Turkeys are a tough bird to cook. The beer can method is too much of a throwback to college days and perhaps more of a novel culinary trick, while deep-frying is overly indulgent, given all that pumpkin pie you have waiting for you. (Don’t even get us started on the turducken.) Although it is uncommon to end up with a turkey so dry you wonder whether you mistook your oven for a dehumidifier, the thought of supplanting the sumptuous juices of a Thanksgiving turkey for a salty brine may seem anathema to many. But there is an alternative worth considering: brining.
In a 2009 article for The New Yorker, devout Francophile and amateur chef Adam Gopnik describes the turkey brine as, “…the habit of dunking meat in salty water for a bath of a day or so, seems to have first reappeared out of the koshering past, in Cook’s Illustrated, sometime in the early nineties, as a way of dealing with the dry flesh of the modern turkey…”
We tapped a reliable source (and friend) in our neighborhood: Jess Hayden Mattheus of Hearth & Table, a Brooklyn-based catering company. She, for one, prefers brine over brawn. In other words, the turkey should be tender and juicy, not tough. As she explains it, “The point of brining is simple: To ensure that the meat is not only cooked, but also thoroughly seasoned and moist all the way through, so that both skin and flesh are fully flavored.”
Jess begins by submerging her turkey in a vat of cold water large enough to hold the whole bird – and then some. Added to the bath are various citruses and herbs, including the fresh zest of a lemon and orange, half-bunches of sage, parsley and thyme, four smashed garlic cloves, three bay leaves, two chopped white onions and, in addition to the zest, two lemons and oranges cut into halves and squeezed. (Keep the herbs on their stems so that they impart their full flavors to the bath. Same with the garlic: add the entire clove.) Then comes ½-⅔ of a cup of kosher salt. Wait roughly a day, depending on the size of your turkey, to let the bird take a good soak.
On day two of your brining, rinse down the turkey after removing it from the vat, then pat dry. Drying the turkey will ensure that the skin cooks to a crisp – the raison d’être of a roast turkey, as far as we’re concerned.
Jess stresses the key at this juncture is to massage the skin on top and underneath with a garlic-butter paste (four grated cloves mixed into ½ a stick of melted butter), along with an orange and a couple of lemons, pressing the fleshy side of the citrus on the outside of the turkey skin. Afterward, squeeze the remaining juices underneath the skin. Finally, before putting the turkey in the oven, make sure to fill it with your leftovers: citrus peels, loose herbs, unused garlic or butter – whichever scraps you thought were without purpose, now have a starring role in your centerpiece dish.
Put the bird in a roasting pan seasoned with salt, black pepper and two cups of chicken broth and cover it with foil. Place in the oven at 450˚F. Remember to remove the foil as the cooking timer wanes – the better for making the turkey skin as crispy as possible. (If you haven’t guessed yet, this is our favorite part.) Turkey should be cooked 13-15 minutes per pound. Baste yours with drippings every 45 minutes or so to ensure that it stays succulent. While this prolongs cooking time, the end result is worth it, Jess assures us. During the last 45 minutes of cooking (impossible if you’re cooking with a bird under three pounds – but is it really a turkey if it weighs less than a cockerel?) remove the foil and allow the fatty skin to crisp.
While you wait for the turkey to cook, here are a couple of pointers and reminders:
Most meats can be brined. Fowl are not the exceptions, only exceptional. Brined vegetables are synonymous for pickled vegetables. As per all of the aforementioned citrus, Jess’s mother is Latin American, and has passed down her passion for the sweet and tang of tropical fruits to her daughter, who rewardingly incorporates them into most of her dishes.
“Please,” Jess urged me, “make sure your turkey is fully thawed.” Unless your bird is coming from the farm next door, it was likely frozen during its travels. Partially thawed turkeys will not absorb the flavors and salt during brining nearly as well.
Cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving is no convenient coincidence either. What brining may illustrate above all else, is not only our predilection for salt, but the human desire for sweets. Whether to pair against, with, or over our salt habit, sweets have met their match.
Which brings us to another important element: the gravy. Now that your turkey is cooking, the fat and savory juices from your brine begin to drip and collect in the pan. Together with the chicken broth, you have the beginnings of an incredible gravy. When it’s ready, remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to rest for a half-hour before serving.
Enjoy – knowing that the best meal during any holiday is the harvest of leftovers.
THE INGREDIENTS FOR A TURKEY BRINE from Hearth & Table’s Jess Hayden Mattheus
10 lb. turkey (fully thawed)*
approximately 2 gallons of water (i.e enough water to submerge your turkey in)
a large vat for your turkey brine
zest of a lemon and oranges
2 lemons cut into halves
1 orange cut in half
½ bunch of sage
½ bunch of thyme
½ bunch of parsley
3 bay leaves
4 large cloves of garlic, smashed
2 white onions, chopped
½-⅔ of a cup of kosher salt
salt and pepper for seasoning
2 cups of chicken broth
½ stick of butter
4 cloves of garlic, grated
1 orange cut in half
2 lemons cut into halves
enough foil to cover your turkey with
a large roasting pan
* Denotes approximations. Adjust portions for the size of your Thanksgiving turkey.
“Date Night: Hearth & Tables’ Vincenzo’s Supper Club” From, Mom Trends
“Pilgrim’s Progres” by Jane Kramer. From, The New Yorker
“Happy Turkey Day” [photo slideshow] by James Pomerantz. From, The New Yorker
“A Pilgrim’s Drunk Progress” by A.N. Devers. From, Lapham’s Quarterly