This article originally ran in 2003 and discusses a method of turkey preparation that is very popular today. Though not for folks with high blood pressure or who otherwise watch their salt intake, it is clearly a tasty way to prepare turkey.
To brine, or not to brine, that is the question. Last year’s trio of turkeys for a crowd was experimental. Our small army of cooks roasted two organic, free-range turkeys from Over the Moon Farm and compared it to one of the free turkeys given away by a local supermarket as a bonus reward. One of the free-range turkeys, a large boned Red Bourbon, was brined first — that is, soaked in a solution of salt and water for 6 hours before cooking. The vote at the table was clearly in favor of the Red Bourbon, for its moist meat with exceptional flavor.
It is the eleventh hour in many households today. The last thing anyone needs is to add something to their to-do list, particularly something like, “give the turkey his sea salt spa treatment.” Besides, the turkey is almost incidental to the meal; the real stars are the side dishes, the glimmering cranberry chutney, the fluffy mound of mashed potatoes, the candied sweet potatoes. Who cares what the turkey tastes like? We’re all used to a dry, bark-like texture for turkey meat, which is why the gravy has to be good.
Try brining. Using a Cook’s Illustrated article for guidance, I massaged 2 pounds of Kosher salt into the 13 pound bird before filling up a large plastic tub with enough cool water to cover. I have a commercial refrigerator large enough to hold the container, but ice packs can be used to keep the temperature of the water at 40 degrees and the weather may cooperate. Keep your instant read thermometer handy. An hour before going into the oven, the bird should be rinsed thoroughly, placed upon a rack and allowed to air dry before going into a 400 degree oven.
Brining relies on food science principles of diffusion and osmosis to denature proteins so they form a matrix that holds more water. In plain English, when the turkey is submerged in a salt solution, diffusion causes the salt to migrate into the turkey meat so that there is equilibrium in the system, that is, the turkey in the liquid. Similarly, osmosis causes water in the brine to migrate into the turkey cells so there is balance within the system. The salt causes the proteins in the turkey to unravel and interact with each other and to form a sticky gel that holds moisture. The result is a juicier roasted turkey because of the increase of water and a more flavorful turkey because of the additional salt.
Not all turkeys need brining. Some frozen turkeys are already injected with a water-salt solution. Kosher turkeys are processed with salt. The birds that need the treatment are the regular frozen turkeys and the free range, minimally processed birds. If you don’t want to experiment with a major player as the Thanksgiving turkey, try the brining technique on a chicken or a Cornish hen some time. But at some point, do try brining — you’ll have one more thing to be thankful for.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
OVEN-ROASTED BRINED TURKEY WITH GIBLET PAN SAUCE
1 turkey, (12-14 pounds), with giblets removed
2 pounds Kosher salt (or 1 pound regular table salt)
3 medium onions, chopped rough
2 medium carrots, chopped rough
2 stalks celery, chopped rough
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 stick melted butter
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup of cold water
Rinse turkey, and place a container just large enough to hold it comfortably. Rub the salt into the body cavities and skin, all over the bird. Add cold water to cover entirely, stirring the water so the salt dissolves. Set the turkey in a refrigerator, cooler or outdoors if the temperature is 40 degrees for 4 to 6 hours. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse both cavities and exterior surfaces under cool running water for several minutes until all crystalline traces of the salt are gone.
Put the giblet parts (reserving the liver for another use or adding it during the last 5 minutes of cooking time) in a large saucepan with one third of each of the chopped vegetables, two thyme sprigs and the bay leaf. Add 6 cups of water and bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, for about an hour. Strain the broth and set the neck and giblets parts aside until cool then refrigerate until ready to use.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss another third of the rough chopped vegetables and two sprigs of thyme with the melted butter and place in the large body cavity. Tie turkey legs together and tuck the wings under and tie with string.
Place the remaining third of the vegetables and the remaining two sprigs of thyme on the bottom of a large roasting pan. Place the turkey on a sturdy rack and allow to air dry for 20-30 minutes. Brush the surface of the turkey with melted butter and roast, basting every 30 minutes, until the thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165-170 degrees, about 3 hours.
Remove the rack and turkey from the roasting pan and set on large baking tray to catch the juices. Tent the turkey with foil, drape with heavy towels and allow to rest for 30 minutes so the carry over cooking raises the temperature to 180 degrees.
Strain the pan drippings into a large saucepan, discarding the solids. Skim the fat. Place the broiler pan on two burners and add 3 cups of stock and whisk up the browned bits (actually caramelized proteins that add flavor to the finished sauce). When the broiler pan is clean and the stock is simmering, strain the stock into the saucepan with the pan drippings. Finely dice the giblets (and liver) if you want to add them to the sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil. Mix the cornstarch with the half cup of cold water and whisk gradually into the saucepan. Bring to a boil until the sauce thickens slightly. Carve the turkey and pass the sauce separately.
Brining Formula: For a basic brine, use one quart of water mixed with one half cup of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or one fourth cup of regular table salt or one fourth cup plus two tablespoons of Morton Kosher salt). One half cup of sugar can be added to the brine and will result in more browning. The amount of brine is one quart per pound of food, not to exceed 2 gallons of brine. Plan on one hour per pound of product, but not less than 30 minutes and not more that 8 hours. Items that are brined for a longer time may be too salty and their pan juices are unusable. Best choices for brining are: Cornish hen, chicken, turkey, pork a whole side of salmon and shrimp.