Tuesday, November 23, 2010

To Brine or not to Brine

That is the state of my herb garden today.  Yesterday's snow turned out to be an actual storm, and I got to have the day off as a result.  By the number of sledders I saw at the park earlier, so did a lot of other school kids.

What I should be doing with this extra time is working on school projects... I have plenty to do, for sure.  But what I'm actually doing is taking walks with my camera and doing laundry and thinking and planning for Thursday.  In case you reside on some other planet (or perhaps in some other country), this Thursday happens to be Thanksgiving.

Like many a foodie, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Unlike many of those other holidays, this special day doesn't carry the baggage of excess planning and purchasing. No gifts, no costumes, no flowers or candy... it's just all about the food. Gather up some folks, cook up something tasty, crack open a bottle or two, and call it a celebration. It's no nonsense, and everyone's ecstatic to be together and be stuffed. It's one of the few holidays that encourages the elastic waistband. What's not to love?

This Thanksgiving, I am endeavoring to roast my first turkey. We've got a 16-pounder lounging in the fridge at this very moment, waiting to be brined and baked and devoured by the dozen or so meat eaters that will be gathered in the apartment come Thursday. It's a little bit daunting, this turkey roasting business. There seems to be much more to it than just plopping a naked bird on a pan and shoving it into the oven. Being the nerd that I am, I've been doing my research on the subject.

One of the most important steps to a perfectly roasted turkey is one of the most often overlooked, at least in my limited experience. That step is called brining. I had no idea that the concept existed until two weeks ago. No one in my family ever mentioned the term. But the word on the street is that if you want a juicy turkey, you have to brine it.

Brining is basically marinating your bird in a salt water bath along with the herbs and spices of your choosing. The salinity of the brine acts to break down the muscle tissue in the meat, making it more tender, and also causes the bird to absorb water, preventing it from drying out in the oven. There is a debate over this method, but it sounds like a sweet deal to me.

I have a pot full of salty, herby water atop my stove right now. Soon enough Mr. Birdy will be bathing in it. This is the planned method to our Thanksgiving Day madness:

Roasted Turkey

Brine Recipe:
1 gallon vegetable broth
1 C. sea salt
1/2 C. brown sugar
1 T. peppercorns
1 T. dried thyme
1 T. dried sage
1 T. allspice berries
  • Put all ingredients in a large stockpot, and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt and sugar.  Turn off the heat and allow to cool.
  • When you're ready to begin brining your bird, add 1 gallon of heavily iced water to the salt water/broth solution and put the bird in.  This can be done in a 5 gallon bucket (be careful of overflow), a plastic brining bag, a large cooler, etc.  The brine should fill the cavity of the bird.
  • Allow the turkey to soak for 24 hours (the timing can vary anywhere from 12 hours to 3 days - a shorter time requires a stronger brine, a longer time a weaker one).  The bird needs to remain cold, so your bucket needs to be in the fridge, on a chilly patio, or replenished with ice to maintain the coldness. Turn the turkey at the halfway point of brining.
  • At the end of the brining period, remove the bird, discard the brining liquid, and rinse the bird thoroughly.
Once our bird comes out of the brine, we plan to let it sit uncovered in the fridge overnight to allow the skin to dry.  Dry skin will become more crisp during the roasting process.  Check out this video featuring Alton Brown (Food Network guru) talking about dry skin vs. wet and the folly of basting your bird.

We will begin the brining process on Tuesday night, remove the bird from the brine on Wednesday evening, let it sit in the fridge until Thursday, and finally get it in the oven around noon on Thanksgiving.

Roasting Recipe:
2 lemons, quartered
4 fresh rosemary sprigs
several fresh sage leaves
half an onion, sliced
canola oil
  • The lemons, herbs and onion will go into the cavity of our bird.  We will then rub the entire outside of it with canola oil, to aid in the browning process.
  • We plan to put the turkey into a 500 degree oven on the lowest level for 30 minutes, and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees for an additional 1 1/2 hours or so, until the proper temperature is reached.  We will most likely cover the breast meat with foil in order to slow the cooking process on that portion of the turkey, which is so often overcooked as the leg meat catches up.
  • The bird will then rest for about 20 minutes or so before slicing.
That's it!  If all goes according to plan (does it ever?) we'll be enjoying the best turkey of our lives with a house full of friends just two days from now.  I will be sure to let you know how it turns out.  Happy Thanksgiving!!

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