Turkey Talk: To Brine or Not To Brine....THAT Is the Question!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

[Alton Brown's Good Eats Brined Turkey; picture courtesy of Foodnetwork]

Every Thanksgiving people take to their corners for the epic fight...

"And in this corner we have The Briners. Dedicated to soaking their bird in salty goodness, they stand by held fast that this guarantees the moistest of birds. Adding some herbage and it's a sure fire hit for dinner. They scoff at the pitiful ones who roast simply, relying on stuffing and seasoning to flavor their meat, and on their oven to keep it moist. Word.

And in this corner we have The Roasters. They don't bother with stupid multi-day preparations -- for them one transfer of heavy poultry is quite enough. They rely on their skills as seasoners and roasters, and with the help of Magic Butter manage to coax out a wonderfully moist turkey with incredible flavors. Their secret weapon: insanely good gravy that comes from the pan drippings based on natural turkey juices, butter, and herbs and seasonings. Booyakasha!"

So what's the real difference here? What the hell is brining actually?

Brining is the process of marinating meat in salted water seasoned with spices for at least one day. Basically what happens is the process of osmosis. Remember that from biology in high school? In turkey terms, we're basically hydrating the turkey's cells by way of salt water -- so when it cooks and moisture leaves, we've already pumped it with enough moisture so then when it's roasting only half of the moisture leaves the turkey meat, retains some,  and thus leaves a moist and tender turkey meat.

The brining process is quite easy: a lot of cold water, a lot of good salt (preferably course sea salt or kosher salt), various spices and herbs like bay leaves, pepper corns, allspice berries and others, and the turkey. Some recipes have you add some sugar or fruit juice or broth as well. You place the turkey in a large container then pour this salted water mixture over it, and leave it to marinate for at least a day, preferably 3. Then you take the turkey out, pat it really dry, stuff the cavity and roast it off.

Many BBQers like brining their poultry before smoking as well. If you're planning to smoke your turkey this year, then you probably want to do a brining beforehand.

Brining is a technique preferred for poultry since white meats tend to get drier faster than red meats (red meat is fattier and that fat helps keep the meat from drying out while cooking). It's also been applied to cheeses as well, most notably to feta cheese and Limburger cheese.

But back to turkey...

I've talked to people who absolutely swear by the process of brining. It's very easy and the huge upshot is your turkey is already seasoned and ready to go -- since your brine liquid is so concentrated with salt and other spices, you've already infused your turkey with seasonings. So instead of the seasoning sitting on top of the turkey, they're all throughout the meat inside. No need to re-season. Simply lubricate the bird on top with oil and roast away. Brined turkeys often don't burn either since you're not worrying about herbs getting too brown on top. And brined turkeys are less maintenance during the cooking process -- again since you've already ensured the moisture inside the turkey, no need for basting.

[turkey in its brining liquid in 5 gallon sized bucket; picture courtesy of What's Cooking America's website]
But some less-appealing aspects is it requires a lot of preparation. First, you need a 5-gallon tub that can hold the turkey and brine in. Then you have to refrigerate that. Imagine putting a big paint bucket in your fridge. Exactly -- that would be the only reason why I've personally never brined a turkey. If you live in a colder place like the east coast, you can leave the brine bucket in a cold place like your garage overnight or something. But if you live in California then it gets trickier. They do have brining bags you can buy as well that can hold up to a 20 pound turkey so it can fit easier into your fridge.

And also, you once you've brined you can't really control the salt. What if the turkey isn't salted enough? Too late -- you have to trust that the brine penetrated in the turkey and stayed in during the roasting process. There's no way to check if the turkey is salted enough before cooking because it's raw. And a third downside is brined turkeys tend to not yield enough juices to make gravy. If you're planning to serve turkey gravy, then you'll have to make a totally separate batch from scratch. Which is very easy to do.

If brining is your thing, check out a very easy and basic recipe from Alton Brown. It's a good introduction for basic brining technique that yields a good bird for an average sized turkey (14-16 pounds).

Good Eats Roast Turkey
1 (14 to 16 pound) frozen young turkey

For the brine:
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 gallon vegetable stock
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped candied ginger
1 gallon heavily iced water

For the aromatics:
1 red apple, sliced
1/2 onion, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
4 sprigs rosemary
6 leaves sage
Canola oil

2 to 3 days before roasting:

Begin thawing the turkey in the refrigerator or in a cooler kept at 38 degrees F.

Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.

Early on the day or the night before you'd like to eat:

Combine the brine, water and ice in the 5-gallon bucket. Place the thawed turkey (with innards removed) breast side down in brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully immersed, cover, and refrigerate or set in cool area for 8 to 16 hours, turning the bird once half way through brining.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Remove the bird from brine and rinse inside and out with cold water. Discard the brine.

Place the bird on roasting rack inside a half sheet pan and pat dry with paper towels.

Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick, and 1 cup of water in a microwave safe dish and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Add steeped aromatics to the turkey's cavity along with the rosemary and sage. Tuck the wings underneath the bird and coat the skin liberally with canola oil.

Roast the turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees F for 30 minutes. Insert a probe thermometer into thickest part of the breast and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Set the thermometer alarm (if available) to 161 degrees F. A 14 to 16 pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours of roasting. Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil or a large mixing bowl for 15 minutes before carving.

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