Why I won't bother brining again...(longish rant)
Well, after several yrs. of hearing much about the virtues of brining and being particularly swayed by hounds this year, I decided to give the brine method a whirl. I would rate last yr's turkey as an 8.5/10, and this year I wanted to get as close to that 10 as possible. My mission was to achieve a moist and flavorful bird that wasn't too salty, to use pan drippings for gravy, and to have a super crispy skin.
Quick run-down on my brining method: 18-lb. fresh turkey; brined in a cooler in fridge for about 24 hrs. in solution of 1.75 c. kosher salt, 1 c. sugar, and 2.5 c. water (a la SF Chronicle guide) w/ few aromatics; rinsed off very well; left uncovered in fridge (w/ plastic wrap covering the cavity) for about 12 hrs. to dry.
Cooking method: rubbed mixture of butter and fresh herbs under the skin; peppered inside and out; put few aromatics in cavity. Cooked it as usual--breast side up the whole time; 400 deg. for 1st 30 min.; 325 deg. til thigh registered 160 (about 3.5 hrs.); loose foil tent for about 20 min.; rest for 30 min. When carved, all parts were done.
Bird was nicely bronzed and skin was super crispy; HOWEVER, the flavor and texture were not as good as last year (no brining and a frozen Safeway bird). I was really surprised--was expecting it to be at least just as good as last year's. Thought the bird could even stand to be a tad more salty; gravy w/ drippings was lovely after I added more salt.
My main beef w/ this whole brining thing: I HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH SALT WAS ABSORBED AND HAVE NO WAY TO TEST WHETHER IT NEEDS MORE SALT BEFORE ROASTING. As an avid cook who relies on knowing exactly how much salt goes into my food (and usually being able to taste along the way), this drives me crazy!! I much prefer my old-fashioned method of directly salting onto the skin and inside the cavity--that way, I know EXACTLY how much salt is on the bird. I actually like the "bite" of salt on the skin and inside, as opposed to having a subtle (if not passive) flavor infused throughout the meat.
Well, who knows, maybe I did something wrong. If someone sees a misstep that could have wrongfully turned me off from brining forever, then please enlighten me. Otherwise, it's back to a frozen, unbrined bird next year! Less hassle and much cheaper.
I've had the same experience brining turkeys as you have so I've quit doing it. In the past, I've used the best of brining and roasting methods from both Cook's Illustrated and Alton Brown including using vegetable stock rather than water for the brine (a true waste of good vegetable stock, thank you Alton Brown), air drying the turkeye in the 'fridge, flipping the turkey during roasting, and doing the "1 hr at 500 degrees, lower to 350 routine". My guests claim there was a difference but I think it was out of courtesy because they knew what trouble I had gone to. To me, there was no discernable difference in moistness or taste. This year I did not brine and the turkey was fine.
A couple of years ago, our local paper published a brine recipe from a guest chef on Martha Stewart's show with which I have been very pleased. 2 gallons of water, 2 cups salt, 1 cup sugar and 2 cups bourbon. Terrific. The recipe also calls for the turkey to be rubbed inside and out with salt and pepper, which I do not do. I just rub the outside with olive oil, garlic a little salt and ground pepper. No salt in the cavity.
Every so often something comes along in the culinary world, and everyone swears it's the holy grail. This year, for some reason, it's brining. Now, don't get me wrong, I do occastionally brine stuff - usually chicken or fish for the BBQ. But for goodness sake, people, it's not the only only answer. And it is, believe it or not, possible to have a perfectly juicy and delicious turkey without brining. Frankly, I'm tired of this barrage of brining lately. Fine - it's just one of many methods of dealing with meat and poultry. There are others.
I have cooked an annual Thanksgiving turkey for the past 28 years, plus many (many) others in off-turkey season (we do like turkey). I have brined turkeys for the BBQ with good results, but I don't usually brine my Thanx ones because they're too freaking big to mess around with - generally at least 25 lbs. I would say that, with the possible exception of the odd turkey that somehow got overcooked, brined or unbrined my turkeys they have turned out delicious and juicy. The secret is not to overcook the bird. That's it. I also start with a fresh turkey from a local farm whenever I can, and this may also account for the deliciousness.
But really. Brining is not the be all and end all. It's just ONE strategy. There are others.
I revised my brine from last year to improve flavor. My turkey was the most flavorful I have ever tasted (my guests said the same). The gravy was TDF good. E-mail me and I will get my recipes to you.
