Brining a Turkey 2020--by guest blogger Jeremy Dunn (with recipe!)
This year I made the best turkey we have ever had for Thanksgiving. I have been the turkey maker in my chosen family pretty much any year that we have had our own Thanksgiving (which is most years). Not much has changed in my method or the ingredients over the years, but this year was different. This year we got a pasture raised heritage turkey from Our Perfect Farm and it was simply fantastic.
So on to the method (recipe if you prefer)
I brine my turkey before roasting, it is sort of overcooking insurance. When you brine a turkey you are getting it to suck in more water along with the salt, through some process that is part chemistry and part physics, and I won’t try to explain it. It has to do with trying to balance the salt content in the turkey, and the surrounding brine. What I will tell you about the process is that the salty liquid in the brine being drawn into the meat can have some yummy hitchhikers. This can get extra flavor down into your turkey rather than just having a really flavorful skin.
In my case, I like sage. I mean I really like sage. My brine contains sage, whole black peppercorns, fresh garlic, and thyme along with the salt and water. I brine the turkey for at least 8 hours, and as long as 12 depending upon the size of the bird. I use a drinks cooler like you see on football sidelines as my brining vessel so that I don’t have to take everything out of the fridge to put the brining turkey into it. But any food grade bucket will do (In the past I have used a 5-gallon work bucket, lined with a plastic tall kitchen garbage bag.
On to the ingredients for the brine:
2 cups kosher salt
1 quart water
2 bunches of fresh sage
1 head of garlic cut in half, don’t bother peeling it
A few sprigs of thyme (okay, a don’t like thyme nearly as much as I like sage)
A medium handful of black peppercorns (between 1 and 2 tablespoons)
1 7 lb. bag of ice
1 gallon of water
Put the salt, quart of water, sage torn up and crushed with your hands, cut up garlic head, peppercorns, and thyme in a saucepan no smaller than 2 quarts. Heat until the salt dissolves, then remove from heat and let steep like tea until it is room temperature. 4 hours usually works for me.
When it comes time to give your bird a soak add the brine solution to your container along with the gallon of water and the ice. The ice slowly melts to become water, getting the concentration of salt in the liquid where you want it, and has the added advantage of keeping the turkey outside of the deadly 40°-140° F range.
Oh, I almost forgot, after you have added everything for the brine into your bucket you need a turkey. This method and the cooking method to follow was designed for a 11 to 15 pound turkey. I don’t think a really big bird would fit in the bucket, and if you go smaller (as we did this year) you have to adjust the time. So unwrap your bird, make certain no one hid the neck or giblets inside and give it a good rinse. Then gently lower the turkey into the brine, unless you like to mop. Close it up, and if you are not using a cooler stash it someplace cold, but not freezing. Go to sleep with visions of yummy turkeys dancing in your head.
Time to cook the bird.
For equipment I have a rectangular roasting pan with high sides, and a V Rack with end handles, but not side handles. If you don’t have a rack, cut up some carrots, celery, and onions and use that as a rack. It won’t be as convenient as a V rack, but it will keep the bird off the bottom of the pan. Take the turkey out of the brine and rinse it inside and out for a good 5 minutes. Then pat it dry inside and out with some paper towel. This should get rid of the excess salt on the skin, but please do not lick the skin to find out. Put it into the rack breast up and leave it be for a while.
Make the stuffing the way you always have. Or do what I did. Stuffing ingredients:
1 bag of breadcrumbs meant for stuffing (mine were gluten free)
1 large onion
Lots of mushrooms (sliced up about 2 cups worth)
2 stalks of celery
1 bell pepper (unless your partner forbids it) I prefer red for this
As many cloves of garlic as you think you might want (4 I think this year)
1can of sliced water chestnuts (I am far too lazy to roast and peel real chestnuts)
1 pint (at least) of turkey stock (homemade if you froze some last year) If you can’t find turkey stock in the market, chicken stock will be fine.
Fresh sage (there it is again)
Dice up the veggies and sauté them in enough oil or butter to coat the bottom of the pan. Roll a few sage leaves into a cylinder and slice them into ribbons (a fancy cooking term for this is “chiffonade” but I can’t spell that). Strip the thyme leaves off the stem of a largish sprig and kind of crush them as you add them into the veggies. Add some salt and pepper to the pan as well. You will probably be adding more later. Cook the veggies until they are softened and reduced in volume and have expressed most of their liquid.
