If turkey weren’t so bland, would we even need gravy at the Thanksgiving table? Cranberry sauce, too?
Not that we can’t all be thankful for salty, delicious gravy because, like bacon, it has so many flavorful uses, but there’s a newly embraced cooking method that has home cooks eschewing the ladle for a bucket of salt water.
Turkey brining as a kitchen trick has gained favor with chefs and home cooks since cookbooks and cooking shows began featuring the method more than a decade ago.
So what is it, exactly? Brining is submerging a turkey in a salty solution that can be sweetened, fortified with vinegar and tweaked with fresh herbs and spices. The longer it sits, the more flavor the turkey collects — just don’t let it sit too long.
Brining recipes can be complex with many layers of spices and herbs, or as simple as a little sugar and vinegar in a salt solution. A brine can become the basis for a stable of flavors that can be replicated in other parts of the meal — like an apple cider-brined turkey paired with apple cider gravy and apple cider-braised carrots.
Local chefs weighed in on the hows, whats and whys of brining.
For Thad Lyman, executive chef of Gig Harbor’s Brix 25, it’s a simple reason: brining makes for a moist bird. “I started doing this about six years ago when I got tired of trying to get the perfect bird through 14-hour Thanksgiving (dinner) services. I had roasted the turkeys and I tried frying them as well. All get good flavors but the window of optimum moisture is very short. With the brining method, we get to impart a great variety of flavors and ensure the moisture window is longer. Combine brining with sous vide cooking and you have an almost foolproof method for moist turkey.” While most home cooks don’t have a sous vide — a precise and very expensive type of fancy slow cooker — brining is a cheap and easy method for any home cook to lock in flavor.
Kevin Gerlich, of Dockside Bistro in Olympia, appreciates the science behind why we brine. “Brining proteins helps to deliver salt … to the interior of the meat, but it also changes the molecular structure of the meat, making it able to retain water. This leads to moist meat, a crucial part to making the perfect turkey.”
SPICE IT UP
You can go simple with something like what Lyman uses as the foundation of all his brines. “... the simplest ratio is one gallon of water to a half cup of kosher salt. From there your imagination is your only limit,” Lyman advised.
For Dustin Joseph, executive chef of Chambers Bay Grill in University Place, brining means the opportunity to incorporate flavors that he can replicate through the rest of the meal. He’ll come up with a brine-flavored theme and his fiance will create a menu of salads and side dishes with complimentary flavors.
For whole spices, chefs recommend everything from juniper to star anise to cinnamon sticks and cardamom. Citrus, apples, pears — there are no limits for the kind of flavor that can be injected into a turkey — even wine and beer.
Matt Stickle, executive chef of Bite Restaurant at Tacoma’s Hotel Murano, prefers a brine with beer for its savory tones. He shares his recipe with readers here. Kris Blondin, owner of Stink, a cheese and wine store in downtown Tacoma, looks to wine to deepen the flavor of turkey. Just don’t use red, she says. “While doing some online research, I discovered a few recipes that used pinot noir, but who wants a pink turkey for Thanksgiving? And trust me, it will be pink,” advised Blondin. Instead, she recommends a white wine that pairs well with food, such as pinot grigio. She shares her wine brine recipe here, too.
Ed Lintott, who owns an Olympia-based wholesale spice business, said he turns to the typical salt and sugar, but with a flavor twist. He likes smoked sea salt and flavor-infused sugars. “The salt does what it is suppose to do, but imparts a nice smoked flavor to the bird. You can also do the same thing with the sugars. You can use an infused sugar to add flavor to your brine.”
CONTAINER, HOW BIG?
Probably the most difficult part of brining is giving up the refrigerator space. Some manufacturers sell brine bags, but a bucket or large stock pot will do. No lid? No problem. Use a lot of plastic wrap with rubber bands to seal the vessel. The most important thing is that the bird needs to be completely submerged and covered.
Some chefs advise using a cooler to get around the fridge storage problem, but home cooks must be careful to keep the brine at a safe and chilly temperature, but without re-freezing the bird.
To brine, you need to start with a defrosted bird. Remove the packets and neck from the internal cavities. Combine the ingredients on the stovetop and cool or refrigerate. You can even make it a day ahead. The brine needs to be cool, not hot, because you don’t want to cook your bird in the brine.
The longer it sits, the more flavor it collects. The more salt in the brine, the more salty the bird. Many chefs advise one hour per pound of turkey. That’d be a 15 hour brine for a 15-pound turkey. Some chefs like to go longer. Chef Joseph sometimes will go up to three days, but he draws the line at a fourth.
Advised Blondin, “If you over-brine, there’s no going back. So if you see the skin starting to shrink dramatically, pull it out and rinse immediately.”
PICK THE RIGHT TURKEY
Look for a “natural” turkey. Don’t brine a bird that says “basted” or one that’s injected with a salt solution. Said Gerlich, “Most frozen turkeys are already injected with a sodium based solution. Brining these birds will lead to an over-salted bird.”
