November 5, 2009

Thanksgiving 101: Brining a Turkey

Bourbon Red

If there's one thing that will make the next turkey you cook the best you've ever made, it's brining. Giving that bird 24-48 hours in a pleasantly salty bath will make even an industrially-raised hormone-filled turkey taste good! What it does for a heritage breed, like the Bourbon Red in the photo, is nothing short of miraculous.

The steps you need to follow are quite simple. First, mix all your dry ingredients together and add to a pot with about a quart of water. Bring it to a boil and stir until all the salt and sugar is in solution. Then chill. Next, give the turkey a careful rinse and put it into a brining bag or a picnic cooler and add some ice. Add the chilled brine base and cold water to cover. Keep the bird cold while it brines.

Some instructions suggest turning the turkey over about halfway through the brining process. If you're willing to get up in the middle of the night to turn the turkey, go ahead. Otherwise, just put it into the bag or cooler breast-side down.

Before cooking, rinse the turkey carefully, and if you have time, let it air dry in the refrigerator for several hours.

Basic Brine
6 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
¼-½ cup sugar or other sweetener(s)

It's important not to use too much salt or sugar in the brine to avoid making the turkey either salty or sweet. Be very careful about using herbs or spices--the turkey will be absorbing flavor for a long time, and too much spice will make for an unpleasant eating experience.

Molasses Brine
6 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
¼ cup grade B maple syrup
¼ cup blackstrap molasses
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick about 3" long
1 medium navel orange, quartered and squeezed into the brine
1 small bunch parsley
3 whole star anise
1 teaspoon whole allspice

If you have the time, marinate overnight in buttermilk after brining. The turkey will be quite moist.

Apple Brine
2 quarts apple juice or cider
4 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
4 sage leaves, rubbed
1 teaspoon whole allspice
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick about 3" long

Tequila-Agave Brine
6 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup agave syrup
¼ cup tequila
2 limes, quartered and squeezed into the brine

If you want a bit of spiciness in your turkey, use a spicy chipotle dry rub after the brining.

29 comments:

  1. I usually brine my turkey every year to make it moist, but I've noticed that every year, as my turkey gets bigger (we keep having more guests), its not as moist. What do you think the limit is for a moist turkey? We will have 15-20 people at dinner. Should I get two 15 pound turkeys?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Heritage birds and wild turkeys top out at around 16 pounds dressed, so yes, I suggest you'll be happier with two turkeys of about 15 pounds. Besides, you can have two flavor profiles if you have two birds.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I learn so many things from each of your posts - thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's not easy to keep the bird cool even with a cooler when you are living in the tropics. What do you suggest we do? Short of getting up in the middle of the night to add more ice which will then dilute the brine!There won't be room in the fridge to put the whole brining bucket in!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I brined a turkey a couple of years ago for Thanksgiving and it was, hands down, the best turkey I'd ever eaten. The process is somewhat a pain in the you-know-what, but the results are totally worth it. I'm hosting the big day again this year and I really like the idea of the apple brine-- thanks for sharing all the variations!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think you'll just have to get up in the middle of the night and add ice. Don't worry about diluting the brine. At most you'll reduce the flavoring only slightly.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for sharing these brine recipes!! I am in total agreement about brining. I put my turkey in a large thermos drink cooler, like the kind they dump gatorade from at the football games!! It works perfectly and is just the right size for a large bird.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Fantastic recipes for brining! The apple brine sounds especially tasty—definitely celebrates our fabulous Northwest flavors. Thanks for sharing more fun options for kicking Thanksgiving dishes up a notch!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Gareth,

    This is such a helpful and timely post. In the past I've used an apple cider brine similar to your recipe, which was very good! Thanks for sharing!

    Christine

    ReplyDelete
  10. I started brining several years ago and was amazed! My problem? Last year I could not find a natural turkey anywhere! The only ones I could find were the pre-basted ones. I called all over the place(I live 80 miles east of Dallas, TX) and noone knew what I was talking about. One butcher at Albertson's said he had them, to find out what he had was an organic one. I don't know why last year was so different! It was that way for thanksgiving and Christmas. Anyone else had this problem?

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm going back and forth on which to use to brine the turkey in. Should I use buttermilk or apple cider? In the past I've just used water but now I'm venturing out and wanted to try something new to tweak my brine but can't figure out which would be more flavorful.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I did a turkey this year with a brine for 24 hours followed by a buttermilk bath for another 24 hours. It was quite good.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi,

    I purchased a 15lb turkey at Trader Joes that has been brined in salt water ONLY. I am planning to do a beer can Turkey on the grill( I've done chickens before, and they were great!) My question is do I need to be careful with the salt content of which ever rub I use? I smoked dry rubbed chicken in a smoker the other day and it was unedible. I don't know what happened! I do know I do not want this turkey tasting like the ocean. Any help, is appreciated. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Chrissy Dewhurst
    Carlsbad, CA

    ReplyDelete
  14. Unless you know that your brine was no more than 5% solution (20 parts water to 1 part salt by weight) I would avoid any sort of salt-based dry rub. You can still use herbs and spices, just no salt.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Gareth -
    How much buttermilk need you need for the bath?