Meanwhile, pour the stock into a pot big enough to hold the stuffing cubes, stock, and the veggies with plenty of room to stir around. Bring the stock to a simmer and dump in the cubes, turn off the heat. Stir that around until the cubes start to soften, and then dump the veggies and water chestnuts into the pot and stir them in. Now season it. Salt, pepper, maybe a bit of cayenne, lots of dry crushed or rubbed sage (What, more sage? This guy seems to have a sage fetish) and dried thyme. When you get the stuffing to the flavor you want, put enough into a stuffing bag that will easily fit into the turkey’s main cavity.
Now comes the trick that allows you to make a turkey where you can eat and enjoy both the meat and the stuffing without getting sick. When you are ready to start the actual cooking process take the bag of stuffing in a microwave appropriate container and heat it until it is 165° F. You probably will not want to touch it with bare hands at this point.
Transfer the remaining stuffing to a casserole dish, add a bit more liquid to keep it from drying out, then dot the top with butter (use your judgement) and cover with foil. When the turkey comes out, throw the dish with the stuffing into the oven (reduced to 350° F) for about 30 minutes, but trust me that is for leftovers and people at the strangers table, you want the stuffing from the bird.
Heat your oven to 400° F remembering to remove the middle rack before you heat the oven. (I usually forget that step). Melt about 2 tablespoons of butter and brush the turkey all over with it. Insert the very hot stuffing bag, flip it over so that it is breast down on the rack, add about a cup of chicken or turkey stock to the bottom of the pan and put it in the oven. Set the timer for 60 minutes. After that hour turn the oven temp down to 250°. Cook at 250° for 1 hour and 45 min.
After 1:45 take the turkey out of the oven and, using paper towel or turkey lifters, carefully turn the turkey over so that it is breast up. The careful part has to do with A) not dropping the turkey on the floor for the dog who really wants you to, and B) not tearing the skin. Before you start this procedure, set the oven temp to 400° F. When the turkey is breast up in the rack, insert the probes from two thermometers, one in the breast, and one in the thigh. Try to remember which cable goes to which thermometer or you will get confused. Put the turkey back in and set your timer to 30 minutes. If your probe thermometers have alarms, set the one for the breast at 160° F, and the thigh to 170° F.
The remaining cooking time is variable depending up the size of the bird. It could be anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Keep a sharp eye on the thermometers.
The timing here is for a standard, store- bought free range turkey that is about 12 lbs. With the lean (and smaller--8.5 pounds) bird we got from Our perfect Farm, I cut the times in half. I changed it to 30 minutes at 400°, 50 minutes at 250°, and about 30 minutes breast up at 400°. I was very careful of the temps, because I didn’t want to overcook a bird this small. Just watch the temperature not the time. The skin was perfectly browned and crisp, not rubbery, the breast meat had juices running free, and leg meat was incredible.
When the temperatures are correct, remove the turkey from the oven, move the rack to something like a sheet pan and cover with foil. You should have a very nicely cooked turkey, not dried out, and with plenty of flavor. Let it rest for up to an hour while your family makes the rest of the feast and you look like a hero.
The finished turkey
If you want to make gravy, don’t wash the roasting pan. While the turkey is roasting make enough roux to thicken about a pint of gravy. Set it aside and let it cool. While the turkey is resting put the roasting pan on the range over two burners and turn them to high. Add about ½ to 1 cup of wine (I prefer red for this) and stir it around scraping up the flavory bits (fonds) from the bottom of the pan. Pour all of this into a saucepan and add about a pint of stock, some peppercorns, a few sage leaves, and some fresh thyme (do you all see a recurring theme here?) simmer over medium heat to reduce and concentrate flavors.
About ten minutes before you are ready to serve it, stir in the roux and continue to cook until it thickens. If it gets too thick, thin it out with more stock. You want it so that it coats the back of the spoon, you don’t want turkey pudding (I actually did do that once). It will continue to thicken as it cools.
On Friday, I put the stripped carcass and a bunch of veggies into my stock pot with water and let that sort of steep for about 15 hours at approximately 180° F. Now not only did I have stock for a turkey noodle soup, but I also have stock for next year’s turkey, plus about 6 more quarts for turkey rice soup, turkey pho, turkey vegetable… well you get the idea.
Immodestly, I will admit that I am a pretty good cook, and I kind of pride myself on making an edible turkey with minimal stress (I think my mother needed Valium every time she approached the big bird). I grew up thinking that cooking a turkey was some sort of mysterious and arcane art. I was determined to master this, and the truth is that it isn’t all that difficult if you are mindful of the details. But this bird was extraordinary. The flavor was the best I have ever tasted, and I can’t put that down to my method, it has to do with the quality of the bird itself. If you can get your hands on a heritage turkey that was pasture raised with love and freedom, do it. You will not be disappointed.