Remember that epic scene from Christmas Vacation when Clark Griswald eagerly cuts into the pièce de résistance, the ellusive fresh-from-the-oven holiday turkey, while a tablefull of expectant guests look on?
I daresay most, if not all of us, given the responsibility of preparing the main Thanksgiving course have been on Clark’s side of the carving knife. The moment leading up to the first cut of the holiday turkey bird is agonizing. It will either be an epic moment when all seated at the Thanksgiving table laude and hail your prowess as a turkey-roasting god…or it will be the moment when you begin defensively deconstructing your turkey-cooking methods for any family member within earshot. As you notice kinfolk quietly pushing a dry piece of turkey breast around their plate with false utterances of cooking praise (which we totally see through, dear family), uncontrollable proclamations of defense begin rolling off the tongue:
“I told (insert spouse’s name) the oven temperature was off.”
“I followed Rachel Ray’s 30 minute turkey roasting recipe to the letter.”
“My dog died.”
“I guess Grammy’s age-old family recipe just isn’t that great…”
No one is sacred, not even grammy. Indeed, you drive the bus over any and everyone in defense of a lackluster Thanksgiving turkey showing. It’s not a proud moment for any at-home cook, but when the ship is sinking, everyone is at risk. Yes, the agony and suspense leading up to that first carve of the Thanksgiving turkey feels like a right of passage to those of us saddled with the responsibility of making an incredibly lean and dry piece of meat moist, tender, and flavorful. Which is why right about now fellow turkey-roasters begin feverishly searching the web for a no-fail, cannot-go-wrong, Thanksgiving turkey recipe. In your desperate recipe search you may have run into a technique called brining. Brining the Thanksgiving turkey has had a resurgence in popularity over the last few years because, well, it works. And by works I mean that brining can indeed produce a moist, tender, and flavorful Thanksgiving turkey from the traditionally lean and dry American turkey bird.
So What is Brining Anyway?
Brining is the process of using salt to moisten, tenderize, and infuse flavor into food. It is essentially synonmous with pickling. To brine, the food in question is either heavily salted directly (a dry brine) or immersed in a salt water solution (wet brine) for a period of time. Brining time is dependent upon the food and the desired outcome.
Brining has been used for eons as a method to preserve food, especially meats, naturally. But it also has the effect of turning lean, tough meats into tender and moist dinner fare. Brining literally kills two birds with one stone (no pun intended). The principle of osmosis allows the salt to penetrate deep into muscle fibers, breaking down tough protein structures, while simultaneously causing the cell structure to swell and retain moisture. It tenderizens and plumps at the same time. Pretty nifty, right?
Dry Brine vs. Wet Brine
While wet brining has long been the go-to brining technique, dry brining has gained its own fan club of late. Dry brining requires no liquid, hence no 5-gallon bucket of soaking turkey has to be lugged around or cleaned up. To dry brine a turkey the bird is heavily salted under the skin, directly on the meat, with a salt and herb concoction. The entire bird is then wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated. When roasting time comes around, the bird rests at room temperature and is then popped directly into the oven.
Conversely, wet brining involves more prep. A salt and water solution is boiled and cooled to create soluble salt solution. Herbs and more water are added to the solution, and the whole turkey is fully submerged in the liquid. Any container can be used to house the submerged container, but the solution must be kept at 40 degrees and under to prevent bacterial growth. Some recipes call for a 5 gallon bucket (although it may is difficult to keep the turkey from floating), while other recipes call for the use of an old-school Igloo water cooler. Regardless, an ice bath is usually involved to keep temps in the 40 degree range…unless one happens to own a refrigerate that will accomodate a 5 gallon bucket of soakiung turkey.
How Long Does It Take to Brine A Turkey?
The general rule of thumb is to allow 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes brining time per pound of turkey. Wet brining is a quicker process – approximately 12 hours or overnight generally suffices in my experience. Dry brining is a longer process, requiring 24 to 48 hours of bringing time; we’ve had great success with 24 hours. Yes, wet brining takes less time, but dry brining is less of a messy ordeal. So pick your poision – time or mess. I personally choose time and go for the dry brine. And do be aware, you can overbrine a bird. Too much time spent dunked in salt can produce a salty, mushy meat.
What Kind of Turkey Should I Brine?
Why a pasture raised turkey of course! Pasture raised turkeys are the perfect candidate for brining, be it wet or dry. They produce meat that is naturally lean yet very flavorful. Brining perfectly compliments both the low fat and high flavor characteristics of a pasture raised bird. However there are some birds you want to stay away from when brining. Avoid turkeys that are self-basted or flavor injecteted, which includes Kosher turkeys. These pre-treated meats have already been through a brining process, which more often than not contains additives and chemicals you may not be such a fan of.
What Herbs Are Used In a Brine?
A traditional brine is comprised of salt, herbs, maybe a little sweetener, and maybe a little citrus. If concocting your own brine at home, you can use any herb that suits your fancy. Popular herbs used for turkey brining include thyme, sage, rosemary, ginger, peppercorns, bay, and allspice. Truly, the world of herbs is your oyster – er, turkey.