Brining the bird

 Holiday Cooking

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Times Food Editor

If someone told you to go soak your bird, you might take offense. But it could be the best cooking advice you’ve ever gotten.

Brining--essentially soaking meat or poultry in a solution of salt and cold water--has long been used as a preliminary step in smoking. It flavors the meat and also plumps it, giving it the needed moisture to withstand the long, slow, dry cooking that the smoking process involves.

But what’s good for the smoker is also good for the roaster--and for the grill too. Campanile’s Mark Peel figures he brines about 100 turkeys a year before roasting them at his restaurant. Most wind up in sandwiches at lunch.

“We started brining the turkeys about three years ago and, to tell you the truth, I can’t remember why,” he says. “My sense, in an unscientific way, is that it gives a tenderness to the meat.

“That’s especially necessary with turkeys. With the turkeys you buy, even the organic ones, the breast meat is pretty dry. That’s because they’ve been bred for big breasts. The white meat has very little blood circulation and very little fat in it. But if you brine it and roast it properly, it doesn’t turn out dry.”

There’s a very good reason for that, according to Alan Sams, an associate professor of poultry science at Texas A&M University. Sams, who has published several papers on brining poultry, says it’s basically an electrical thing.

“What is happening is that salt [the chloride part more than the sodium] penetrates into the muscle,” Sams says.

“The charged ions cause the muscle fibers to swell, and that sucks in even more water. It also binds the water to the protein, meaning the meat holds more water during cooking. That’s what causes the juiciness effect.

“The three big benefits I’ve seen are increased juiciness, better flavor because of the saltiness and improved tenderness,” Sams continues. “Brining generally creates a looser protein network. It’s the discharge propulsion--the negative ions repelling each other and loosening the muscle fibers.”

All of this was documented in a 1977 paper by five scientists from the University of Florida. They compared roast chickens that had been brined, chickens that had been soaked in plain ice water and chickens that had not been treated.

They found that the brined chickens scored much higher with testers in terms of flavor and tested better for juiciness and tenderness (the difference in tenderness was much greater for white meat than for dark). Microbial testing also showed slightly lower populations of various bacteria in the brined chicken than in the others.

I knew none of that the first time I tried brining. Having read something about it somewhere, last summer on a whim I tried soaking some cut-up chicken in a weak brine (a couple of tablespoons of salt to about a quart of water) for an hour or so before grilling. The results were decidedly favorable. The chicken was plumper and juicier, had real seasoned flavor throughout and didn’t scorch nearly as quickly.

As the holidays approached, I thought I’d try brining my turkey. I started small, running through a few roast chickens before stepping up in class. I wound up with a brine of about 2/3 cup of salt to a gallon of water--about a 5% saline solution. If you’re going to smoke your bird, it can handle a more forceful brine. Try using a full cup of salt per gallon--that’s about 7%.

I tried concentrations from 10% down to 2%, and the main difference was in the amount of saltiness--the texture was improved even with a fairly weak brine. Incidentally, if you’re worried about sodium intake, remember that the meat absorbs only 10% to 15% of the brine--roughly 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt per turkey.

When Thanksgiving arrived, I took the plunge--and so did my bird. Finding a bath big enough to brine a 14-pound turkey can be a bit of a bother. (And so can clearing enough space in the refrigerator to store it.) I ended up using the biggest stockpot I had, and a plain 5% salt-and-water brine. I turned the bird occasionally to make sure it was evenly cured.

After six hours, I removed the turkey from the brine and dried it. Then I returned it to the refrigerator in the empty stockpot to dry further overnight. I wanted it to have a nice crisp skin--something that’s difficult to achieve if there’s much moisture present.

The next day I stuffed the turkey and roasted it in my usual way--450 degrees for the first 45 minutes, then 325 degrees until a thermometer registered 160 degrees when poked in the fat part of the thigh. (The USDA recommendation of 180 degress, by the way, allows a considerable margin of error. With a 20-minute rest, a 160-degree turkey will reach 170 degrees--more than enough to kill any bacteria.) When I checked the temperature of the stuffing, it was still a little cool, so--mindful of the danger of salmonella--I returned the turkey to the oven until the stuffing reached 160 degrees.

