BBQ FAQ Section 10.5.4

 

10.5.4 How to brine a turkey

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[Can someone tell me about brining a turkey?]

Terry Light--

For me, eating turkey at Dan Gill's party was all it took to make me a convert to brining--his brined turkey was the best I've ever eaten. For those not sure, here's what Cook's Illustrated (Nov/Dec 1997) said about brining:

"Our previous turkey articles found that brining made a significant improvement in the overall flavor and texture of the meat. We were concerned that if we stuffed a brined bird, the stuffing might emerge over-salted. Much to our joy, however, we found that this was not the case.

"In fact, the benefits of brining are many fold. First, brining provides a cushion for the breast meat, so even if it overcooks by ten degrees F or so, it remains moist. Secondly, the meat of a brined bird tastes pleasantly seasoned, which eliminates the need to season before and after roasting. Because the turkey sits overnight in a tub of salted water, brining also ensures that all parts of the turkey are at the same temperature. Yet another benefit is that the turkey meat absorbs water during the brining process. Water is a heat conductor and therefore expedites cooking. We tested this theory and found that indeed a brined bird cooks faster than an unbrined one by about 30 minutes. Lastly, brining may help inhibit growth of certain types of bacteria. So while it may seem like added work, dunking the bird in the brine is worth it for a whole host of reasons."

Cook's Illustrated's brine is simply 2 cups kosher salt or 1 cup table salt dissolved in 2 gallons cold water in large stock pot or clean bucket. Submerge the turkey and refrigerate or set it in very cool (40F or less) spot for 8 - 12 hours. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse both cavity and skin under cool water for several minutes until all traces of salt are gone. Pat dry inside and out with paper towels; set aside.

Editor--

Once the turkey has been brined, it may be oven baked or smoker cooked in the normal manner. See post by Danny Gaulden above.

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Dan Gill--

Make sure the turkey is safely thawed. I make up my brine as follows:

Estimate how much liquid will be required to completely cover the bird(s). Each gallon of brine should cover one 16 lb. whole bird or two 8 lb. breasts.

Dan Gill's Turkey Brine

Amount

Measure Ingredient Preparation Method

1

gallon cold water add

1 1/2

cups salt*

1/2

cup molasses

1 1/2

tablespoon garlic or garlic powder crushed or minced

1/2

tablespoon onion powder

1/4

cup black pepper

1/2

cup lemon juice

1/2

ounce maple flavoring

12

ounces ginger ale

Alternatively, use:

1/2 tablespoon ginger (ground, or minced) in place of the garlic and onion.

* Table salt is not recommended because of the iodine. I usually use dairy salt which is just a good quality sterilized fine salt. I buy it from a farm supply store in 50 pound bags for curing meat and fish. Kosher salt works fine too, it just dissolves a little slower.

Cover birds completely with brine and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, remove from brine and drain while preparing smoker. Rinse birds well inside and out. Smoke at around 250F (measured at grate level) to an internal temperature of 170F in the thickest part of the thigh. Basting with butter every few hours will give you a beautiful golden-brown skin.

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Kit Anderson--

Rather than brine my turkeys, like to kosher them--rub them with kosher salt inside and out. I kosher the night before per the directions on the Morton's Kosher Salt box. But leave the salt on all night. Then rinse well inside and out the next morning. Rub the outside of the bird with peanut oil, black pepper, sage and any other spices you might like but leave out the salt. Then put the bird in the smoker. A 10-12 lb. bird will take 6 1/2 - 8 hours.

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William O'Reilly--

This is a brining recipe that my family uses for all types of birds (chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and game hens). This recipes is really good and the birds end up looking like the pictures in magazines and cookbooks with a golden-brown outside.

O'Reilly's Smoked and Brined Chicken

Amount

Measure Ingredient Preparation Method

2

whole chickens (3 1/2 lb. each)

1

gallon water

3/4

cup salt

2/3

cup sugar

3/4

cup soy sauce

1

teaspoon each tarragon, thyme, and black pepper dried

1/4

cup olive oil

Wash birds inside and out. Put water in a large non-aluminum container, add salt and sugar and stir to dissolve. Add soy sauce, tarragon, thyme and pepper. Submerge birds in brine and weigh them down with a heavy plate so that they stay submerged. Refrigerate overnight.

