Serve that Bird
Brining has plenty of advocates, and understandably so. It’s a flexible technique that makes a remarkable difference in the moistness of the turkey meat, especially the breast.
Maybe this is your first year to make the turkey, and you are envisioning yourself holding that triumphantly cooked bird aloft, John Cusack Say Anything style. Or maybe you are looking to impress your in-laws and are going for that perfectly golden-browned, Norman Rockwell style bird. Or maybe this year you just want to cook a turkey that isn’t as dry as the Gobi desert for once.
Whatever your reason, we’re here to help. Turkey is not the most forgiving dish to make (there’s a reason most of us only cook it once a year), but for better or worse it has seemed to become a rite of passage. Depending on who you talk to, one person will swear by a certain cooking method while another sticks to something totally different, making it all the more confusing. Here we will talk about one tried-and-true method — brining — that will help you to prepare a turkey delicious enough that hopefully Aunt Carol will be too busy chewing to nag for once (aren’t the holidays just swell?).
You’ve probably heard the term brining before, but maybe it occupies those obscure, intimidating echelons of cooking terms that leave you withering in fear. Or perhaps it calls to mind pirates scuffling around on a salty ship deck. But all brining really means is infusing salt into the turkey before cooking it to tenderize the muscle and make it juicy.
There are two kinds of brining: wet and dry. Wet brining is the method most people are probably familiar with, which involves totally submerging the bird in salted water for 12-24 hours prior to cooking. The water should be around 6 percent salt by weight — about 1 ¼ cups kosher salt per gallon. Some people will add aromatics like rosemary, orange peel, cranberries, etc., or some will submerge the bird in chicken stock rather than water. Some of the muscle proteins are dissolved by the penetrating salt, which will result in far less moisture loss once the turkey is cooked, leading to a much juicier, plumper, more tender bird.
There are a couple of problems associated with the wet brining method, however, The first is actually creating real-estate in the fridge for such a large pot to keep the turkey submerged and cold while brining — a difficult feat during the peak of holiday food prep. You may also use an ice chest for this method, but again it must stay cold for food safety purposes, and adding a fresh bag of ice or frozen water bottles every few hours is not the most ideal.
The second issue is that, yes, the turkey will be juicy and moist, but it will also likely be relatively bland due to so much water retention. Instead of the flavor of turkey, you may just get the flavor of tap water. Not appealing, right? Some people seek to remedy this by adding the aromatics to the brining solution, or using chicken stock instead. But both of these efforts can be fruitless (and expensive — that’s a lot of stock) because the only molecules small enough to really pass through the membrane of the skin is salt. The large and flavorful molecules of aromatics like onions, carrots, celery, and spices do not actually make it into the meat.
Moving away from the more traditional method of wet brining, dry brining has become a much more popular method in recent years. Dry brining allows the meat to retain moisture while also not being watered down. According to seriouseats.com, here’s a trusted method for dry brining that you may be interested in trying out this year:
You will need:
- Half a cup of Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or 6 Tbsps. of Morton’s kosher salt)
- 2 Tbsps. baking powder*
1. Pat down your turkey with paper towels (salt will adhere to drier meat better). Combine the salt and baking powder in a bowl.
2. Generously sprinkle the salt mixture on all surfaces by picking up the mixture between your thumb and forefingers, holding it 6-10 inches above the bird, and letting the mixture shower down over the surface of the turkey for even coverage (you may not need all of the salt; in some cases, depending on bird size, less than half will be OK).
3. Transfer the turkey to a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered, for 12-24 hours.
4. Without rinsing, roast the turkey (see seriouseats.com for recommended methods), omitting any additional salting steps called for in your chosen recipe.
*Adding baking powder to the salt rub will improve the turkey’s roasted skin. Not only does the baking powder work to break down protein in the skin, causing it to crisp and brown more efficiently, but it also combines with the turkey juices to form microscopic bubbles that add surface area and crunch to the skin as it roasts.
- Your turkey does not have to be completely thawed before brining (either by wet or dry). You may allow it to finish thawing as it brines or, if you prefer, it can be totally thawed (a totally thawed turkey will be OK in the fridge for up to two days before roasting).
- If you plan to brine, do not purchase a turkey that says “Kosher,” “Enhanced,” or “Self-Basting;” as all of these have already been salted.
- If using a rub or herbed butter to flavor, make sure to actually massage it under the skin, not just on top of. Another good way to impart flavor is to make slits in the turkey’s skin and insert whole garlic cloves to roast along with the bird.
- Instead of putting your aromatics in a wet brine solution, choose instead to place the neck bones and gizzards (those little beauties found inside the cavity of the turkey, many times to the shock of a first-timer), along with an array of diced root vegetables in the roasting pan to flavor the pan drippings.
- For extra decadent, drippy deliciousness, toss veggies in maple syrup or honey before roasting.
- Once you remove the turkey from the oven, allow the meat to rest for at least 20 minutes before cutting; this will allow the meat to retain more of its juices as it cools.
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