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Nov 13, 2004 12:31 PM

brining turkeys

  • j

Re this process, just a note - I have now been brining my thanksgiving turkeys since - well - the first Cooks Mag recc on the topic - so maybe 10 yrs. I had been really working on high temp methods before that time, but we were just astounded that first year with the effect of switching over to brine. It made the white meat tasty and tender too, and improved the whole bird. Its essentially a simple process to get the basic brining effect - you take a couple of pounds of salt and rub it all over the bird - then immerse the bird in a large pot of water. recently instead of rubbing the salt over the turkey I have taken to simply adding the salt to the water and stirring it around before putting in the bird. for a smallish birds its 4-6 hrs for bigger bird, longer (I brine my birds overnight) - I think the formula calls for a bit less salt for the longer brining called for for the bigger birds, too. I usually put the bird out in my entry way so it stays cool enough - some formulae call for refrigeration or ice cubes but if your brine is cold and your turkey still half frozen inside, as mine usually is, its not an issue.Be sure to carefully wash the bird after removing from the brine to get all the salt out of the nooks and crannies.

The recipes for the brine that have been offered subsequently keep getting elaborated, with sugar added, boiling of the brine with herbs and spices, etc. I am a hurried cook, so havent tried these, but wanted to note that the original recipe works real well. For anyone who doesnt want to deal with boiling and cooling a cooked brine, these elaborations are really not necessary to derive the main brining benefit - keeping the bird's own juice and flavor IN the meat.

I noticed an interesting fact in rereading the first Cooks article on this topic - they adopted this method from a recipe in Jean Anderson's 1986 book, the Food of Portugal. The recipe in that book, in addition to brining, also uses a high temp cooking method which I also like, and involves no basting. If you're interested in that recipe, which, unconventionally, is also stuffed right under the skin, it is called Maria Eugenia Cerquera de Mota's Roast Stuffed Turkey.

p.s. Sra Mota, the creator of the portuguese recipe is quoted in the cookbook as saying that the brining salt seals the pores of the bird and keeps the juices in - she says that basting, low temp cooking and rubbing the bird with anything but salt will all make the juices run out. I dont know about the under-skin stuffing, but I think I may follow her no-baste recipe with my heritage bird this year.

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  1. Here's a quote from the wonderful and well respected Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen:

    "Regarding the effects of salt on the muscle proteins, I wouldn’t exactly say they’re denatured in the way that cooking denatures them. Instead, the fiber proteins seem to be disassociated from each other, so that instead of being tightly wound together, there’s more space between molecules, and therefore more room for fluid —and the charged salt ions are both attracted to charged regions of the proteins and help retain the polar (electrically asymmetrical) water molecules. So the muscle tissue soaks up and holds the brine, even when the proteins are subsequently denatured during cooking.

    Though I agree that brining can produce meat that is remarkably juicy, I’m not a big fan of it and almost never do it. The meat and the pan residues end up much saltier than I like, and the overall flavor one-dimensional. Brining is one effective way of coping with modern low-fat immature meat, but it amounts to making up for the meat’s tendency to become dry by filling it with salt water. For myself, I prefer to cook such meats gently and carefully to make the best of their own flavor and juice as much as possible."

    It's my understanding that heritage turkeys are decidedly not "modern low-fat immature meat," and I want the flavor of such a wonderful bird to shine loud and clear.

    1. Don't get me wrong, I frequently brine poultry and other meats, with great success. It's just that if I'm buying this magnificent, special, expensive heritage turkey, why not let its own flavor shine shine shine? My impulse is to mess with it as little as possible.

      1. I've heard that a kosher turkey is essentially the same thing as a brined one. Is this true?

        2 Replies
        1. re: RebeccaBG

          Whenever I buy a "commercial" turkey, I buy a kosher turkey for that very reason.

          One of the things that has to be done to a chicken to make it kosher is soaking and salting it, so when you buy a kosher bird, that's already been done. Probably not in the brine you might make at home, and probably not for the same length of time, but it's a headstart if you don't want to brine.

          1. re: RebeccaBG

            The current (Nov/Dec 2004) Cook's Illustrated revisits roast turkey in detail, 3 full pages complete with various sidebars and charts. Here's an excerpt which addresses your question:

            Q: "How does koshering differ from brining?"

            A: "Though their purposes are quite different, koshering and brining have similar effects on turkey meat. While brining consists of a single soak in salt water, the koshering process involves several steps. The turkey is first soaked in water for one-half hour. Then it is heavily salted and placed on an incline for about an hour to encourage the removal of blood. Finally, the bird is showered with final rinses of cold water. Because both koshering and brining encourage the absorption of water and salt, we do not recommend brining a bird that has been koshered."

            The article contains a comparison of basted, kosher and natural turkeys, and also some details as to salt concentrations.

          2. For my "non-heritage" bird brine, I make a "tea" in a small amt of liquid and add that to the cold brine. Last year, I steeped a cup of fresh sage, just like tea. I allowed the tea to cool (maybe 1 cup of liquid), and stirred that into the cold brine (leaves and all). I find that i can get more dimensions if I spruce up the brine. Even the meat close to the breastplate had a nice mellow sage flavor.

            I'm deep frying this year, but I'm going to brine first instead of injecting. I'll try something similar to the above, but I'll add cayenne, etc. to the tea. I will still do the rub on the outside and the cavity.

            1. I am a huge fan of the brine. HUGE fan. Our recipe does not involved steeping anything, yet we use sugar.

              Our tasty bird involves a mixture of salt, brown sugar, vegetable broth, garlic and peppercorns. We do not baste but cook the Alton Brown-method with the first hour at 500 degrees and then tenting the breast with foil and lowering the temp for the rest of the time. (I say 'we' because this is a collaborative effort with myself and my husband).

              It is the tastiest meat I've ever encountered. Way better than any of our mothers ever made and our guests go crazy for it and demanded it again this year (including a Proscuitto/Hazelnut crust on the outside).

              I can't wait!