chefs. Treating the meat with salt allows it to retain moisture better, as the salt will relax the muscle fibers. Therefore, a brined turkey should be juicy as well as delicious.
You can add other ingredients to a brine in order to ramp up the flavor. Try replacing some of the water with apple juice or cider, or tossing aromatic vegetables or citrus fruits into the solution. Fresh herbs and spices make nice additions as well.
Can You Brine a Pre Brined Turkey Anyway?
A turkey that’s been pre-brined has already received whatever benefits it would reap from the brining process. That alone would be a good reason to avoid this practice.
What’s more, brining a pre-brined turkey could result in meat that’s way too salty. Even though brining is meant to provide moisture more than flavor, some of the salt will inevitably work its way into the turkey.
The flavor isn’t the only aspect that might suffer. Over-brining can cause the meat’s protein fibers to break down too far. This results in mushy meat.
This is a common hazard even if you’re brining the turkey yourself. Many novices will leave the bird in the brine for way too long. Turkeys should sit in brine for no longer than 24 hours—or even less time, if possible.
Does it help if you rinse the turkey after taking it out the package? Perhaps a little, but don’t forget that the turkey has been soaking in that solution for a long time. At that point, rinsing it isn’t likely to make much of a difference.
How To Season a Pre Brined Turkey
Once you know for certain that your turkey was pre-brined, it’s time to think about how to prepare it.
To start with, pat the meat dry with paper towels. We don’t recommend rinsing raw poultry, as this practice could cause bacteria-laden water to splash around the kitchen. Instead, dry the bird inside and out, focusing on the skin to promote crispness.
Apply a layer of binding solution to help your spices adhere. With pre-brined turkeys, avoid salted butter or any other ingredients with high sodium levels. Canola, olive, and peanut oil are all suitable. You can also use cooking spray or unsalted butter.
Choose a seasoning rub that’s low in sodium or completely salt-free. Making your own will give you more control over how much salt is included in the recipe, but there are decent store-bought versions available, too.
Use about 1 teaspoon of seasoning for each pound of turkey. You want the spices to cling to the meat without falling off. If the spice rub forms a thick paste on the skin, the layer is too thick.
Loosen the skin on the breasts with your fingers so that you can apply the seasoning to the meat directly. If it’s only on the skin, it might come off during carving. Try rubbing some of the mixture inside the cavity as well.
How To Cook a Pre Brined Turkey
Aside from a couple of basic guidelines, you don’t have to follow any special rules for cooking a pre-brined bird. Just keep the following things in mind.
The turkey may taste saltier than you’re used to. That could affect the stuffing if you want to put it inside the bird. If you intend to make gravy out of the drippings, you should cut back on the salt during that step as well.
On a side note, we don’t think it’s a good idea to stuff the turkey if you’re putting it on the smoker. The smoke won’t complement the dish—in fact, it will make it taste odd. Bake it in the oven in a casserole dish instead.
As for gravy, you probably won’t have enough drippings to make your own unless you smoke the turkey in a pan. Again, this isn’t our preference, but feel free to do so if you have your heart set on homemade gravy.
To smoke a pre-brined turkey, season it according to the steps we outlined in the section above. Let it sit at room temperature for about 1 hour while you wait for the smoker to heat up. The cooking process will go more smoothly if the bird warms up slightly first.
Plan on setting the smoker to 275 and cooking the bird for 20 minutes per pound. When the meat is pre-brined, it may cook faster than you would expect, so be sure to check the temperature at the estimated halfway mark to see if it’s progressing as planned.
If your bird weighs 10 to 12 pounds, it should take between 3 and 4 hours for the breast meat to cook to 160 degrees. At this point, take the bird off the heat and test the temperature of the thigh meat. It should be at least 180 degrees.
In the event that the breast meat is done cooking before the dark meat, let the bird rest for a few minutes, then carve off the breasts and set them aside, loosely tented with foil. Return the bird to the smoker and allow the legs and thighs to cook to 180 degrees.
You’ll notice that we advocate pulling the breasts from the heat at 160 instead of 165. That’s because they’ll continue to cook while the meat is resting. If you wait too long, the breasts will overcook and become dry.
If you don’t want a pre-brined turkey, read the label carefully before bringing it home. Buying fresh turkeys can help to guarantee a non-brined bird, but it isn’t the only way. When in doubt, you can always ask your butcher or salesperson for help.