Monday, November 22, 2010

brining a turkey

A few years ago I continued the tradition of having Thanksgiving in my home.  Previously, this was a holiday spent with both families as our moms regarded this a most special time to have their families together to celebrate togetherness over a home-cooked meal made with love.  Needless to say, we were so full from eating at two places.  It was inevitable that my turn would come to be the one to prepare this coveted meal and when it was time, I made my first dinner thanks to Martha Stewart.  I followed her recipes to the letter.  This is when I discovered brining.  I have fond memories of rising at the crack of dawn with my mom to help prepare her bird, especially the stuffing.  The first time we shared this meal with my brother, John, and his family, he asked if I was brining the turkey. I was proud to know what he was talking about and he was impressed.  He also suggested I initially cook the bird at 425 degrees for the first half hour, then reduce the heat to 325. 

The best way to get flavorful poultry, regardless of how it is prepared, is to start with a brine.  Brining adds moisture and flavor to poultry and helps to keep it from drying out.  A turkey can be a serious investment in time so you want to make sure it is perfect, especially if you are entertaining.  Think National Lampoon's Christmas.  Whether you grill, smoke, fry or roast your turkey, brining is key.

To properly brine a turkey, you need to start the day or night before you plan to cook.  You will need at least 10 - 12 hours (plan on one hour per pound of turkey), a container large enough to hold your turkey and enough brine to cover it.  This was always a challenge for I cook a 22 pound turkey and had a hard time finding something it would fit in with the brining water.  A large stainless steel stock pot or even a 5 gallon clean plastic bucket would make excellent containers.  Whatever container you choose, the turkey needs to have enough room to be turned so it should be big.  At last, I found the perfect pot that Wayne's grandma used to cook soup in.  It is humungous and only gets a work out this time of year.  You will need salt, water, sugar, seasonings, and enough room to refrigerate it.  Again, another challenge, but it is usually so cold this time of year, we put it in the garage.  If your bird is smaller, Reynolds oven roasting bag for turkeys and Ziploc XL storage bags work just as well.

The turkey should be cleaned out, completely thawed, and should not be a self-basting or Kosher turkey, as these turkeys have a salty stock added that will make your brined turkey too salty.  Make sure you check the ingredients on the turkey before you decide to brine.  A fresh, natural turkey works best, but a completely thawed, previously frozen turkey will work be just fine. 

To make the brine, mix 1 cup of table salt in 1 gallon of water.  You will need more than 1 gallon of water but that is the ratio to aim for.  One way of telling if you have enough salt in your brine is that a raw egg will float in it.  Make sure that the salt is completely dissolved before adding the seasonings you like, making sure not to add anything that contains salt.  Brines can be spicy hot with peppers and cayenne, savory with herbs and garlic, or sweet with molasses, honey and brown sugar.  Whatever your tastes are, you can find a large number of brine recipes online.  Sugar is optional to any brine, but works to counteract the flavor of the salt.  While you may choose a brine without sugar, it is recommended that you add sugar to maintain the flavor of the turkey.  Add up to 1 cup of sugar per gallon of brine, making sure it is completely dissolved.  Boil the seasonings in a pot of water and let cool down a little.  Add to the salted water.

Place the turkey in a container and pour in enough brine to completely cover the turkey with an inch or two to spare. You do not want any part of the turkey above the surface of the brine.  Cover with foil if you do not have a big enough pot with a lid.  Remember, the turkey will rise when water is added.  Now put the whole thing in the refrigerator, or a cooler if you do not have refrigerator space.  If the weather is cool, but not freezing, you can put the whole thing outside until you need the turkey.  If the weather is warm, fill a zip top bag with ice and place this in the cooler with the turkey and brine and it will hold down the temperature during the brining process.   The turkey should sit in the brine for about 1 hour per pound of turkey.  Brining too long is much worse than not brining enough so watch the time.  I begin the brine about noon on Wednesday and remove it around 6:00am on Thursday.

When you are ready to start cooking your turkey, remove it from the brine and rinse it off thoroughly in the sink with cold water until all traces of salt are off the surface inside and out.  This is the single, most important step.  If you do not get the brine rinsed thoroughly you could get a very salty bird. You will notice tiny holes throughout the turkey - don't panic, this is what happens when it saltifies.  Safely discard the brine and cook your turkey as normal.  You will notice the second you start to carve your bird that the brining has helped it retain moisture.  The first bite will sell you on brining turkeys forever.  Just ask my nephew, Robert, who has been drooling for my turkey since the beginning of October. 

Hope this helps in your preparations for our upcoming holiday season.  Enjoy! xo