So this is the year you're finally going to do it. Season after season, you've tried every technique known to man. You've roasted at high temperatures for a short time. You've roasted at low temperatures for a long time. You've rubbed and oiled and buttered your bird. You've trussed it and laced it and tucked it and tented it with aluminum foil. And season after season, your turkey has emerged from the oven looking mouth wateringly golden and gorgeous. And then you carve it, plate it, and transport that first delicate white meat morsel to your mouth with your fork – and it's as tough as boot leather and as dry as sawdust.
So this year, you're going to do it. You're going to brine your holiday bird because absolutely everybody gushes over brining as the ultimate way to insure a tender, moist turkey. And you know what? Everybody's right!
But there's more to brining than just dunking a frozen turkey from the supermarket into a bucket of salty water. Let's examine the process.
First of all, what is brining and how does it work?
Brining is a cooking technique similar to marination, in which meat is soaked in a brine – a solution of salt and water – for a period of time prior to cooking in order to hydrate the muscle cells and produce a moister meat when cooked.
As to the actual science of how it works, I defer to the experts at America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated magazine – one of my personal culinary bibles – who say: “Brining works in accordance with two principles, called diffusion and osmosis, that like things to be kept in equilibrium. When brining a turkey, there is a greater concentration of salt and sugar outside of the turkey (in the brine) than inside the turkey (in the cells that make up its flesh). The law of diffusion states that the salt and sugar will naturally flow from the area of greater concentration (the brine) to lesser concentration (the cells). There is also a greater concentration of water, so to speak, outside of the turkey than inside. Here, too, the water will naturally flow from the area of greater concentration (the brine) to lesser concentration (the cells). When water moves in this fashion, the process is called osmosis. Once inside the cells, the salt and, to a lesser extent, the sugar cause the cell proteins to unravel, or denature. As the individual proteins unravel, they become more likely to interact with one another. This interaction results in the formation of a sticky matrix that captures and holds moisture. Once exposed to heat, the matrix gels and forms a barrier that keeps much of the water from leaking out as the meat cooks. Thus you have a turkey that is both better seasoned and much more moist than when you started.”
Got that? Good, then you can explain it to me. In really simple terms, brining causes meat to retain water. In fact, the meat can gain as much as six, eight, or even ten percent in extra water weight. And that's good, because meat loses as much as twenty to thirty percent of its weight and its natural moisture during cooking. Since a lot of meat's moisture is provided by fat, this is particularly true of lean meats – like turkey – that don't have a lot of it to begin with. So when you soak the meat in a brine, you essentially superhydrate it and can, therefore, cut the subsequent moisture loss considerably. Simple. More moisture at the beginning yields more moisture at the end.
Poultry and pork are particularly good candidates for brining. So are many types of seafood. Beef and lamb, on the other hand, do not lend themselves well to brining, nor do fattier game birds like duck or pheasant. Kosher meats are already salted as part of the koshering process, so brining is not a good option there, either.
In the case of turkey – which is why we are gathered here to begin with – brining, with its attendant increase in moisture, is ideal because of the nature of the bird itself and the way it behaves in the oven. Before you start conjuring up images of turkeys misbehaving in the oven, let me explain. When you're cooking your average broad-breasted supermarket turkey, said breast is finished cooking at around 145°. The legs still have another twenty degrees to go before they're done, at about 165°. So unless you have a really moist bird to start with – the kind you get from pumping up the volume with a nice brine – your “white meat” is going to be toast long before your “dark meat” is done.
With the how it works and the why you should do it addressed, we move on to what constitutes a brine. In its simplest form, a brine is made up of water and salt – usually between three and six percent salt, by weight. Most also contain sugar and many brines are enhanced with herbs and spices or even aromatic vegetables such as those found in a traditional soffritto. (That's Italian for mirepoix, by the way)
As to the salt used, it's largely a matter of preference. You can use either table salt or kosher salt in a brine solution. Personally, I prefer kosher salt because of its larger, lighter, and more easily dissolved structure. I also prefer its cleaner flavor (no iodine or chemical additives.)
“But salt is salt,” you say. Not so. Table salt is saltier than kosher salt. A cup of table salt weighs about ten ounces whereas a cup of kosher salt only weighs between five and eight ounces, depending on brand. (For instance, Morton salt is a little heavier than Diamond Crystal salt.)
Finally, the actual “how to” part. ( I do get to these things eventually.)
I make a nice savory brine out of the following ingredients:
1 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon each black peppercorns, dried rosemary, dried sage, dried thyme
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
2 quarts cold water
Combine the ingredients (except the water) in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve everything and bring the solution to a boil. Remove the brine from the heat, add the cold water, let it cool down to room temperature, and then refrigerate it.
The biggest challenge you'll face is refrigeration. Not of the brine; that's the easy part. No, you've got to figure out where to stick a five-gallon food-grade bucket where it will stay at or below 40°F. That means either clearing out a prodigious amount of fridge space or breaking out a large cooler and lots of ice packs. If you opt for the latter, make sure you carefully monitor the temperature inside the cooler so the bird doesn't get into “the Zone.” (That's what the food safety types call the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F wherein bacterial nasties begin to lurk.) A chef I consulted suggests using a probe thermometer to make sure the bird is keeping its cool.
The night before The Big Day, dump the brine in the bucket and stick the bird, breast side down, in the brine. (I don't have to mention thawing the turkey and removing the innards first, do I?) If necessary, add enough cold water to completely submerge the bird. Weigh it down if you have to in order to make sure it stays fully immersed. Cover the bucket and place it in whichever contrivance you've come up with to keep it cold. Keep it there for at least eight hours, depending on the size of the bird. (Rule of thumb: one hour per pound.) Give the bird a turn about halfway through the brining process.
Remove the bird from the brine and rinse it inside and out with cold water. Discard the brine. Dry the bird thoroughly before you finish it with whatever herbs or butters or fruits or vegetables you choose to use before it makes the trip to the oven.
Personally, I'm of the Alton Brown school of turkey drying. It comes out of the brine, gets a rinse, and goes straight to the roasting rack, where it gets thoroughly patted down with paper towels. (I'm thinking of employing a few TSA agents for the thorough pat down. I hear they're really good at it.)
Another school of turkey driers uses the air-drying technique that involves letting the brined bird sit uncovered in the refrigerator until the surface moisture evaporates, usually overnight. The proponents of this method believe that this tightens and dries the skin more completely, thus promoting extra crispness when cooked. Fine if you want to take the time and trouble. Paper towels have always worked for me.
Words of caution: although the Butterball Turkey Hotline folks will tell you they have successfully brined a (thawed) frozen supermarket turkey with good results, even they admit that the meat comes out a little salty. This is because most supermarket turkeys are “enhanced” with a six to eight percent salt solution before they are frozen. So if you brine one in another three to six percent salt solution, you're going to wind up with a mighty salty bird. Your best bet is to brine a fresh turkey, or to at least find a frozen one with as little “enhancement” as possible. (Check the label. It's on there somewhere.)
Either way, cooking a brined turkey will result in the drippings containing a lot more water and a lot more salt than you would be able to use to make a proper pan gravy, so plan accordingly.
Brining is not as difficult as it seems and once you've tried it you'll probably never use any other method. If you don't want to go straight for the big bird on the first try, start out by brining a chicken just to get the hang of it. The results are unbelievably tender, juicy and downright delicious. And definitely worth the extra investment of time and effort.