If you’ve never tried to brine your turkey, make this the year your turkey takes the plunge! We’ve got a few guidelines and some hard-and-fast rules to make this as close to foolproof as cooking comes.
The most important rule is to start with a fresh bird. The frozen birds come already injected with a salty solution. If you look carefully on the label, you’ll see that they contain water, salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphates and natural flavorings. Hmmm. That’s how they can go through the freeze/thaw cycle and not be too dry. But do you really want all that in your Thanksgiving turkey?
You can do much better with very little work. Here are our tips:
- Spend the time to get to know your turkey. I swear by Ho-Ka but there are lots of great, locally raised turkeys out there. Here’s an article with advice on finding a Thanksgiving turkey.
- Pull out the neck and gizzards. Don’t brine them, but save them to add to the roasting pan. They give great flavor to your gravy drippings.
- Brine for 1 hour per pound. The recipe is below. The salty water gets into the turkey, (remember osmosis from chemistry?) giving you a nicely flavored and moist meat. It won’t save you if you really overcook it, but it’s a noticeable difference because it’s not just the skin that’s seasoned. However, if you brine it too long, the meat starts to taste like deli turkey meat, not a Thanksgiving bird.
- Use a sturdy lobster pot for the brining. One awful holiday memory: The “year of the brining bag,” which split open moving from the counter to the refrigerator, dumping gallons of salty water on my floor. We picked the turkey up, rinsed it off and—in a Julia Child moment—never said a word to our guests.
- Ignore the fancy mixes. Honestly, the magic of brine is the salt to water ratio. Dried citrus peel, peppercorns and bay leaves are just for show. Add a few if you like, but salt and sugar are the magic. They cost pennies, so don’t spend $18 on nice packaging.
- If refrigerator space is a premium, you can brine overnight in an ice-filled cooler. Just make sure to keep the temperature below 40 degrees.
A few tips for post-brine:
- Rinse the bird. You don’t want too much salt in the gravy drippings, so just a quick rinse of the outside and inside cavity helps.
- Don’t stuff the bird, make dressing instead. When you pack the cavity of the bird, you slow down the cooking time and the breast will dry out. Also, with a brined (or frozen bird) the stuffing can end up too salty. Note: This is one reason why the legendary food scientist Harold McGee doesn’t brine his bird. Just giving fair time to the other side!
- Keep the breast meat cold. This is another Harold McGee tip. When you let the turkey come to room temperature before you roast it, keep ice-filled bags on the breasts. They cook faster than the thighs; chilling evens out the cooking times.
- Don’t bother flipping the turkey. This was a trend in foodie circles, but it’s totally unnecessary. Starting with the breast side down, just means you’ll tear the skin and possibly burn yourself when you try to wrestle it around. Brining and ice-packing the breasts will accomplish the same thing without a trip to the ER.
- Use an instant meat thermometer. I love my fancy digital one, but a basic instant read will work. The USDA recommends an internal temperature of 165 degrees, which is lower than the old temp recommendations, and it helps a lot in not drying out the breast. I usually take the bird out when it’s at 155 degrees, because the temperature continues to rise 10 degrees as it rests. If that makes you nervous, wait until it’s 165 degrees then take it out.
If this seems like too much work, the other possibility is to start with a kosher turkey. The koshering process uses salt (but only salt), and it leaves a bird that tastes similar to a brined one. However, if you get a kosher turkey, do not brine it! Salt lick city!
Basic Turkey Brine
- 1 1/2 cups kosher salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 gallons cold water
- 12-14 pound turkey
Mix salt and sugar with about 3 cups of the water. Stir and heat (in microwave or on stove) until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Mix with rest of the water and refrigerate if necessary to make sure the water is cold before you add the turkey. Brine 12 hours (about 1 hour per pound). Remove turkey, rinse, then roast at 325 degrees for about 15 minutes per pound or until an instant read thermometer placed in the breast registers 165 degrees.
Let us know your favorite tips for a delicious turkey below.