The eternal question.

From S., 10 November 2010 – to brine or not to brine?

Q: Turkey brine – yes or no?

A: Thanks for your question. How timely – I was just thinking about Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving in our home is more than a cherished national holiday and a time to gather with family and friends. It’s also a battle of wills. You see, my husband and I have differing ideas about the ideal Thanksgiving meal. I don’t really care for turkey and, if we’re going to eat it at all (sort of an inevitability at the holidays), I want to cut it up, braise the thighs/legs, make a great stock with the bones for soup, remove the skin all in one and crisp it in the oven, and cook the breast sous vide, with thyme and sage and all that. The braised dark meat goes into the best turkey sandwich you ever ate, and the sous vide-cooked breast with the crackling skin provide a great textural contrast. As I recall, I got my way exactly once. That was an incredible Thanksgiving meal, in my opinion, but it’s not traditional.

Nat prefers a more straightforward approach, barding the turkey with bacon, surrounding it with bangers (on the bready side, please), and serving with gravy – somewhat smoky and porky from the bacon drippings – as well as bread sauce. This cooking method is almost verbatim from his father’s annual Thanksgiving efforts, documented year after year in a series of photos depicting my late father-in-law, apron tied around his waist, presenting a golden brown turkey on a platter while Nat stands at his side. To appreciate the weirdness of this tableau, you should know that Nat’s father was an Englishman until the day he died, having declined any and all polite suggestions that he should consider gaining U.S. citizenship. That’s right – my husband learned to prepare the quintessential American holiday meal from a man who not only came from the country that the Pilgrims fled, but never relinquished that status.

Back to the brining question. I realize this little detour wasn’t all that useful. If you’re going to roast a turkey whole, then I do recommend brining. Why do we brine? To deliver even seasoning to a thick piece of meat, and to enhance moisture. Given the size of most commercial turkeys, brining is a good way to ensure that seasonings penetrate the thick breast. More importantly, because the breast and legs cook at different rates, the additional moisture helps keep the breast from drying out while the legs cook. So, in my experience, the breast of a brined whole roast turkey is less dry than that of an unbrined whole roast turkey.

That said, if I’m cooking the legs and breast separately, I never brine. Brining does deliver seasoning to bland meat and it improves moisture content, but on the downside, it compromises texture. To me, brined meat feels artificially juicy and is not as meaty-tasting, since some of the taste of the meat is drawn out into the brining liquid. For whole turkey, this textural problem is a fair tradeoff to avoid dry, stringy, flavorless breast meat, but my usual feeling is that if you don’t have to brine something to keep it moist, you shouldn’t.

So, to recap. If you’re roasting a whole bird, I definitely recommend brining for moisture. If you’re going to cut up your turkey and cook the parts separately, there’s no need to brine.

Here’s my brined turkey recipe from last year.

* * * *

This is for a 14-16 lb bird. For a breast or a smaller (10-12 lb bird), you can reduce amounts proportionally.

In a small saucepan, combine 4 c apple juice with 5 bay leaves, 4-6 springs of thyme (if you have it), 2/3 c kosher salt or 1/2c table salt, 1/4c sugar, about 4 cloves, and 6-8 black peppercorns. Bring that to a simmer and allow it to simmer, covered, for an hour (add more juice if necessary). Transfer to the biggest pot you have (like a stockpot or a clean bucket that you only would use for food – a 5 gal bucket from Home Depot works perfectly and is inexpensive) and fill it with 8 qt very cold water and about 1 qt ice cubes. Stir well and add the turkey. Return to the refrigerator and brine for 4 hours (you can get away with as few as 2 hrs).

1h before roasting, preheat the oven to 400F, 30 mins before roasting, remove the turkey from the brine, pat the skin dry, place a halved onion, a stalk of celery, and a halved lemon in the cavity, and rub the skin with butter. Roast bone-in turkey for 15 mins/lb, or boneless breast for about 12 mins/lb. After the first 20 mins turn down to 350F. Baste every 25 mins. Put a little water (1/2 c) in the bottom of the pan to prevent the drippings from burning.

Rest the turkey for 1/2 hour-45 mins before carving (shorter for a smaller turkey or a breast, longer for a larger turkey

2 thoughts on “The eternal question.

  1. Jenneane Jansen says:

    I like whole roast turkey, mainly for the challenge. And I particularly like Thomas Keller’s brine recipe. It costs a fortune in herbs if you don’t have them available in a fresh garden this time of year. But it’s pretty spectacular.

    I also like to air dry the turkey in the fridge in advance of roasting, to get that Peking-Duck-like skin.

    So what are you guys doing this year, Girlfriend? When you coming to the Midwest to celebrate it with us?

  2. Pingback: Gobble gobble hey. | The Upstart Kitchen

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