Photo: scottfeldstein, Flickr
This Thanksgiving, whether you are roasting or smoking your holiday turkey, don't forget the most important step: brining.
Holiday magazines are filled with tips on how to prepare a perfect turkey, from wrapping the turkey in cheesecloth while cooking to rubbing the turkey with "dry brine."
I have experimented with almost every technique I have come across and in my opinion, the best method is good old-fashioned brining. Although you have to plan in advance, brining is an easy process that yields the most flavorful, juicy results.
Brining, much like baking, is a scientific process, therefore it is important to have the right ratio of salt to sugar to water. And brining times are key. After working with a meat scientist from the University of Georgia, I learned more than I even wanted to know about brining.
In a nutshell, the salt solution unwinds meat proteins to form a hollow tube. The brine solution travels into the protein, carrying the flavors of the herbs and other ingredients. The solution becomes trapped inside -- creating a delicious, juicy turkey that is hard to resist.
At Fire & Flavor, I created a ready-made brine mix for those busy cooks that don't have time to mix their own. If you are like me and enjoy playing in the kitchen, then creating your own brine can be fun. The base of a brine should be 1 cup kosher salt and 1 cup sugar per gallon of water. With this ratio, you should brine your turkey for one hour per pound of meat.
I place my turkey in a brining bag (large, leak-proof zipper-top bag) which you can purchase at stores like Whole Foods Market, Bed Bath & Beyond or Turkeyperfect.com. Since refrigerator space is always limited during the holidays, just place the brining bag down in a square cooler with ice so that the turkey is completely submerged in the brine mix.
Create your own brine flavor by adding a variety of dried herbs, citrus slices, crushed garlic cloves or any of your favorite aromatic ingredients. Some of the water can easily be substituted with orange juice or apple cider and you can replace some of the sugar with sweeteners, such as maple syrup or brown sugar.
Serve a brined turkey at your holiday table this year and I can assure you, the turkey and the cook will be the star of the show.
2 cups kosher salt
2 cups sugar
2 gallons of water (orange juice or apple cider can be substituted for some water)
Optional ingredients for flavor:
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup of your favorite dried herbs and spices (sage, oregano, thyme, basil, cloves, cinnamon, etc.)
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
lemon or orange slices
crushed garlic cloves
First In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, combine 1 gallon of water, salt, sugar and optional flavor ingredients. Stir until sugar and salt have dissolved, but do not boil. Remove pot from heat and let cool for 15 minutes.
Next Spread a layer of ice into the bottom of a cooler that is a little larger than the turkey. Set the brining bag inside cooler of ice and place turkey, breast side down, inside bag. Pour cooled brine over turkey, plus an additional 1 gallon of water or juice. To further cool brine, add 2 scoops of ice into brine bag. Seal bag, making sure to let out as much air as possible. Add additional ice to cooler so that your turkey stays at 40 degrees Fahrenheit while brining. Brine for one hour per pound of turkey. Do not over brine, or turkey will be salty.
Last Remove turkey from brine, scooping some of the herbs and spices from brine solution and spreading onto the skin of the turkey for extra flavor. Brush turkey with vegetable oil or melted butter and cook as desired (roasting or smoking) until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F. Discard brine and use an antibacterial cleaner to clean area exposed to raw poultry.
I do not recommend stuffing a turkey -- brined or not -- because in order for the stuffing to reach a safe temperature of 160 degrees F, the turkey itself will be overcooked. You can store a brined turkey in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours before cooking. Store turkey on a V rack set inside a roasting pan, uncovered.
Gena Knox is the founder of Fire & Flavor and the author of "Gourmet Made Simple." For more information on Gena, visit her Web site, GenaKnox.com. Visit KitchenDaily.com to find grilling tips or watch a video of how to brine a turkey.
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