December 4, 2013

To Brine, or Not to Brine?

I grew up always having a smoked turkey for Thanksgiving, which was easy to do when we lived in California.  After moving back east, colder weather came into play, and usually put a damper on our smoking plans, which is exactly what happened this year.  With about a week to go until the big day and a projected temperature of only 38 degrees, smoking the turkey just wasn't in the cards, and we resorted to oven roasting the bird.

Many people will recommend brining the turkey, to help retain moisture, particularly in the breast meat.  Wet brines are fine and good, but they require a lot of space in your fridge, and can leave your meat with a slightly mushy texture.  Instead, we tried a dry brine, which we found here.  One perk to dry brining is that you can apply the brine while your turkey is still frozen!  This was a huge time saver for us, since it took about 3.5 days for our turkey to completely defrost.

First, you'll want to get your brine ready.  As the recipe suggests, you want about 1 tbsp. of salt for every 5lbs. of turkey.  We had a 16.6lb. turkey, so we used a little more than 3 tbsp. salt.  Because we still wanted to try and get a smokey flavor, we used 2 tbsp. of applewood smoked salt, and 1 tbsp. kosher salt.  In addition to the salt, we added in some smoked paprika, again for some smokiness, along with some chopped thyme, rosemary, sage, and juniper berries, which we crushed in our mortar and pestle.

Now it's time to rub it all over your turkey!  Since our turkey still had to defrost, we placed him in a brining bag.  That way it would collect the water, and it'd be easy to dispose once Thanksgiving day came.  Before rubbing your salt mixture on the bird, be sure to pat him dry with paper towel to get rid of any excess moisture.  Also make sure that any gizzards and organs have been removed from the cavity.  Sprinkle a bit of your salt & spice mixture in the cavity too.  Then you'll want to use about 1 tbsp on the breasts, and 1 tbsp on each leg/wing/thigh.  If your turkey is defrosted already, be sure to get in all the crevices.

Once you've rubbed him down, you can seal up the bag.  Try to get as much air out of the bag as possible.  It can be a little tough, so it's best to have an extra set of hands to help you do this.
Now you can just pop your bird into the refrigerator, breast side up, for 3 days, and let the salt work its magic.  If you remember, give your turkey a little massage each day.  We massaged ours through the bag, just to keep our hands clean.
After the 3rd day, you'll want to remove him from the bag, and refrigerate him for at least 8 hours, uncovered.  We first put the brine on our turkey on Monday, so Wedensday night, before we went to bed, we took him out of the bag, gave him one last massage, and let him sit overnight, uncovered, in the fridge.

At least 1 hour before you're ready to cook your bird, be sure to take him out of the fridge, and let him start to warm up.  We also gave him an additional dusting of my Grandpa's secret rub, the one he'd use on his smoked turkeys.  As when roasting a chicken, we prepared some aromatics to put in the cavity to add a bit of flavor, and also keep the breast moist.  We stuck to traditional ingredients here, roughly chopping up some carrots, onion, celery, and lemon, and making a bundle of rosemary, sage and thyme.

We stuffed what we could into the cavity, and the rest went into the bottom of the roasting pan, so we'd get some added flavor to the pan drippings, in case we wanted to make gravy later.  Also make sure to tie the legs together, closing up the cavity as much as you can.  This will also help prevent the meat from drying out.

Now you're ready to roast!  Heat up your oven to 425 degrees, and place your bird, breast side down, on your roasting rack.  I know this is atypical, but trust us, it works!  We also brushed some softened butter onto the skin of the turkey to help it brown.  When you're oven comes to temperature, throw your bird in for 30 minutes.  This will help get the bottom nice and brown.
After 30 minutes, pull your bird out of the oven and flip him over.  Remember that the pan and bird are extremely hot.  Be sure to have oven mitts or dish towels handy to help you flip the bird without burning yourself.  While you're trying to flip the bird, you'll also want to lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees.  Give him another coat of butter, and pop him back in the oven until a thermometer, stuck into the thickest part of the thigh, reads 160 degrees.
For us, it took about 2.5hrs. more.  Most will say that poultry needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, but we knew that if we pulled him out when he reached 160 degrees, the carry-over cooking would bring him up to 165.
Be sure to let him rest for at least 30 minutes before you start carving into him.  While he's resting, you can give him a foil tent to keep him warm, and you can now use the oven to cook your side dishes, like our green bean casserole.

The dry brining method was a success!  The breast stayed nice and moist, and the smoked salt we used added a subtle smokiness to the meat.  It was a great alternative to actually smoking the turkey.

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