Remove birds from brine and wash inside and out. Pat dry. Reserve brine.

Start smoker, fill water pan with water and half of reserved brine. Place chickens, breast side up, on top rack of smoker. Cover and smoke at 200 to 250F for approximately four hours, until internal temperature of the thickest part of the thigh reaches 170F. Baste with olive oil after two hours.

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[What exactly does brining do for a turkey or chicken?]

Bird Brining, By Russ Parsons, Times Deputy Food Editor (12-19-96 Los Angeles Times)--

If someone told you to go soak your bird, you might take offense. But it could be the best cooking advice you've ever gotten.

Brining - essentially soaking meat or poultry in a solution of salt and cold water - has long been used as a preliminary step in smoking. It flavors the meat and also plumps it, giving it the needed moisture to withstand the long, slow, dry cooking that the smoking process involves.

But what's good for the smoker is also good for the roaster - and for the grill too. Campanile's Mark Peel figures he brines about 100 turkeys a year before roasting them at his restaurant. Most wind up in sandwiches at lunch.

"We started brining the turkeys about three years ago and, to tell you the truth, I can't remember why," he says. "My sense, in an unscientific way, is that it gives a tenderness to the meat.

"That's especially necessary with turkeys. With the turkeys you buy, even the organic ones, the breast meat is pretty dry. That's because they've been bred for big breasts. The white meat has very little blood circulation and very little fat in it. But if you brine it and roast it properly, it doesn't turn out dry."

There's a very good reason for that, according to Alan Sams, Ph. D. an associate professor of poultry science at Texas A&M University. Sams, who has published several papers on brining poultry, says it's basically an electric [electrolyte] thing.

"What is happening is that salt [the chloride part more than the sodium] penetrates into the muscle," Sams says. "The charged ions cause the muscle fibers to swell, and that sucks in even more water. It also binds the water to other protein, meaning the meat holds more water during cooking. That's what causes the juiciness effect.

"The three big benefits I've seen are increased juiciness, better flavor because of the saltiness and improved tenderness," Sams continues. "Brining generally creates a looser protein network. It's the discharge propulsion - the negative ions repelling each other and loosening the muscle fibers."

All of this was documented in a 1977 paper by five scientists from the University of Florida. They compared roast chickens that had been brined, chickens that had been soaked in plain ice water and chickens that had not been treated.

They found that the brined chickens scored much higher with testers in terms of flavor and tested better for juiciness and tenderness (the difference in tenderness was much greater for white meat than for dark). Microbial testing also showed slightly lower populations of various bacteria in the brined chicken than in the others.

I knew none of that the first time I tried brining. Having read something about it somewhere, last summer on a whim I tried soaking some cut-up chicken in a weak brine (a couple of tablespoons of salt to about a quart of water) for an hour or so before grilling. The results were decidedly favorable. The chicken was plumper and juicier, had real seasoned flavor throughout and didn't scorch nearly as quickly.

As the holidays approached, I thought I'd try brining my turkey. I started small, running through a few roast chickens before stepping up in class. I wound up with a brine of about 2/3 cup of salt to a gallon of water - about a 5% saline solution. If you're going to smoke your bird, it can handle a more forceful brine. Try using a full cup of salt per gallon - that's about 7%.

I tried concentrations from 10% down to 2%, and the main difference was in the amount of saltiness - the texture was improved even with a fairly weak brine. Incidentally, if you're worried about sodium intake, remember that the meat absorbs only 10% to 15% of the brine - roughly 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt per turkey.

When Thanksgiving arrived, I took the plunge - and so did my bird. Finding a bath big enough to brine a 14-pound turkey can be a bit of a bother. (And so can clearing enough space in the refrigerator to store it.) I ended up using the biggest stockpot I had, and a plain 5% salt-and-water brine. I turned the bird occasionally to make sure it was evenly cured.

