Wow, do people get their wattles in a wad about brining. It's probably partly because we're all still traumatized by the powdery turkey of our childhood Thanksgivings. It's also because people enjoy having extra things to fuss over 'round this time of the year.
But really, it's not that complicated and whether you opt for a dunk or a rub, roasting, smoking or deep-frying, it's bound to add some extra moisture and flavor to your meat. You'll just have to find something else to stress about. Sorry.
What is brining?
Wet vs Dry
There are two basic categories of brines: wet and dry. Many Thanksgiving fetishists will insist that starting a wet brine later than the Monday before Thanksgiving is a fool's errand. Those people have the text of the late R.W. Apple's 1999 New York Times recipe for a 72-hour fennel, coriander and star anise brine tattooed somewhere upon their spongy parts. Surely, they'll be possessed of a monumentally moist bird, but most folks don't have that kind of time.
Nor do they necessarily need to. While many, many food media outlets are all a-bray about brine, failure to do so won't condemn you to a dessicated dish. First of all – many birds, such as fresh Kosher turkeys and some pre-packaged varieties of brands like Butterball, have already been treated with a brining solution as part of processing. Read the label to assess saline levels.
Give that bird a bath
If the bird still could use a boost, don't overthink it. In a glass or plastic container (buckets and coolers work well), or a plastic brining bag, dissolve 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup kosher salt into each gallon of water it take to thoroughly submerge the turkey. To figure out how much brine you'll need, place the meat in the container, pour in plain water and measure how much it takes to cover.
Bay leaves, juniper berries, gin, spices, chiles and other flavor agents aren't verboten, but they're by no means essential.
Next comes the tricky part - keeping the whole mess chilled for the next 6-24 hours, or about an hour per pound. A cooler with frequently updated freezer packs (make sure to wash them off before and after contact with the raw poultry water) will hold at a steady 40°F, but your best bet is to clear out some shelf space in the refrigerator. The meat will need to be turned over halfway through the process, so be mindful of splashes and also resist the urge to leave the meat in for longer. You can always brine more, but you can't un-brine and leaving meat in the solution will lead to mushy meat.
Once the cycle is finished, rinse the bird with cool water, pat it dry with paper towels and get cooking. This method works especially well if you're planning on roasting.
Here's the rub
However, if I were the one helming the meal, I'd rub that turkey - essentially dry-brining it - before smoking, deep-frying or roasting it. A solid, basic formula consists of:
1/4 cup Sweet paprika (or hot or smoked if that's more to your liking)
Combine all ingredients in a bowl with your fingers, working out any brown sugar lumps.
From here, you can add your own personal twists - tablespoons or teaspoons of dry mustard, coffee, celery seed, dried chiles, powdered onion, garlic salt - up to you. Coriander and cumin play beautifully with heady wood smoke like hickory or apple, and dried herbs like thyme and sage add festive holiday notes.
Rinse and pat the bird dry with paper towels and, after removing any innards, pop-up timers or plastic trusses and trimming excess skin, rub the inner cavity, as well as under and atop the skin first with a light layer of cooking oil and then with the mixture. Put it back into the refrigerator while you either set up the smoker (complete with a big ol' foil drip pan at the bottom) or begin to heat your oven or frying oil. (Follow these step-by-step deep frying instructions.)
Though most smoking calls for a steady 225°F, bacteria control is paramount with turkey. Aim for somewhere between 235°F (30-35 minutes per pound) and 275°F (20-25 minutes per pound). Time, however, is just a guideline. For the turkey to be safely edible, the internal temperature needs to reach 165°F at its thickest part, read without the meat thermometer touching a bone. Place the bird breast-side up over the drip pan, close the lid and sidle away. Baste with oil or butter in the last hour of cooking.
Spatchcocking is another option for either roasting or grilling in a hurry. Just cut out the bird's backbone with poultry shears or a sharp knife, open it up like book, crack the breast and flatten the whole body. Not only will it save you a good bit of cooking time - it also gives you a great excuse to say "spatchcock" in polite company.
Smoke 'em if you've got 'em
I've often said it's a sin to waste good smoke, especially if you've got the monster stoked up all day. Slide in foil pans of halved lemons and limes, pierced ginger root, salt, cherries (when in season), apples, garlic, potatoes - and let them soak up the flavor as well. When you go to replenish the coals and wood chips, give the pan a shake and just make sure they're not drying out. Rotate in pans of fresh supplies as needed and add an extra layer of flavor to every part of the meal.
Smoked cherries can be refrigerated in jars of whiskey or brandy, citrus and ginger made into crowd-pleasing cocktails, and smoked salt adds a kick to any dish it's in.
Here's to a divine brine and a stupendous smoke!
Got a Thanksgiving kitchen conundrum of your own? We'll be here, manning the hotline. Just share your query in the comments below or @eatocracy on Twitter and we'll do our best to educate - or at least amuse.
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