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Brining the Turkey

Holiday Turkey

The jury is in, and food authorities agree that the average supermarket turkey will benefit from a leisurely soak in brine, a simple saltwater solution. Brined turkeys that are not self-basting (more about that later) are moister, better flavored and have a crisper skin than turkeys straight from the store. The process is simple, with only three major elements to keep in mind:

  • Brine formula
  • Time
  • Temperature

Brine formula

For a long soak (overnight, or 12 to no more than 14 hours), use 1/2 cup table salt for each gallon of cold water. For a 4- to 6-hour soak, double the amount of salt; that is, 1 cup table salt for each gallon of cold water.

Following the long or short soak, whichever works better for you, allow enough time for your bird to soak, drain and "breathe" a bit before readying it for roasting.

It is essential that the bird be kept at a temperature of less than 40F degrees during the brining process. If you have a container large enough to accommodate your turkey that will fit in your refrigerator (and if there is enough room), the logistics are easy. If refrigerator space is at a premium, however, you may use an ordinary cooler or plastic tub with enough ice packs or sealed bags of ice to keep the temperature low.

More brining tips:

  • The turkey must be completely submerged in the brine. Most turkeys will require at least 2 gallons of brine, and larger turkeys may need 3 gallons.
  • Make sure the salt has dissolved completely before adding the turkey.
  • Use a sealed container of water or bag of ice to weigh down the turkey and prevent it from surfacing.
  • Rinse the brined turkey inside and out with water, dry with paper towels and prepare according to your usual method. (See our article on how to make a turkey dinner for complete instructions.)
You're probably asking yourself why commercial turkeys aren't brined in the first place. Good question. If turkey processors brined their birds prior to sale, turkeys would no doubt cost a great deal more because of the time involved. Just multiply the simple brining process by millions of commercially-sold turkeys, and you get an idea of the additional time and effort that would be required. Instead, many turkey processors "pre-baste" birds in an attempt to accomplish the same thing. All manner of ingredients, including turkey broth, salt, oils and artificial flavors and colors, are quickly injected into each turkey, with varying results. For this reason, self-basting turkeys should not be brined. The result will be too salty.

The shopper has many turkey choices beyond self-basting these days. There are fresh turkeys (both frozen and unfrozen), natural turkeys (usually organic and minimally processed), and kosher turkeys (also minimally processed).

It probably goes without saying that brining works just as well for chicken as it does for turkeys, but I will mention it just so you know.

Using kosher salt

Kosher salt flaky in texture, less dense than table salt and varies according to which brand you use. Therefore, you must use more of it. For Morton Kosher Salt use 1-1/2 cups for 1 cup of table salt. For Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, use 2 cups for 1 cup of table salt.

If you brine your turkey this year, I think you will brine your turkeys forever after. Brining makes a real difference that you and those around your holiday table will appreciate, and if you are striving for the perfect turkey this year, then brining is for you.

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