The Virtual Gourmand - Column No. 6b: Ye Olde Brined Bird

Other than frying a turkey, I get a lot of questions about how to brine a turkey come holiday time. Brining is a really effective way of keeping a turkey juicy while seasoning it all the way to the bone. It is also very easy if you know how to do it.

First a few words about the science involved in brining meats. The technique involves soaking a piece of meat (in this case turkey, but the technique works with pork and other meats as well) in a sugar-salt-spice mixture for enough time for osmosis to occur. Osmosis is the passing of a super-saturated solution through a membrane into an unsaturated substance. If left long enough, the concentration of the solute will equalize on both sides of the membrane. In the case of meat, the membrane is that actual outside surface of the meat itself, and we won't be leaving it in the solution long enough to achieve equilibrium. That would be salty to the point of making it inedible. What we will do is leave it in there long enough to season the meat to the bone, while allowing the solution to unwrap the strands of protein at the surface that will help to form a barrier keeping the moisture we have put inside the turkey from being able to escape in the oven. There are many different ways of achieving a good brine and there are many variations. I'm not going to attempt to cover it all in this article, but rather to give you the basics of achieving a good result. Once you've mastered that, you can adjust the recipe to your own creative ends (try substituting apple juice for the water for a neat flavor with both turkey and pork).

Line the five gallon bucket with two clean kitchen trash bags.
Pack the ice around the bucket to keep it cool while it brines.
The finished bird. Crispy on the outside, perfectly seasoned and juicy on the inside.

Equipment you'll need:

*  A pot large enough to accommodate 2 gallons of water
*  Kosher salt (either Diamond Crystal or Morton's)
*  sugar
*  peppercorns
*  5 gallon bucket
*  2 kitchen trash bags
*  4 twist-ties
*  A large cooler (if your refrigerator isn't big enough to accommodate a 5 gallon bucket) or a metal washtub
*  Roughly 30 lbs of bagged ice
*  Roasting pan and rack
*  Probe thermometer

Oh, and a 10-12 pound turkey that hasn't been enhanced with a salt solution (check the package - you may decide to go with fresh over frozen)...can't forget that.

Put two gallons of water in the pot. Add either 4 cups of Diamond Crystal or 2-2/3 cups Morton's kosher salt into the water (the difference in amounts is due to the size and shape of the salt crystals in each brand). Do not use ordinary table salt. An equal amount of sugar goes into the pot as well, along with a handful of cracked peppercorns. Stir the pot until the sugar and salt are completely dissolved. You may find it useful to heat the pot as you stir it, but a little patience should dissolve it all.

Once the brine is complete, remove the turkey from its packaging and remove the neck, giblets and 'gravy pack' (if it came with one). Line the 5 gallon bucket with one trash bag and then line it again with the second one. Put the turkey inside the second bag and pour the brine over it. Remove the excess air from the bag and close the inside bag twice with two of the twist-ties (space them an inch are creating a double seal on each of the two bags). Repeat with the outside bag. Bring your bucket to your cooler (or washtub), set inside, and surround it with the ice (top too). Now leave it sit for 12-15 hours depending on how much salt you want the bird to retain and the size of your turkey. I buy birds in the 10-12 pound range, so I know it will take about 15 hours to get the meat where I want it (about an hour and a half per pound). If you're doing a smaller bird or just a turkey breast, adjust the time down. If you're roasting Birdzilla for the whole clan, you'll want to leave it longer. Under no circumstances would I let it soak for more than 24 hours.

Once you've removed the bird from the brine (discard the brine, by the way), you'll want to pat it thoroughly dry with paper towels and then set it on your roasting rack (breast-side down) to completely air-dry it. In the meantime, pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. When it comes time to roast the bird (you should allow 20 minutes per pound cooking time), insert the probe of the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and place the roasting rack into the tray. Put the turkey in the oven and set the temperature on the probe to 165 degrees. After 30 minutes, remove the bird from the oven, flip it breast side up, and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Return the bird to the oven and roast until the thermometer indicates that it has come to temperature. When the breast is 165, the smaller thighs should be at the ideal 175 degrees as well. Allow the bird to rest for at least 20 minutes (tented under some aluminum foil to keep it warm) before carving.

As with the first part on fried turkey, Hormel has about the best step-by-step illustrated guide to carving a turkey I've seen. Please refer to them for proper carving techniques if you weren't fortunate to learn the skill as part of your coming-of-age.

In the next installment, we'll tackle some of my family's favorite side dishes for Thanksgiving. After preparing and consuming 2 turkeys for the photos for these articles over the last week, I think it is safe to say we'll be having either ham or Prime Rib for our Thanksgiving feast this year!


Contributing Editor and CW Executive Chef Jason Clabaugh (BigO) hailed from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and has settled in a suburb of Atlanta. With the addition of a new baby to his family he's refocused his energies on fatherhood and a new project bringing his famous mango-habanero salsa and unique barbecue sauces into commercial production.