If you've paid attention to any sort of Thanksgiving-themed food show over the last few years, you've heard about brining, a process that soaks meat to help fight off the inevitable moisture loss during cooking, while simultaneously unwinding muscle fibers with salt. This simple, almost magical, aid is the holiday ace from your back pocket -- the secret to transforming your typically dry turkey into a moist and succulent masterpiece, and one that masks many typical over-roasting mistakes. All that's required is a quick and simple brine and an overnight soak; Thanksgiving morning, dump the brine, and toss the bird into the oven.
This technique can work with any sized bird, whether your turkey is a wee little thing that resembles a chicken, or a monstrous, pan-bending, 22 lb. beast. (Yes, that might seem excessive, but think about all of the leftovers! Homemade TV dinners for a month!) Moreover, this is a simple, 3-step process – the brine, the bag, and the cooling source. Here's what you'll need to brine the perfect turkey, and you can find a full set of brining instructions at Kitchen Daily.
While it might sound like a lot of work, a brine is quite easy to make. You simply simmer some water with a large amount of salt and a selection of herbs and spices (and sometimes a few other basic ingredients – perhaps an acid like lemon or orange juice, maybe some poultry stock). The trick is making enough for the size of your turkey.
Two great brine gurus to refer to: Michael Ruhlman and Alton Brown.
This is the tool that often becomes a lifesaver. All that is really required in brining is a vessel that will hold your bird and enough brine to completely immerse it -- usually a large pot. However, brining bags -- essentially a really large and sturdy zipper-lock bag -- save you from three really big hassles and can make life a whole lot easier. They lessen the chance of getting raw-poultry-laden brine everywhere, confine the brining to much more manageable vessel, and avoid the need to buy a huge pot or pan that can contain both your turkey and your brine.
A sturdy brining bag, like these from Williams Sonoma, will handle any turkey from the smallest to the 22-lb. whopper. To use, fold over the rim (to avoid getting raw turkey on it), place the turkey in the bag, and then pour in brine until the bird is completely covered. Take care to make sure you have enough brine, but also enough leeway to unfold the top and seal the bag without overflow.
The Cooling Source
The tricky part of the brining process is keeping the bird cool as it brines. If your refrigerator is big enough, you can simply place the bagged bird (on a pan just in case) on the shelf and close the door until it's time to prep the turkey and put it in the oven. But between the size of the brining bird and the many ingredients that litter the shelves over the holidays, it's much easier to keep it out of the fridge entirely.
Instead, put the bag in a cooler, and surround it with some ice. (You can start saving ice beforehand, or just hit the local convenience store for a few bags.) Seal it up, and the ice will keep the bird properly cooled overnight, and save you the headache of trying to reorganize your fridge contents. When finished, just give the cooler a bleach wash just in case, and you've saved yourself that yearly headache of reorganization and stress.
While you're getting ready for Thanksgiving, check out Kitchen Daily's list of 10 turkey blunders and solutions from Elizabeth Karmel, from the Butterball TurkeyTalk Line.