xoThanksgiving: I'm Not Going to Brine My Turkey. Let's Fight About It!

No self respecting foodie would be caught admitting to not brining their bird. Well, its a pain in my ass. So I’m going to just tell you: I’m not brining the f*#!1n9 bird this year. Because: SCIENCE.
Publish date:
November 18, 2013
xoFood, science, Thanksgiving, Turkey, salt, m-rated, M

I am a woman who loves process. I am a woman who loves lists, who organizes people and projects for a living. I thrive on OCD opportunities like Thanksgiving and the joy I get from preparing both the night before and the day of the big show is irreplaceable.

Around 10am each Thanksgiving, my best friend arrives from the airport (our longstanding secret to beating the holiday delays and fares is to just fly on major holidays), she throws her bag down and becomes the perfect sous chef. Which is to say, she stands by the pantry and hands me what I ask for with the quickness and precision of an surgical RN.

So, the process of finding the perfect bird -- the bird that lived a happy, great live and died a minimally stressful death, that was raised without antibiotics, that is big enough to feed my group and that will taste as delicious as possible -- is one that interest me greatly. So much so, I’ve gone so far as turkeysitting my friend’s birds and attending and even participating in Turkey Doomsday. Twice.

A piece of that pie (ha, see what I did there) is believing that the more we do to the bird, the more intervention we employ, the better the bird will taste. If you baste it, and butter it, and season it and most important above all… brine it.

Which leads us to ask, “Why the hell are we celebrating such a tasteless fucking bird? Make a duck instead!”

But here we are. And no self respecting foodie would be caught admitting to not brining their bird. We go on about the length of brine and the brine recipe and who you subscribe to (are you an Alton or a Martha?).

Well, you know what? Its a pain in my ass. It rains here. It means ice packs and coolers and doberman diversion and later trying to ensure I’ve bleached and scrubbed and decontaminated the cooler enough to use it for anything else.

So I’m going to just tell you: I’m not brining the fucking bird this year.

And I have J. Kenji López-Alt at The Food Lab to thank. Nope. Goodbye, cooler. Sayonara, salt water.

This year I’m salting that fucker.

Lopez-Alt goes to great scientific length to explain how brining works from both a flavor profile and an osmosis perspective. Indeed, the experiment shows that in terms of taste, it does very little indeed. Brine is, at base, salt water. We add things to it, but it's salted water. In his experiments, he shows that brining actually gives us dual effect: “moister” meat and the taste of salt.

The moistness is just water though, without any flavor, giving us a watery bird, and nothing can be done to the brine to help make that moistness have more flavor no matter what we put into the brine. Due to the nature of osmosis, the bird does not absorb those flavors due to molecule size, just the salt, and it seems a circuitous route to get to the salt. So, why not actually just salt the damn bird instead?

No arguments from me here- the science seems solid and I’m in favor of any science that lightens the load on my internal sloth vs glutton debate. (Mmmmmmm, juicy turkey. Mmmmmm, sitting here and doing nothing. SO HARD TO DECIDE.)

As a rational person, I would think that salting the bird would result in LESS moisture, since that’s what salt does. But Lopez-Alt describes how the salt does indeed draw out moisture from the bird (turkey juices, not water), then the salt dissolves in that moisture, which is reabsorbed by the bird, resulting in moist, and turkey-er tasting turkey.

How do you salt the bird?

“Easy. Use kosher salt. Salt your meat liberally (it should look like a light snowfall on the bird). Place the bird on a plate in the fridge overnight and loosely cover it with plastic or cheesecloth. Rinse if desired to remove excess surface salt (I skip this step because I like salty skin). Pat dry. Roast as desired. For even better results, carefully separate the skin from the breast and thighs and rub the salt directly on the meat, under the skin.” -The Food Lab: The Truth About Brining Turkey

So, that’s my plan, Stan. And it doesn’t mean I won’t still go OCD on my bird. I’ve given people various methods for cooking their bird (The beginner’s route, The Just for Two route), but here, my dearies, is how I’m cooking my bird, and its a method that changes and is refined over time.

1. A fresh bird: I don’t fuck around with frozen birds. I suck it up and pay a local farmer or store for a fresh, well raised, humanely killed bird. It costs more. I am willing to pay it and sacrifice other parts of the meal because its important to me. I pick up the bird the day before Thanksgiving, leaving it in my care and fridgeration as little as possible.

2. I bring it home, where it will get opened and patted dry (not rinsed, as there is evidence that this results in contaminating everything in your kitchen due to water droplets from the faucet water hitting the bird and if cooked correctly, any surface bacteria on the bird will be eliminated anyways) and then salted on a plate in my fridge. For good measure, I put a towel under the plate and don’t put any vegetables on that shelf.

3. Before cooking, I will stuff the bird with cold (not warm) stuffing that was made the night before. I will stuff both sides, the front and back. I will use this nifty tool to sew up the front, and I use food twine on the back. (I have three of these, they are awesome for chickens)

4. I am a devotee of Martha Stewart’s cheesecloth and basting liquid methodology for a gorgeously roasted, perfectly crispy skinned turkey. Basically you butter and spice the turkey, and then use a hefty amount of wine and butter for your basting liquid, saturate cheesecloth in the liquid, and then drape it on the turkey breast. It doesn’t involve any searing (cooking the bird initially at a high temperature) at this point, it's a 375 degree oven, reduced after 30 minutes to 350. Consistent basting. After three hours, the cheesecloth is removed and in the last hour, it attains a magazine cover worthy skin. And is legitimately delicious.

5. I let the bird sit for an hour while all the other table items bake off. When ready to slice, I do not slice the breast on the bias, as we’ve seen in so many movies and shows. Instead I remove the entire breast and the slice it into ¾ inch slices and plate it so you know what you’re getting. I remove the wings, the drumsticks, the thigh and make sure there is a good distribution of dark and white meat on the plate. I coat all meat with a basters worth of juices from the pan before it goes on the table, to keep it moist.

6. After dinner, I take off all the meat, and place it in bags with a bit of juices and gravy and then vacuum seal it. I will do this after each time I open the bag. This keeps it moist for as long as possible. It helps I keep the vacuum sealer on the countertop.

7. The carcass immediately becomes stock after dinner, going into a large pot of water and cooking down on simmer for an hour or two before I go to bed. In the morning, I skim it, and it will become turkey soup later that week.

There are a million ways to skin a bird. Ha. See what I did there? My recipe is not THE recipe. There are a million delicious recipes out there and whether you drape your bird in bacon, or brine it or flavor inject it or deep fry it, there’s a universal truth we need to acknowledge: it's a fucking turkey. There’s a reason we don’t eat them more than once a year. The vast amount of work we do to make it taste better really only gives us very minor variations in what is a basically a tasteless bird chosen mostly for its size. In other words, don’t make yourself crazy. Do only the amount of fucking about and cooking magic that you find enjoyable.

(Throws down the drumstick). Gobble Gobble, out.