Below was my menu:
Thanksgiving Dinner 2004
A Jewel Mold of Layered Berries, Cream Fraiche,
& Lemon-Mandarin Jello
Sweet Potato Biscuits
with orange butter
Bacon-Roasted Brussel Sprouts
Moms Killer Yam Casserole
Gratin of Creamy Corn with Fresh Thyme
Herbed Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes
& Rich Turkey Gravy with Sercial Madeira
Citrus-Herb Brined and Roasted Turkey
with Chestnut & Herb Stuffing
Cranberry Sauce with Cherries,
Marsala, and Infused with Fresh Rosemary
Spicy Pumpkin Pie
with Rum-Mincemeat Ice Cream
Creamy Pumpkin Pie
with French Vanilla Ice Cream
re: Nina W.
The flavor that came through and I think made the difference this year was orange peel (2x last year's amount). The rest of the brine was whole black tellicherry pepper, fresh thyme & rosemary, lemon rind, garlic cloves, and bay leaves. Boiled, cooled, "fridged". (No juice, no broth.)
Thanks for your brining solution recipe. Looking at its contents, I can see how all the additional seasonings create a wonderful marinade for the bird. I only added some thyme and garlic cloves beyond the basic salt-sugar-water solution. I also notice that you heat your solution up first and then cool it down, which I did not do. Just poured all the contents straight into my container w/ the bird and stirred up.
At this point, I'm still leaning towards not brining for next year, but who knows, a lot can change in a year...
re: Carb Lover
If you don't do the heat-cool part, your brine won't have much flavor at all since the salt and sugar are unlikely to dissolve fully. This is a key step!
My brine, which I swear by, is 6 quarts water, 1.5 cups kosher salt, 3/4 cup sugar, one chopped carrot, one chopped celery rib, a couple of quartered shallots, some coriander seed, and 7-8 sprigs of fresh thyme. I heat the water with the salt and sugar until they dissolve, then add everything else, then put the pot in the fridge. The turkey goes in the next day, and if I get a frozen turkey I just park it in the brine (frozen) on the Monday before Thanksgiving. It defrosts and brines at the same time. This year I did a fresh heritage turkey (yes, I paid $3.50/lb) and put the fresh bird in the brine on Tuesday night. I take it out and rinse it on Thursday morning. Very, very nice flavor.
I also roast the turkey breast side down until the last 45 minutes, which I've found to be an easy solution to the overcooked white meat problem.
I agree with boiling/cooling.
Fact: Brining (if done properly) adds moisture--a scientific fact.
*Flavor* is altogether different, and has to do with the brine "accoutrements".
As an adjunct, I always brine chicken breasts, hence they are NEVER dry. This is not really up for debate--just science.
I don't quite understand your salt issue. You can't really salt a whole turkey before/during cooking unless you brine it.
Any salt you put on the outside only flavors the skin which forms an amazingly durable barrier between the flesh and the outside world -- one of many reasons to avoid the venerable practice of basting at all costs.
Any salt you put in the cavities only flavors the cavity itself.
So, if you carve the bird, each person would still salt his/her portion of meat to taste, yes?
Among my many objections to brining is that it often makes the drippings too salty to use for gravy.
The recipe that I use for brining doesn't turn the dripping too salty. The bringing mixture is probably not as salty as others, it tastes like a very lightly flavor "soup". It's an Alice Water's recipe that I got a few years ago, and I've used it every year and it always delivers.
I guess I like knowing exactly how much salt is going into my bird, and the only way to really know is by directly salting the bird inside and out before it goes into the oven. When I make any cut of meat or poultry--be it chicken, a roast, or pork loin--I really like having the salt crust on the outside.
When researching about brining, I came across SOOO many variations in salt solution, duration of brining, and additional seasonings, that it was downright confusing. I opted for a reduced-salt solution that allowed me to make a gravy using the pan drippings; however, I have a feeling that you can't have a flavorful turkey and eat non overly salty gravy too. Gravy was delish but bird tasted underseasoned.
In terms of people salting at the table, I guess that is one of the things I try to avoid. It's a quirk of mine, but I'm always slightly insulted or concerned when someone has to salt my food at the table. I know that there are dif. preferences for saltiness, but well, I kind of follow the credo of those restaurants that don't serve salt at the table. For me, adding salt after the cooking process is just not pleasing to my palate and kind of ruins the integrity of the dish.
re: Carb Lover
On the salt issue - I agree that it's rude to salt before tasting the food. It's disrespectful, because you could oversalt and make the food inedible. But I've come to realize that I like less salt than pretty much the rest of the world. Really. Everyone has to salt the food on my table because if I made it salty enough for their tastes, I couldn't eat it. I hardly ever eat processed foods and I've never had a taste for salty snacks, so I've never built up a salt tolerance. Anyway, I've gotten over feeling snubbed when people salt my food. It really is a personal preference issue.
re: Carb Lover
"Perhaps not enough salt concentration ..."
Maybe, but you were not way off either. I used the equivalent of 1 C. kosher salt + 1/2 C. sugar per gallon of water.
The brining instructions I use came from melindalee.com. I've used her basic brining method (not the one using apple cider) several times beginning last year with satisfactory results on each occasion.