A too salty bird probably is the chief complaint for home cooks who aren’t fans. Gerlich has advice, “Almost as important as the length of time a turkey sits in its brine, is the rinsing of the bird afterwards. I rinse the bird thoroughly, inside and out. I will also soak the bird for about 15 minutes after rinsing, before patting it dry with a towel. This rinsing and soaking allows for the excess salt to be removed from the outside of the bird, giving you more control of the flavors added by a rub.”
RUBBED WITH LOVE
While some chefs love brining, other say rubs are a gentler way to infuse flavor. Lintott uses smoky rubs on his poultry. “Some dry rubs can stay on for as little as two hours and some need longer to penetrate and add flavor. Sometimes you have to rub the bird twice before cooking it.” A general method is to rub the spice mix on the skin, under the skin around the breast and inside the turkey cavity. Cover the turkey tightly and let sit overnight in the fridge.
Anne Buck, owner of Buck’s Fifth Avenue spice store in Olympia, had simple advice for picking flavors: “Think of ways to pair the flavors you enjoy.” She offers a recipe for a smoky chipotle-cumin rub.
Matt Stickle’s Beer Brine
4 bottles beer (your choice)
1/2 cup kosher salt
5 sprigs fresh sage, rosemary, thyme
1/2 cup chopped garlic
1 lemon, zested
1/4 cup whole peppercorns
2 quarts water
Heat ingredients, then cool. If needed, add more cold beer and/or cold water to cover whole turkey. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Rinse to remove any traces of salt. Kris Blondin’s Wine and Herb Brine
750 ml white wine (such as pinot grigio)
6 bay leaves
1 large sprig of rosemary
1 large spray of thyme
1 head garlic, peeled
1 medium onion, cut in half
1 cup kosher salt (sea salt can be used, but it will make a saltier brine)
1 cup brown sugar
10 cups water
2 large lemons
Add bay leaves, herbs, garlic, onion, salt, sugar and water to a large stockpot. Cut lemons in half and squeeze the juice into the rest of the brine ingredients; add the squeezed lemons. Bring to a boil and boil 10 minutes. Stir in wine. Cool the brine. Add turkey and brine for 12 to 24 hours. Remove the turkey and rinse very well in cold water. Brush the skin with olive oil and roast as usual.
Note: These measurements are meant for a large chicken or small turkey. Double the recipe for a larger turkey. Dustin Joseph’s Apple Spiced Brine 2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 teaspoon dried chilies
4 tablespoons salt (I use kosher)
8 tablespoons brown sugar
2 apples, chopped medium dice
Place spices and apple pieces in a saucepan and lightly crush with the back of a spoon to help release aromatic oils, pour half of the water (3 cups) over them and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Remove from heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Combine the rest of the water, sugar and salt in a deep bowl or deep container. Let cool or chill completely.
Note: Double ingredients for large bird. Dustin Joseph’s Citrus Brine 1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon dried chilies
2 lemons, zest and juice
4 oranges, zest and juice
2 limes, zest and juice
8 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 tablespoons kosher salt
6 cups water
1 bunch Cilantro (minced)
Combine spices, citrus fruit and zest with half of the water (3 cups) and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Remove from heat and let steep for 10-15 minutes. Add the rest of the water, sugar and salt to your citrus mixture. Let cool to room temperature and add cilantro to finish. Let completely cool/chill before adding turkey.
Note: Double ingredients for large bird. Kevin Gerlich’s Apple Citrus Brine
2 cups apple cider
1 cup orange juice
2 cup white wine
2 gallons cold water
4-5 sprigs fresh rosemary (about 5 tablespoons)
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme (about 3 tablespoons)
2 heads garlic, halved
2 onions, quartered
2 oranges, quartered
1-1/2 cup kosher salt
2 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons whole juniper berries
3 tablespoons whole peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds
Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil until salt and sugar have dissolved. Allow to cool completely before fully submerging turkey into brine. If turkey is not submerged, simply add more cold water until turkey is covered. Brine for approximately 1 hour per pound. After brining, remove turkey from the liquid. Discard the brine. Rinse the turkey thoroughly, and soak in cold water for 15 minutes. Pat dry and prepare for roasting.
Note: This brine is enough for an 18-pound bird Anne Buck’s Smoky Turkey Rub
2 teaspoons chipotle powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon Greek oregano
1 teaspoon minced garlic powder
2 teaspoons green onion powder
1 tablespoon coursely ground chili verde lime sea salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Mix all dry ingredients, then add the vegetable oil to make a paste. Rub it on the turkey, massage the spice rub all over the turkey. Let sit in a fridge overnight.Source: Matt Stickle, Executive Chef, Bite Restaurant in the Hotel Murano Source: Kris Blondin, chef/owner Stink cheese and meat shop, Tacoma. Yield: Makes 6 cups Source: Dustin Joseph, executive chef, Chambers Bay Grill, University Place Yield: Makes 6 cups Source: Dustin Joseph, executive chef, Chambers Bay Grill, University Place Source: Kevin Gerlich, Dockside Bistro, Olympia Source: Anne Buck, owner of Buck’s Fifth Avenue spice store, Olympia