In our search for a tender, juicy, well-seasoned bird, we quantified just how fast and far salt moves through muscle fibers.
After nearly two decades of experimentation, we’re more than sold on the value of salting or brining. Both techniques cause salt to penetrate and season the meat and break down proteins, tenderizing the muscles and allowing them to hold on to more moisture during cooking. But since brining can turn the flesh so moist that it becomes difficult to achieve crisp skin, we have come to prefer salting for certain recipes, including Simple Grill-Roasted Turkey.
We’ve figured out how much salt to use and how far in advance of cooking to apply it in order to end up with a tender, juicy, well-seasoned bird (24 to 48 hours). But we’ve always wanted some scientific backup to reinforce what we’ve been tasting. To quantify just how fast and far salt moves through muscle fibers, we procured a sophisticated pH meter with a sodium-specific electrode—equipment sensitive enough to register as little as 0.023 parts per million of sodium—and designed the following experiment.
We lifted the skin from four bone-in, skin-on turkey breasts and applied 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound evenly to the meat. We wrapped the breasts in plastic wrap and refrigerated them for 1 hour, 12 hours, 24 hours, and 48 hours and then cut multiple 5-millimeter-thick slivers from each breast (we discarded the skin first). We pureed the slivers from each sample and tested them with our sodium-specific electrode for parts per million of sodium, along with samples from an untreated control breast.
The data confirmed what we’ve been saying for years: Time is the determining factor in how far salt penetrates into meat. Not only that but too little time can actually be detrimental. In the breast treated for only 1 hour, the outermost 5 millimeters of meat were so salty (with a 1.82 percent concentration) that they were inedible, whereas the remainder of the meat was woefully bland, containing the same low level of sodium as the untreated control (0.1 percent concentration). Twelve hours still wasn’t adequate. But by 24 hours, the salt in the bird had moved to the center of the meat, with much of it showing a 0.5 percent concentration—the level most of our tasters agree provides optimal seasoning for turkey. Left for a full 48 hours, even more of the meat from skin to bone was near the ideal 0.5 percent salt concentration.
Even if it feels excessive, it’s important to give your holiday turkey a good amount of time with salt in the refrigerator. With a long enough wait (24 to 48 hours), salt will indeed make its way to the center of a turkey—and the more time that passes the more even its distribution will be. Too short a wait will merely leave the outer layers overly salty and is not worth the trouble.