Brining a turkey is an old-school way of almost ensuring a bird is tender and juicy no matter how you cook it. Growing up we were not brine users. It just never came up. My grandmother was in charge of the dressing and turkey, and it always seemed fine to me, so brining never became part of the ceremony.
Early in my love affair with the Thanksgiving holiday I found myself more fond of dark meat than white. There was more flavor hiding in that thigh, and what preteen doesn’t want to grab a turkey leg and eat like a caveman in front of all his envious cousins, siblings and disapproving elders? It was dark meat for me, for sure. Keep that dry breast. There isn’t enough gravy on the table.
Then one year, the unthinkable happened. A mistake was made. An error on the part of my usually attentive grandmother changed Thanksgiving forever. For decades this woman was accustomed to placing the turkey in the roasting pan with the legs pointing upward and outward, bound at the would-be feet. But on this particular year she accidentally cooked it breast and leg side down.
With gravity doing the work, all of the juices from the bony back and its surrounding areas seeped down into the breast, giving the well-done white meat a pinkish hue and a taste unmatched by any previous year. It was so succulent that I, the white meat naysayer, couldn’t get enough of it. From then on, my grandmother was encouraged to exploit her “mistake,” following a path she never intended.
That is one way to keep a bird juicy. I still practice that method to this day, be it turkey or chicken. We all have our routines. But brining is the only other way I know to make a turkey any juicier. Combine the two practices and you will be in for a gobbler that can’t be beat.
Wait. I know what you’re thinking. Cajun injecting is the way to go. Well, yes and no. I do not frown upon this behavior. I have injected enough turkeys and chickens that I’ve developed severe syringe-thumb. Using an injecting method is really the only option for a last-minute marinade. It’s like marinating from the inside out. The problem is you will have dry spots and pockets of flavor.
A good brining can encompass and penetrate the entire turkey. But you have to plan ahead. A chicken is good overnight, but a 10-to-12-pound turkey may need 24 to 36 hours in the drink for best results.
The brine itself should change depending upon what you are looking for. A good starting point is a cup of sugar and a cup of salt dissolved in two gallons of hot water (cooled before the turkey is added) then refrigerated. I prepare by placing my turkey in whatever vessel I’m using to brine and cover it with water while it’s still in the store wrapper. Then I measure how much water that is and make my brine accordingly.
So when you think of salt and sugar, think of how that can vary. Kosher salt, table salt, brown sugar, white sugar or sea salt can all be used. I’m not giving you a hardcore recipe. Think of what you will be eating with it.
Some people love the Cajun flavor. Melted butter, garlic and cayenne pepper should do the trick. Don’t forget the holy trinity of celery, bell pepper and onion. Go easy on the cayenne pepper if you’re unsure of your guests’ pain threshold.
Apple cider is a common additive. For a fall holiday, what better way to season a turkey than with apples. As we cool down, the citrus gets better, so a lot of people use sliced oranges in their brines. Lemons work just as well.
When it comes to liquor, wine (red and white) makes an appearance in many recipes, but bourbon is a close second. A half-cup will usually do the trick. Use brown sugar (either light or dark) in this one, perhaps a little extra, and consider chopped pecans as an additive. A little butter can help this concoction come to life, especially if you are deep-frying.
A classic, earthy brine that to me really captures the essence of what I think Thanksgiving is all about begins with kosher salt and white sugar as a base. Give that the Simon and Garfunkel treatment of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. A little pinot noir would not hurt. And finally, an uncooked mirepoix (onions, celery, carrots) added after the water has cooled will stand up to just about any dressing, gravy or cranberry sauce.
Now let’s talk about safety. Don’t ruin my favorite holiday by poisoning your family or burning down your carport.
Once your turkey has soaked in the brine for your determined length of time you must discard the liquid and all that is associated with it. Don’t use it for gravy. Don’t use it for anything else. You’ve had raw fowl in this stockpot and any vegetables, juices or herbs must be thrown away.
Wash your pot thoroughly with soap and hot water before you use it for anything else. Also pat the turkey dry with paper towels before you roast, smoke or fry it.
If frying, one must exercise extreme caution. By brining this turkey for so long, there is little chance any part of it is frozen. It should have been thawed before you brined it. Ice or any water is not a friend of peanut oil. The forecast looks picture perfect, so only fry in open areas away from structures.
I’m so excited just talking about this. Stay safe and brine away. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!