    ReplyDelete
  16. At least a gallon. You'll want to cover the bird, but you can use some water as well.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hello, This year is my first time doing a brine. I didn't want my turkey to come out all salty so i did the apple cider brine and skipped the salt. My question is, since i didn't put any salt in is that going to mess up my bird.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I've never brined before so i was wondering whats the longest i can let my turkey brine? I was told by a buddy of mine that the longest i should go up to is about 3days. I've been brining my bird for atleast 19hrs now, i want to brine until the 25th then let it set for 24hrs before i oven-roast it.

    ReplyDelete
  19. It won't do harm but a brine requires salt. All you're doing is flavoring the turkey a bit. You need the salt to cause osmosis and draw the seasonings into the interior of the turkey. The small quantity of salt I recommend is far less than most brines, and the bird will not be salty.

    ReplyDelete
  20. 24-48 hours is the general recommendation. If you've used a lot of salt in the brine the turkey might get too salty. If you aren't sure, take the bird out of the brine after about 24 hours, give it a good bath, then marinate it in apple cider/juice or buttermilk or something.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I will only have about 18 hours to brine my turkey, will it help it out at all? Or not bother? Or is there anything I can do, to ensure its moist? Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  22. 18 hours is better than nothing. If you have less than 12 hours it wouldn't be worthwhile, but anything more than 12 will begin to have a real impact on the turkey. You can also cook it slower than usual to help retain moisture. Start with a hot oven, 450°F, turn it down to 300°F after 15 minutes. It will take longer but it will produce a moister turkey. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Hi! I just harvested two turkeys for the first time. I thought they would have been bigger, but I believe they are somewhere between 10-12 lbs. My question is, for one turkey we would like to do a orange tequila brine. Can I add a gallon of orange juice to your tequila agave brine and get some decent results? Have you tried this? Also, can you use too much brine? Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'd use less orange juice, maybe half a gallon. Too much orange juice will get acidic. Put some oranges in the breast cavity and maybe do an orange compound butter under the skin when you roast it and it should be fine.

    You won't have problems if you use a lot of liquid, but you will have problems if you use a lot of salt. If you want to measure, go by weight, 20 parts of liquid to 1 part of kosher salt.

    Compound butter, for those who may not know, is softened butter with stuff added. A nice orange compound butter can be made by adding the zest and juice of one orange and 1 tablespoon of orange liqueur to 2 sticks of butter. Mix until the liqiud is incorporated. Rub the butter into the breast of the turkey under the skin and you'll have excellent orange flavor. Watch for the breast to get dark much earlier than you expect and have some foil ready to cover it to keep it from burning.

    Good luck and Happy Thanksgiving!

    ReplyDelete
  25. After you have the initial brine solution with ice, leave additional room for adding ice packs, as needed. If multiple additions are needed, have the extras ready, then just swap these out (clean, reuse for next swap). Better than dilution.

    ReplyDelete
  26. gareth-
    help.
    this year is my first turkey. i ordered a 16# free range bird from a local farm. i want to use the molasses brine that you posted here. is this recipe for a certain sized bird? should i adjust the amounts? how long do i bake it and at what temp? put it in a turkey bag? do i need to truss it? i always truss chickens....
    i think i have first turkey jitters.
    best,
    liz

    ReplyDelete
  27. Liz,

    The recipe will work for any size turkey and is perfect for the size you have. A free range bird needs longer cooking time, so you should start it at 350° for about 30 minutes, then drop the temp to 300°. Typically a turkey needs 15-20 minutes per pound, but you'll want to check it pretty regularly. The best method for checking doneness is with a thermometer inserted into the thigh of the bird. It should be 160° when you pull it out of the oven to rest.

    Trussing the bird is always best, and fold the wings under the body as well. Before you truss the bird, put an onion or two and some apples or citrus fruits in the cavity. It will help the flavor. Do your dressing or stuffing separately.

    I prefer to do the turkey the day before Thanksgiving so I can slice it nicely. I put the slices on a sheet pan and cover with foil. On the day, I add some hot stock to the sliced meat and put it (covered) into the oven at whatever temp is being used for whatever is in there about 15 minutes before serving. A bit more hot turkey stock as it goes onto a serving platter means I have hot, juicy turkey and a lot less stress.

    Good luck! And remember, what they don't know won't hurt them, so don't tell them ANYTHING about what went wrong! :)

    ReplyDelete
  28. Hi Gareth Mark,

    This year I will be in charge of the turkey baking, and I will have a 16 lb. turkey to brine. Should I brine it the day before or two days before? Also, I read that bourbon and brown sugar make a nice combination in a turkey. I was looking to do the apple brine, but really wanted to try the bourbon. Can I replace some of the water for it? And add some brown sugar? Do you think it is a good idea?

    Thanks so much!
    Jestela

    ReplyDelete
  29. Brown sugar and bourbon will go well together. Use a small amount of bourbon, maybe ¼ cup, just enough to flavor the brine. Definitely brine at least one day before cooking. It would be best to brine on Tuesday, then rinse the turkey on Wednesday and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator until you're ready to cook it.

    ReplyDelete