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Brined turkey first made a splash a few years ago in the pages of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, whose editors, in turn, derived their recipe from a Portuguese version in Jean Anderson’s The Food of Portugal (with a few tips from kosher butchers along the way). The brining idea is a good one, as the bird soaks up moisture and seasoning (I include herbs for added flavor), but the logistics can be daunting. I have done my best to simplify the procedure.
When I teach this method in my classes, it is not universally loved. The public has become salt-conscious, if not salt-phobic. Some people don’t like the extra seasoning, and find the turkey meat too salty. And the brine firms the meat to give it a texture that some find odd. Don’t kid yourself-brining does not make a juicier bird. It is salted water that you taste, not turkey juices. Critics of the brining method argue that you might as well buy a frozen bird, which has also been treated with salted water. But brining is insurance against a dry bird.
This method only works with fresh turkeys—self-basting, frozen, or kosher turkeys have already been salted, so don’t use them. If you are spending the money on a beautiful, organically raised turkey, I would think twice about brining because it changes the natural flavor of the bird. I like this method best for supermarket-quality, commercially raised fresh turkeys.
You’ll need a container big enough to hold your turkey. You will see recipes that require a huge (minimum 5-gallon) stockpot, but few home cooks have such a utensil. Also, the combined weight of the turkey, brine, and pot could challenge your refrigerator shelf, especially if it is plastic. I enclose the turkey and brine In jumbo oven-roasting bags, then keep the brined turkey chilled in an ice chest.
To estimate the amount of brine, place the turkey in the bags in the ice chest, and measure the cold water needed to cover the bird completely. The proportions in the recipe are for 2 gallons water, but the amount of brine can be adjusted as needed. For each 2 quarts water, use ¼ cup plain salt; ¼ cup sugar; 1½ teaspoons each rosemary, thyme, and sage; and ¾ teaspoon each marjoram, celery seed, and peppercorns.
Use plain, noniodized table salt for the brine. Kosher salt is problematic because the crystal size changes from brand to brand. If you wish, use twice as much kosher salt by volume, or 2 cups kosher salt for 1 cup plain salt. Fine sea salt often has a finer grain than the iodized salt, so you need slightly less (about ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons) if you substitute for plain salt. I know that many cooks have their favorite salt, but in this case I find that for consistency’s sake, plain salt is the best choice, and that a particular salt’s subtleties are muddled with the flavors of the turkey and herbs.
The turkey must be well chilled during brining. Surround the brined turkey in its bag with lots of ice cubes (buy bags of ice if you don’t want to deplete your freezer’s supply), or use frozen “blue-ice” packs.
Don’t run the risk of the risk of stuffing the turkey, as the salty juices could ruin it. Instead, loosely fill the cavities with seasoning vegetables and bake the stuffing on the side.
As the pan drippings will be seasoned by the brine as well, they could be too salty to guarantee palatable gravy. It’s a good idea to prepare Head Start Gravy, and add the degreased drippings as needed to color and season it, stopping when the gravy is salted to taste.
- 1 cup plain (non iodized) table salt
- 1 cup packed light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons dried rosemary
- 2 tablespoons dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons dried sage
- 1 tablespoon dried marjoram
- 1 tablespoon celery seed
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 6 quarts ice water
- One 14- to 18-pound turkey, neck giblets reserved for another use, and fat at tail area discarded
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- 1 medium celery, chopped
- 6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 4 cups Head Start Gravy
1. To make the brine, in a large stockpot, mix 2 quarts water with the salt, sugar, rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, celery seed, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Remove from the heat. Add the ice water and stir until the ice melts and the brine is very cold.
2. Place the turkey in a roasting bag, then slip the bagged turkey into the second bag to make a double thickness. Place the turkey in the ice chest. Pour the brine into the bag. Close the bag, being sure that the turkey is completely covered with brine, and with a rubber band. Surround the bagged turkey with ice cubes or blue-ice packs. Close the chest and let the turkey stand for 10 to 16 hours. Do not brine the bird for longer than 16 hours or the flavor and texture will be compromised.
3. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. In a small bowl, mix the onion, carrot, and celery.
4. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse well, inside and out, under cold running water. Pat the skin and body cavities dry with paper towels. Turn the turkey on its breast. Loosely fill the neck cavity with the onion mixture. Using a wooden or metal skewer, pin the turkey’s neck skin to the back. Fold the turkey’s Wings akimbo behind the back or tie to the body with kitchen string. Loosely fill the large body cavity with the remaining onion mixture. Place the drumsticks in the hock lock or tie together with kitchen string.
5. Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in the roasting pan. Rub all over with the butter. Pour 2 cups water into the bottom of the pan.
6. Roast the turkey, basting all over every 45 minutes with the juices on the bottom of the pan, until a meat thermometer inserted in the meaty part of the thigh (but not touching a bone) reads 180°F and the stuffing is at least 160°F, about 4½ hours. Whenever the drippings evaporate, add more water, about 1½ cups at a time.
7. Transfer the turkey to a large serving platter and let it stand for at least 20 minutes before carving. Pour the pan drippings into a separator cup, leaving the browned bits in the pan. Let stand for 5 minutes, then pour off and reserve the drippings and discard the fat. Place the roasting pan on two burners over medium-high heat. Add the gravy and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits in the pan with a wooden spatula. Gradually add the dark, degreased pan drippings until the gravy is salted to taste. Simmer until the gravy thickens. Strain and transfer to a warmed gravy boat.
8. Carve the turkey and serve the gravy alongside.
2 jumbo (turkey-sized) oven-roasting bags
A large ice chest, to comfortably hold the brined turkey
About 10 pounds ice cubes or 2 “blue-ice” packs, frozen
© 1998, 2007 Rick Rodgers
Nutritional information is based on 16 servings and 18 lb turkey.
Nutritional information does not include Head Start Gravy recipe. For nutritional information on Head Start Gravy recipe, please follow the link above.
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