After six hours, I removed the turkey from the brine and dried it. Then I returned it to the refrigerator in the empty stockpot to dry further overnight. I wanted it to have a nice crisp skin - something that's difficult to achieve if there's much moisture present.

The next day I stuffed the turkey and roasted it in my usual way - 450F for the first 45 minutes, then 325F until a thermometer registered 160F when poked in the fat part of the thigh. (The USDA recommendation of 180F, by the way, allows considerable margin of error. With a 20-minute rest, a 160F turkey will reach 170F - more than enough to kill any bacteria.) When I checked the temperature of the stuffing, it was still a little cool, so - mindful of the danger of salmonella - I returned the turkey to the oven until the stuffing reached 160F.

The turkey was puffed, bronzed and gleaming. And unlike most roast turkeys, this one did not deflate in the 20 minutes between roasting and carving. It retained its swollen grandeur all the way to the table.

When I carved the breast meat, I noticed another peculiar thing: The white meat had developed that somewhat thready appearance you get when you overcook the breast meat (the result, no doubt, of waiting for the stuffing to get safe). Usually that means dry meat that crumbles when carved. But in this case, the slices held their shape perfectly and the meat was moist and tender.

What's more, the meat was nicely seasoned throughout. Cold, the next day, it made terrific sandwiches - even the parts closest to the bone, which normally taste bland and under-seasoned.

Mark Peel's Brine

This recipe, inspired by one of Jeremiah Towers', is enough for a 12- to 14-pound turkey. The spicing is very faint, mostly you taste the salt and a bit of the sugar. It's a bit like a very elegant version of commercial smoked turkey, only without the smoke. Peel also uses this recipe for roast pork and smoked fish. For a pork loin, cut all of the amounts by half; for fish or chops, cut them into quarters.

Amount

Measure Ingredient Preparation Method

2/3

cup salt

1/2

cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1/2

cup black pepper cracked

1

pinch dried thyme

13

whole allspice cracked

13

whole cloves

3

whole bay leaves

13

whole juniper berries crushed

1

gallon water

Combine salt, sugar, pepper, thyme, cloves, allspice, bay leaves and juniper berries in saucepan. Add 1 quart water and bring to boil. Simmer 5 minutes, then add to 1 gallon cold water. Chill thoroughly before using brine.

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[Does brining a turkey really make a difference in the taste?]

Ed Pawlowski--

I brined my first turkey this Thanksgiving-day (1997). It was better than any turkey I've ever done. This is one of the easiest ways of improving a turkey I've encountered and will not cook a turkey without brining, ever again.

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Belly--

First time for me too. Best-tasting turkey that I ever cooked. I did one each way, (with and without brining) and the brining made a world of difference. An old dog learned a new trick today.

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Thomas Street--

I smoked 2 turkey breasts for the big day. Brined one and just rubbed the other with spices. No doubt whatsoever. The rubbed bird was nice and tasty, but the brined one just exploded the old taste buds--much more moist and flavorful.

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[I brined a turkey for 12 hours on the countertop in a large pot. Then let it sit to warm up in the air for 3 hours. Was I taking a chance doing this?]

Jim Prather--

Two hours is the maximum recommended time to have 'The Meat' at temperatures anywhere between about 40 to 140F. These recommendations aren't always followed and your audience doesn't always get sick. This lulls one into the famous: "false sense of security."

If you DO get sick, you can get spectacularly, sensationally sick. Paramedics to the hospital emergency room style sick. There are bacteria in the flesh, and if kept cold, they don't breed and make many more. If 'The Meat' is heated sufficiently, you're OK. This pasteurizes 'The Meat'. However, if you keep "cooked" meat between 40 and 140F, things go bad again, because pasteurizing doesn't kill every last one, it just gets 'em down to a safe level for the time being.

And this other reason: There can be toxins built up in 'The Meat' which can't be neutralized by cooking. These are actually poisons as opposed to just making you sick from a bacterial infection in your system.

It's also considered good practice to wash everything that touches raw meat before you have anything else touch that thing. Hands also come to mind.

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BBQ FAQ Ver 1.0, 2.0 1997, 1998 William W. Wight. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 25, 1999
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