Holiday Cooking 101: Hooked on Brining~

6 12 2009

I’ve been roasting turkeys since I was 16 years old. Conservatively speaking, that’s 2 turkeys (Christmas and Thanksgiving) each year since I was 16 (most years in the past 7 years I’ve cooked not less than 3, so it all balances out!), my son is over 30 so that’s at least 60 turkeys that I’ve cooked.  And I’ve tested dozens of recipes and theories of how to achieve THE best turkey, bar none.  From brown paper bags, to roasting bags, from long and slow, to hot and quick, from right side up to upside down, from bare-skinned to covered in cheese-cloth basted in butter, butter, and more butter. I’ve done it all.

Four or five years ago I decided to try the one of two things I hadn’t done with a turkey yet…brining.  All I can say is oh my goodness…what was I thinking. Yum.  The first time around, I simply used salt and water.  A plain, unbiased, straight forward approach.  That was to change the way I prepared turkey forever.  It would also change the quantity of turkey I prepared. 1 bird was no longer enough.   2 were much more to our liking. We could eat one in no time flat. One would barely leave us any left-overs.  A year or two later, I let myself use a brine mix I found during our travels. It contained sugar, spices and dried fruit as well.  Interesting.  We liked it!  And so, we began to get adventurous!

This year our brine contains kosher salt, 1 cup to each gallon of water; 3/4 cup brown sugar to each gallon of water, or until I’m happy with the flavor; fresh thyme sprigs, fresh rosemary sprigs, cloves of garlic, lightly crushed; 2 whole bay leaves; 1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns and  1-1/2 Tbsp. “corning spices, ” lightly toasted in a skillet over medium heat until their aromas were released (I think mixed pickling spices would work just as well); 1 Tbsp. juniper berries; orange rind,  a couple cipollini onions and a whole tart apple wedged and added to the water.

Brining is really a lot easier than it seems.  It’s nothing more than soaking the meat in a salt water solution.   That’s no big deal.  It just requires some forethought.  A turkey needs about 24 hours to brine thoroughly.  There are brining kits with bags available out there.  I have special thoughts about those.  Always remember to support the turkey and the bag in another container.  Don’t trust the bag, as I did, to stand up to the weight of the brining solution AND the TURKEY….because it won’t.   You really do need to trust me on this.  There’s no sense in you having to mop your floor & make a whole new brine too… A “food grade” bucket is available at most health food stores, if you’re using a brining bag, there are cheap 5 gallon buckets with lids at Home Depot.  That’s usually what I use.

Getting ready to brine your turkey is pretty easy.  Scrub out the bucket and rinse it well. Set the turkey, wrapping and all into the bucket.    Put the turkey in the bucket and fill the bucket with cold water.   Remove the turkey from the bucket, dry it and return it to the refrigerator.  Measure the water left in the bucket and add 2 quarts for the cavity of the turkey.  That’s how much brining solution you’ll need to prepare.

Preparing the brine is a little tricky.  It’s basically 1 cup kosher salt to each gallon of water.  So, for 2 and 1/2  gallons, you need 2 and 1/2 cups salt.  The salt needs to be dissolved in the water, but you don’t necessarily need to heat all of the water.  The brine has to be cool to cold before it goes onto the turkey.  I heat as little water as I can and dissolve my salt in that, then my sugar, if I’m using sugar.   I add tap water if I need to for the sugar to dissolve.  It takes about 2 – 1/2 quarts of water to dissolve 3 cups of salt and up to 3 cups of sugar.  Remove from heat and let cool as long as you can, to room temperature is ideal.  If you have aromatics, such as a spice packet, put them in with the hot sugar-salt solution so they release their essential oils.   When this has cooled, mix with chilled water to measure 1 gallon, and pour into the bucket.  Remove the turkey from its wrappings; remove the giblets and the neck from the two cavities in the turkey, and if your turkey has a pop up timer, gently remove it from the turkey and throw it away.  We don’t want that. It’s set to trigger at 180º when the turkey is bone dry.  Toss it.  You won’t go to hell.  Honest.  Add the turkey to the bucket,  and fill with chilled water.  Submerge the turkey and secure the lid when the bucket is completely full, using an immense amount of care not to create a huge mess on the floor, but have the mop handy just in case, you know?

24 hours later, or thereabouts, Mr. Turkey Bird is ready to go for a tanning session.  You can rinse, or not, but do take the time to dry the skin, and drain the turkey thoroughly. He’s going to get to lay around a bit for his skin to dry to the touch a bit more than what it gets from the paper towel.  Then he gets a nice olive oil rub before he goes in.  Don’t put stuffing in a brined bird.  There’s more salt throughout the meat of the turkey, so it makes the dressing uncomfortably salty.  And…a brined, un-stuffed turkey will cook a lot faster than a stuffed turkey.  I like to start my turkey upside down so that the juices initially run to the breast.  I start the oven hot, and drop the temp after 30 minutes.  The bird has only a few tasty tidbits in the cavity…garlic, onion or leek, celery, rosemary, thyme and pepper to add a flavor punch to the pan drippings.

Here’s our big fella ready to jump in…

At 17.5 pounds,  we’re looking at 2 to 3 hours cooking time total for the turkey.  We start at 450º with the oven shelf dropped so the top of the turkey is at about the middle of the oven.  Roast it 30 minutes at 450º. then reduce the heat to 325º and roast 30 minutes longer.  Remove the turkey and turn breast up to finish cooking.  Baste with butter or broth as needed and desired.  When the bird reaches a temp of 150º (diseases that are carried by turkeys are killed at 140º) when temped in the side of the breast,

remove it from the oven, remove the turkey to a platter, wrap in foil and let rest.  The meat will continue to cook, and the temp will continue to climb.  Re-adjust your oven racks and do the rest while your turkey draws the juices back up inside, and get busy with that gravy! LOL!

Tasting Notes and Notes on Appearance~
I start my turkeys out breast down…this one was heavy and pushed all the way through the roasting rack to the bottom of the roasting pan…thus the dark areas on the breast, which is strictly darkened skin.  The meat was not adversely affected.  It was not burned black as it appears, but roasted crispy dark brown.  Turkeys prepared this way and pulled from the oven at these temps will be juicy. Yes, juicy. They can rest up to an hour, easily, if wrapped in foil and kept in a warm place (above 140º – to keep food borne pathogens from growing).  If you have leftovers, they will be worth eating.  No worries there.  No disguising them…the family will welcome leftover turkey, especially the breast.




2 responses

27 12 2009
Maria Paray

I cooked a Trader Joe’s pre-brined turkey for Thanksgiving – breast side down, as per your directions. It was perfection! Maybe next year if I get brave, I will brine my own, as per your recipe, above 🙂

14 12 2009

This is inspiring! Your results look amazing! Sometimes turkeys get dry and this one looks so rich and moist!! Hmmmmmm
Happy Holidays!

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