10 November, 2010

Thanksgiving Turkey: To Brine or Not to Brine?

Thanksgiving Day is a couple of weeks away, and food writers everywhere - newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV and radio - are passing along their "essential tips" for making the perfect roasted turkey.  Over the past few years, it seems like the most common piece of advice everyone gives is:  Brine The Turkey!

Brining, as everyone from Alton Brown to About-dot-com will tell you, helps a roasted turkey stay juicy and delicious.  The salt in the brine causes the meat to absorb water (and any flavorings you may have added) while partially breaking down proteins in the meat.  With more water in the bird to start with, the meat can lose moisture during the long cooking time without becoming dry or stringy.

For the past ten or twelve years, my family has sat down to a turkey dinner featuring delicious smoked turkey.  I use a hot smoking process, keeping the smoker at about 250 degrees F over pleasant fruitwood smoke (apple or citrus) until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reaches about 160 degrees F or even a little less.  (That whole 180-degree thing?  Yeah, that's  a holdover from the "Let's Cook The Living Shit Out Of Everything We Eat" culinary school of the early 20th century, and it's way too high a temp  if you don't want severely overdone bird.)

Generally, I brine everything that goes into the smoker.  Brining is a great method for curing pork cuts, bacon, tongues, corned beef, and so on, and there's no doubt that meats held over the heat for a long time don't dry out if they're tanked up with water to begin with.  The first few turkeys I smoked were brined.

And then one Thanksgiving, in the hectic swirl of preparations, I forgot to brine the damn bird.  I didn't realize it until I actually went into the fridge to fetch the turkey and put it into the smoker.  There was no help for it - the turkey had to go in right then to be on time for our dinner guests and there was no time for the luxury of a soak in a seasoned saltwater bath.

The turkey came out perfect nonetheless, and I think I know why.

First, I held the smoker at a low temperature, and I kept a pan of water just over the heat source.  The "moist heat" environment kept the bird from losing too much moisture over the 5-hour-or-so cooking time.

Second - and this is probably equally important - the turkey was "pre-brined" by the processor.  Take a look at the label of most supermarket turkeys and you'll find a statement in very fine print that tells you that the turkey "contains up to n% solution" with n varying depending on the brand.  Really, if the processor is already adding a brine to the turkey before it gets to the store, there isn't much point to me adding additional brining to it.

Since then, if I'm smoking a commercially processed turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, I don't bother with the brine.  I still brine it if I'm using a free-range or backyard flock bird.  But my advice to you is read the labels carefully.  The label will always note if the bird has an added solution or if there is a percentage of retained water from processing (and you should know that even some poultry labeled "minimally processed" can still contain retained water.


icecycle66 said...

We fry ours in a big pot of peanut oil just about every year, so no brining necessary; or even recommended. But on the off year I don't feel like frying, my wife bakes the bird the old fashioned way.

No brining done then either. Butter and herbs go under the skin before cooking. Cover it with foil until the last 35 minutes, and broil for 3 minutes to crisp the skin real good. The bird comes out dripping moist and and stays that way allt the way throughout sandwhich days.

bboyer66 said...

Whenever I smoke a beef brisket or even ribs, I use a brine for at least a few hours.
The past few years I have been making a buffalo style turkey breast for Thanksgiving. Melt both butter and hotsauce and make a typical buffalo style sauce. Then I inject it into the turkey with one of those hypodermic food injector thingies. The turkey comes out great with the fat in the butter helping keep the turkey nice and moist.

Marc said...

First - Get the turkey from Tony....
Second- Yes brine, but a flavor brine ie/apple cider, etc... 24-48 hours.
Third- Dry on a rack (under refrigeration) for at least 12 hours. 24 is better.
Fourth - Start the smoker off cool and let it slowly ramp up to 300 plus. Great skin and unbelievable goodness!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes i brine, sometimes i put herbs and butter under the skin. I know brining helps alot, i did pork and chicken recently and they were soooo good!
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J. Astro said...

My recipe for turkey? Simple, and delicious:

1 Get up on time (or at least before dinner) on Thanksgiving morning (this is an important, even critical step)

2 Drive to ma's house

3 Sit down at table and start banging forks around and stealing off the appetizer tray.

4 Wait to be served delicious turkey and side dishes

5 Fuck yeah!!! ;) *burp*

BTW, man, just thought I'd let ya know your old pal Astro has "moved" - new blog, new site - HERE: http://screengrab.blogspot.com/

Stop on by and update your blog-roll, won't ya? ;)

Anonymous said...

My West Virginia Grandmother was the best cook ever and she always soaked poultry overnight in salt water. Cut up a chicken, put it in your salt water, and watch it draw the blood out. Nevermind it will kill any organism but Staphylococcus aureus...which the heat should finish off.

Commercial brine in the bag? Um, have you ever watched poultry processing, how they wash every slaughtered bird in the same bath that ends up being fecal soup?

Brine the bird, Dave. Frying, smoking, baking...brine the damn bird!