I'm sure some of you will want to hang me for the recipes and methods I am about to share with you, but I don't care. Sure, your Aunt Millie makes the best Thanksgiving turkey in the world and I'm not here to tear her down. I can't fight nostalgia or the fact that the Thanksgiving turkeys of your past will undoubtedly hold an important place in your heart and mind, but hear me out. A little science goes a long way in Turkey cookery.
Brining (I'll explain two methods below) improves poultry's ability to retain moisture in a hot, dry cooking environment. Notice the word poultry instead of turkey. I use brining techniques with ALL poultry, including chicken, duck, game birds and turkey. Certain muscle proteins and fibers in the animals are naturally dissolved and broken down by the salt present in both dry and wet brine solutions. Once these proteins and fibers break down, the muscle tissue loses most of its ability to contract while cooking. Less muscle contraction inevitably leads to less moisture being squeezed out of the bird. The result? A juicy final product.
There are two types of brining methods that can be used to brine just about any type of poultry (or other meats for that matter but that's another post). There is WET BRINING and DRY BRINING. In a WET BRINE, you make a salt water solution that is measured to specific salinity ratios and completely submerge the animal in the solution for a given period of time. A dry brine is basically adding a specific amount of salt to the product and allowing the salt to penetrate through the skin and flesh over a given amount of time. Both methods will dramatically improve your final product and will produce a much tastier, juicer bird.
TRADITIONAL WET BRINE
Wet brining demands a lot more space and that should be taken into consideration before you choose which method best suits your needs. Do you have space in your refrigerator for a huge pot filled with a whole turkey submerged in liquid? Can you leave it there for up to three days? Take careful consideration and plan accordingly.
When making a wet brine, the most important thing to keep in mind is the RATIO OF THE AMOUNT OF SALT TO WATER, not the amount of salt compared to the size of the bird. To get even more specific, as long as your salt solution hovers around 6-7% salt by WEIGHT, and your bird is fully submerged for the given amount of time it needs, you'll get a great result. Make sense? If, not the following should help.
Turkeys 8 - 12 pounds - 2 gallons H2O (7.6 liters) + 2.5 cups salt (450 grams)
Turkeys 13 - 17 pounds - 2.5 gallons H2O (9.5 liters) + 3.25 cups salt (570 grams)
Turkeys 18 - 22 pounds - 3 gallons H2) (11.4 liters) + 3.75 cups salt (675 grams)
The generalized ratio here is roughly 1.25 to 1.5 cups of kosher salt per gallon of water. Notice in the above recipes the ratio of salt to water NEVER changes. The only thing that changes is the volume needed to completely cover your bird based on the size of the bird itself.
In a large pot on the stove, mix HALF the total amount of water needed with all of the salt. Bring mixture to a boil and make sure all salt is dissolved. You don't need to cook the solution per se, you are just looking to dissolve all of the solids into the liquid. Once the salt is completely dissolved in the mixture, remove from the heat and allow to cool. Add the second half of the total amount of water (preferably chilled) into the solution. The cold water will help chill the solution quicker. It is IMPERATIVE you completely chill the brine before submerging your bird. You don't want to partially cook your bird or risk the growth of harmful bacteria. After the solution has chilled completely, submerge your bird in the solution for 12 to 24 hours depending on the size. For smaller birds, stick to 12 hours and for larger birds go for 24. After the 12 to 24 hour time period, remove the turkey from the brine and thoroughly dry, using paper towels to help you get the bird as dry as you possibly can. For beautiful, extra crispy skin, brine your turkey several days in advance and let your turkey air dry, uncovered in the refrigerator overnight or up to three days on a rack set inside a baking dish. The air circulation of your refrigerator will dry out the skin and help develop a beautiful, crispy skin.
NOT SO TRADITIONAL DRY BRINE
Dry brining will help save space in your refrigerator. Adding baking powder to the salt mixture will help improve the texture of the skin.
Combine one cup of kosher salt with four tablespoons of baking powder in a bowl. Completely dry your turkey with paper towels before applying the salt mixture. Generously sprinkle the salt mixture on ALL of the surfaces of the bird including the inside cavity. You want to evenly coat the bird in salt but not completely encrust it. YOU WILL HAVE SALT LEFTOVER! Only use what you need to cover the bird and how much you use will depend on the size of each individual bird. Put your salted bird on a rack and allow to sit in the refrigerator uncovered or lightly covered in plastic wrap for 24 - 36 hours. DO NOT RINSE THE BIRD AFTER DRY BRINING. If moisture exists on the outside of the skin, lightly pat dry with paper towels and allow to rest in the refrigerator for up to three days. The resting period is very important. It not only allows the baking powder to interact with the skin, it lets the salt do its thing and penetrate the meat, optimizing flavor.
WHICH METHOD DO I PREFER?
Dry brining is the way to go for whole turkeys. Not only does it save space in the refrigerator it concentrates flavor. Traditional wet brining will plump and add weight to your turkey by adding additional moisture to the flesh. While not a horrible thing, the added moisture is comprised of water and leads to a turkey that is a bit watered down. The result will be moist and juicy, but the taste will be lost in dilution. Dry brining helps the bird retain moisture while cooking without adding any extra liquid. The bird will suck in the salt and have the effects of protein denaturing and have a more intense poultry flavor. The added baking powder will also improve the quality of the skin. The baking powder aides in the breaking down of proteins because of its slight alkaline nature. It changes the pH of the bird and aides in the breaking down of proteins. The baking powder also combines with the natural juices of the bird and creates a layer of microscopic carbon dioxide bubbles. These bubbles interact with the skin and help to create more surface area, creating a skin that browns and crisps more efficiently.
COOKING YOUR BIRD
The key to delicious turkeys is not overcooking and getting the whole bird cooked evenly. Often times, the breast of the bird will over cook while waiting for the thighs to cook completely. You can fix this by loading the bottom tray of your oven with baking stones, baking steels or cast iron skillets. These baking stones or cast iron skillets will sit under your baking tray and focus very high heat from underneath helping the legs of the bird cook through before the breast dries out.
1) Place your turkey breast side up on a V-rack set in a baking pan with edges that can collect juices. Allow to sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours so your not putting an ice cold bird in the oven.
2) Preheat your oven loaded with baking stones, baking steels or cast iron skillets to 500F. Allow to preheat for at least 45 minutes to an hour, "charging" your baking stones with high heat.
3) Pat dry a wet brined turkey or do nothing to a dry brined turkey.
4) Transfer turkey on baking sheet into oven and place directly on baking stones. Immediately close the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 300F. Roast the turkey until golden brown and the deepest part of the breast registers 150F, roughly three to four hours total depending on the size of your bird. (note: check the turkey after a few hours. If the skin is not browning the way you want it to pump up your oven another 50 degrees to 350F.)
5) When cooked, remove turkey from oven and allow to rest at least thirty minutes before carving.
HOW BIG OF A TURKEY DO I NEED?
For turkeys under sixteen pounds, figure 1 pound for every person. This ratio factors in bone weight. For turkeys over sixteen pounds, figure 0.75 pounds per person because larger birds have a higher meat to bone ratio. If you are looking to have ample leftovers, a safe ratio is 1.5 pounds per person no matter the size of the bird.