To brine or not to brine? There is no Shakespearean wavering in my kitchen about this question. I no longer debate whether it’s nobler to suffer the dry and rubbery turkey that results from skipping this step. I act decisively, (unlike Lawrence Olivier as the skull sulking Hamlet), and drown the bird without remorse. (I so want to say, “like Ophelia” here, but it’s stretching the literary reference a tad, don’t you think?) I’ve had it brined. I’ve had it not brined. And a brined turkey is just juicier, moister and more tender. By a long shot… (of slings and arrows!) If you haven’t sent your turkey for a little swim the day before roasting, you may want to try it this year and hear for yourself the incredulous comments of your guests…”Wow, amazing turkey…” “Soooo moist…” “Never had white meat this juicy…” “I don’t have to slather each morsel in gravy and cranberry sauce to get it down my throat.”
Now, I wasn’t always a brine fan. The first time I tried it, I followed instructions to submerge the turkey for two days, and the result was a disturbingly sweet and salty bird with meat that had a funny texture. I’ve tried 24-hour brining too, but finally settled on 4-6 hours in the brine (or at most, overnight for 8 hours) with a good amount of time resting it outside the brine for meat with well-distributed, subtle in flavor, with a good texture and crispy skin.
This brine is very basic, just salt and sugar. Its purpose is not to impart flavor, but to tenderize the meat. I like to develop flavor in the roasting process with a classic mire poix of carrots, onions, celery and a bouquet garni of thyme and parsley sprigs, peppercorns and garlic that roast, steam and infuse the tenderized meat with flavor, and help create the magic jus that will be the foundation of your gravy. The salt and relatively small amount of sugar are the catalyst to cure and lightly breakdown the proteins in the meat and tenderize them. I’ve tried brines with more exotic flavor profiles like ginger, apples, citrus, soy, fruit juices, lemongrass, vegetable stocks, and more, but in my opinion, these get in the way of the turkey’s classic flavor. When it comes down to it, most people don’t want you to mess too much with their turkey for the big day. They want it to taste like Thanksgiving—some version of what they grew up eating and sleepily digesting while watching football.
And the same goes for roasting…but with a twist. The twist being to turn the bird as it roasts, allowing it to cook more evenly and redistribute juices throughout the process, instead of the moisture just draining out of the breast and into the pan. Turning can get challenging if you are roasting a really big bird, but two long forks stuck through the cavity, and a second set of hands helping to direct the turkey will usually do the trick.
You’ll need a container large enough to hold your turkey and enough fluid to totally submerge it. Then you’ll have to find a way to keep the whole thing refrigerated or cooled to below 38° F. (the temp of most refrigerators). It’s hard to clear this much space in your fridge a few days before Thanksgiving, so I’ve even employed a large cooler, ice or ice packs and several layers of trash bags to get the job done before I had a second fridge in my garage to use for holiday food overflow.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day! May this perfectly brined and roasted bird inspire you and your guests to new heights of gratitude on this American celebration of abundance.
Turkey Brine and Roasting Recipe
This recipe is a mixture of my own tried and true methods combined with a few great ideas (chicken wings in the pan! soy sauce!) adapted from Daniel Del Vecchio’s turkey recipe as it appears in Home Cooking with Jean-Georges, by Jean-George Vongerichten.
Time Sensitive!!! Begin this process at least a full day ahead. Total time needed for brining and air-drying: 12 hours minimum, 30 hours maximum.
For the Turkey Brine
4 cups kosher salt
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 gallons spring or filtered water, room temperature
1. You’ll need a stockpot or container big enough to hold your turkey and enough water to completely submerge the turkey, about 2 gallons. Mix together the salt, sugar and water until the salt and sugar fully dissolve. Add the turkey (hold giblets and neck aside for pan roasting) and submerge in liquid. You may have to use a smaller pot lid, heavy plate or some other weight to keep the turkey submerged. Cover container and refrigerate (or hold at 38° in a cooler) for 4-6 hours.
2. Remove turkey from brine, rinse, and pat dry. Refrigerate, uncovered, for 8-24 hours. This allows the skin to dry out, resulting in a crispier bird.
For the Roasting
1 whole (12-14 lbs) turkey (neck and giblets held aside from brining)
4 yellow onions, cut into wedges
4 carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
4 celery stalks, cut into 1-inch chunks
10-12 leafy sprigs of parsley
10-12 sprigs of thyme
8 – 10 sage leaves
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
8 large cloves garlic, crushed
12 chicken wings
1 cup white wine, separated into ½ cup portions
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Soy sauce to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Note: Brined turkeys tend to cook quicker than unbrined birds. This could be because the brine already partially cures and “cooks” the meat ahead. At any rate, the conventional 20 minutes per pound may not hold true, so to be sure you don’t end up with an overcooked, or undercooked bird, invest in a decent meat thermometer and follow directions for safe meat temps.
1. Position oven rack to lowest position. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. Place turkey, breast side down, in the center of a large roasting pan, or on a roasting rack over the pan. Stuff the cavity of the turkey with roughly a third of the carrots, onions, celery, parsley, sage and thyme, along with 2 tablespoons of butter. Truss the turkey with twine to close off the cavity well at both ends and keep the legs close to the breast.
3. Add the remaining vegetables and herbs to the roasting pan, scattering evenly around (or under if on a rack) the turkey. Add the garlic, turkey giblets, chicken wings and neck. Add the wine and ½ cup water to the pan. Melt the remaining butter and fully coat the turkey with it.
4. Roast uncovered for 1 hour. Turn the turkey, a quarter turn, so that one wing side is facing up, and baste with pan juices, adding more water to the pan if it is dry. (You want to keep the pan moist so that pan juices and veggies don’t burn.) Roast for another 20 minutes, and then flip the turkey so the other wing side is facing up. Baste again, roast for another 20 minutes. Then, turn the turkey a quarter turn, so the breast side is facing up. Baste and roast until the internal temperature of the leg registers 170° F, about 45-55 minutes.
Note: Brined turkeys tend to cook quicker than unbrined birds. This could be because the brine already partially “cooks” the meat ahead. At any rate the conventional 20 minutes per pound may not hold true, and my times above may not work in your oven, so to be sure you don’t end up with an overcooked, or undercooked bird, invest in a decent meat thermometer and follow directions for safe meat temps.
1. Remove from oven, place a tent of foil over the bird, and let rest for 20 minutes, minimum to redistribute juices within the meat.
2. While the turkey rests, start on the pan gravy. Remove the neck and giblets from the pan. If you are a fan of giblet flavor in your gravy, chop them up and reserve. Before transferring the turkey to a platter, make sure you empty it of any juices that have run into the cavity, back into the pan. Don’t waste that flavor! Continue to rest the turkey on a platter, tented with foil.
3. Pour all the liquid from the pan through a fine mesh sieve, and discard the solids. Let the liquid stand for a few minutes and the fat will rise to the top. If you have a fat separator cup, use it to separate and discard the fat. If not, carefully use a ladle to remove the fat.
4. Pour the pan juices back into the roasting pan, and place the pan over two vertical burners on your stove. Add the giblets here, if you are using them. Bring the liquid to a boil. In a ¼ cup of white wine mixed with a ¼ cup of water, dissolve the cornstarch completely, and then add it to the pan juices. Continue to boil, until the mixture thickens and the wine alcohol burns off a bit, about 3-4 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, or soy sauce.