What Works Better, Brining or Injecting?

By Bob McCarthy

It’s the age-old question: Is it better to brine or inject? It’s a question that’s posed every year, right around the second week of November, and is hotly debated straight through to the New Year. Why? Because there’s nothing more disappointing than a dry Thanksgiving turkey or as depressing as a flavorless Christmas roast. Everyone wants to serve an unforgettable holiday dinner, so this time of year, more than any other, you’re bound to hear endless opinions on the best way to ensure your big meal is moist and bursting with flavor.

Whether it’s a Thanksgiving turkey or New Year’s beef, when it comes to serving juicy and flavorful meat, cooks typically fall into two camps: those who brine and those who inject. While both methods are effective, they offer distinctly different benefits, as well as their own unique drawbacks. Ultimately, the method you choose may depend on personal taste and preference.

Brining Turkey Produces Moist and Tender Meat

If you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they call a food briney, it’s about to make a lot more sense.

A brine is simply a solution that primarily consists of salt and water, and brining is the process of soaking meat in that solution (usually in a bucket or container) for anywhere from twenty-four hours to a few days. Although salt and water are the main ingredients of a brine, many people add everything from herbs and spices to sugar and and fruit to the solution to enhance the flavor of the food.

One reason so many people swear by brining their Thanksgiving turkey is science has shown it’s the most effective way to produce moist and tender meat. That’s because brining works at a molecular level. Not to get all science-y, but here’s the dumbed-down version of what happens during brining:

Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. When salt is dissolved in water, the sodium ions, which have a positive charge, and the chloride ions, which have a negative charge, separate. The chloride ions then attach to the meat fibers and, because like ions repel one another, the fibers separate, creating space. That space is filled by the liquid, and most of it is retained throughout cooking. In fact, while meat typically loses about 30% of its weight during cooking, brining reduces that loss to as little as 15%. The result is moist and tender meat.

Making a brine is fairly simple, and there are plenty of creative recipes. If you prefer a ready-made brine, Kosmo’s Q makes a good one and the Briner offers a great bundle package that includes brining solution along with their patented brining bucket.

If moistness was all that mattered, any discussion on how to prep the the holiday bird would begin and end with brining. However, there’s more to consider. Like flavor. For starters, brining can make the meat salty, not a big surprise considering it spent days submerged in a saltwater bath. Brining also doesn’t allow larger particles like herbs and spices to be absorbed into the meat, limiting how much flavor can actually be infused. Also, it’s not just the meat that retains all that moisture. The skin does as well, making it difficult to get that crisp, tasty skin people love.

Injection Delivers Flavor Deep Into Meat

You’ll often see injections referred to as injection marinades, which gives you a pretty good idea of what’s happening: your flavoring the meat from the inside out. Meat injection uses a needle to inject a mixture of fluid and spices into meat. This is done by injecting the solution evenly in several spots. While injection does add fluid to the meat and help keep it moist, its strength is as a flavor enhancer.

What many people love most about turkeys and roasts is the outer seasoning—the savory herbs, and flavorful rubs and pastes that create a delicious crust. However, it’s only on the surface; very little, if any, of that flavor penetrates the meat. Injection allows you to put all that great flavor inside the meat. Not just liquids like water and fruit juice, but solid material such as herbs and spices, as well as sugar, honey, butter and oils. What you can inject is limited only by your imagination and the size of your needle. And, since the skin is unaffected, it still gets crispy during cooking.

Unlike brining, which can take days and needs to be planned for ahead of time, injection can be done last-minute, no waiting necessary. There are also no large buckets or containers taking up valuable real estate in the refrigerator, space you usually need leading up to a big holiday dinner.

As with brines, making your own injection marinade isn’t hard, but there are also plenty of quality pre-packaged mixes from Fab, Butcher BBQ, and Kosmo’s Q. (See our Thanksgiving injection recipe featuring Butcher BBQ and Kosmo’s Q.)

While injecting adds more flavor to meat than brining, it isn’t quite as good at keeping meat moist. You can inject a brine and let it sit overnight, but it’s not quite as effective as soaking the meat. Injecting can also be more work. Because herbs and spices need to be small enough to pass through the tip of the needle, you have to grind up any ingredients in a spice mill, food processor, or coffee grinder to avoid clogging the needle.

Brine & Injection: the Best of Both Worlds

Though we’ve pitted them against one another, brine and injection aren’t necessarily binary options. It doesn’t have to be an either/or decision, you can actually brine and inject to take advantage of many of the benefits of each. Doing both methods in tandem gives you the moist meat offered by brining and the flavor provided by injection. Our Killer Hogs Smoked Turkey recipe is a prime example of how you can use brining and injection to make a moist, tender, and full-flavored turkey.