To brine or not to brine – that is the Thanksgiving question.
Fans of the brining process – which simply means soaking meat in a mixture of water, salt, sugar and spices/herbs before cooking – say it’s the only way to cook a perfect turkey.
And, yes, when done properly, it gives you a well-salted, perfectly seasoned, moist turkey. When done improperly? You get something that is overly salty or spicy, or that gets too dry, or that simply tastes like deli meat instead of a perfectly roasted bird.
Brining is similar to a marinade. It works by allowing the salt and seasoning to permeate the entire turkey, not just the skin. There are commercially prepared brines, and nearly every celebrity chef, from Bobby Flay to Paula Deen to Alton Brown, has his or her own favorite spices and techniques.
If you’re thinking of trying it for the first time this year, here are my tips:
- The brine must be cooked. You can’t simply mix all the ingredients together; you must bring the brining solution to a boil for at least five minutes, to allow the sugar and salt to dissolve and to bring the most flavor out of the herbs. However, you then must allow the brine solution to cool completely before submerging the turkey. Shortcut: Use less water than called for, then cool down the solution quickly by adding ice cubes.
- Salt/sugar/herbs. Some brine recipes simply call for salt and herbs, but I think sugar is a necessary component. It serves as a counterbalance to the herbs and helps deepen the natural flavor of the poultry. Then, add herbs of your choice, such as thyme, garlic, peppercorns, garlic or sage, to complete the flavor profile.
- Don’t overdo it. If you let the turkey marinate too long, it will over-season. Many recipes recommend a 24-hour brine, which is fine for a big turkey. For a more typical 10-12 pound turkey, however, just soak for 10-12 hours, or roughly one hour per pound.
- Don’t brine a self-basting turkey. It will be too salty.
- Consider a kit. If you aren’t sure what to put in the brine solution, get professional help. Urban Accents has introduced a Gourmet Gobbler kit, which includes everything you need to make a perfect turkey. It has a brine blend (including sea salt, sugar, peppercorns, sage, rosemary and bay leaves) plus a peppercorn-spiked rub, and a heavy-duty, reusable brining bag that can hold a turkey as big as 24 pounds.