The turkey was puffed, bronzed and gleaming. And unlike most roast turkeys, this one did not deflate in the 20 minutes between roasting and carving. It retained its swollen grandeur all the way to the table.

When I carved the breast meat, I noticed another peculiar thing: The white meat had developed that somewhat thready appearance you get when you overcook breast meat (the result, no doubt, of waiting for the stuffing to get safe). Usually that means dry meat that crumbles when carved. But in this case, the slices held their shape perfectly and the meat was moist and tender.

What’s more, the meat was nicely seasoned throughout. Cold, the next day, it made terrific sandwiches--even the parts closest to the bone, which normally taste bland and under-seasoned.

Coincidentally, Judy Rodgers of San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe tried her first brined turkey this year. Rodgers is a big fan of salt and uses what she describes as a “dry brine” on most of the meat dishes at her restaurant, including her famous roast chicken. She salts the meats the normal way, only she does it hours (or even a day) before cooking.

“Most of the salt that goes on food in this restaurant goes on before you wake up in the morning,” she says. “It’s something I learned from a restaurant I worked at in Paris. The matriarch would always say, ‘Put a little salt on it and let it rest.’ It makes the meat more succulent. I don’t know exactly how it does it, but it changes it--and it changes it in a way that I like.”

This Thanksgiving, however, Rodgers decided a real wet-brine was in order. “That was sure good,” she says. “I used my classic brine for pork chops: 2 parts salt to 1 part sugar mixed in water. For my turkey, I cut back a little further on the sugar to more like 4 to 1. Poultry and sugar is not a big hit to me, but a little sweetness is OK.

“I put the turkey in the brine on the Friday before Thanksgiving, then took it out Tuesday night and rinsed it real well, then dried it and let it sit a day before roasting. I’ve found that when you brine big meats, the taste is more even if you let it rest a day before cooking. If you pull it straight out of the brine and roast it, it’s not as tender, and the surface of the meat will be too aggressively salty. If you let it relax and stabilize, it generalizes the degree of brininess throughout.”

Of course, brining is nothing new. Until recently, smoked meats were very heavily brined (meat processing textbooks give formulas of 12% to 15% salt). And there is an old Welsh dish called salted duck in which a bird is dry-salted for three days before being slowly poached, starting in cold water. Not exactly brining, but the same principles might be in effect.

Although my brine was a simple salt-water solution, Peel and Rodgers used a combination of spices and herbs for additional flavor. Sugar is a component of many brines.

Arthur Maurer, a professor of poultry product technology at the University of Wisconsin who has done a lot of work with smoked poultry, says sugar does three things for a brine: “First, it’s a flavoring; it helps mellow out the saltiness.

It also helps with browning, especially if there’s some left on the surface. It can also help with the ionic strength of the brine, helping the meat take up more of the moisture.”

And because most dried herbs and spices are water soluble, their flavor will penetrate the meat as well. Using fresh herbs and garlic probably won’t have much of an effect, though.

Besides, even a turkey wouldn’t want to take a bath in garlic.

Roast Brined Turkey
You can substitute Mark Peel’s brine recipe for this or develop one of your own. The important guideline is 2/3 cup salt to 1 gallon water. After that, feel free to play with seasonings to your taste, though be aware that some dried spices, such as cloves and bay leaves, are very powerfully flavored and should be used cautiously.

2/3 cup salt

1 gallon water

1 (12- to 14-pound) turkey

Combine salt and water and stir until salt dissolves. Pour brine over turkey in pot just large enough to hold both. If turkey is completely covered, don’t worry about using all of brine. Cover with foil and refrigerate 6 hours or overnight, turning 2 or 3 times to make sure turkey is totally submerged.

Remove turkey from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Refrigerate, unwrapped, 6 hours or overnight.

Place turkey on its side on rack in shallow roasting pan. Roast at 450 degrees 15 minutes. Turn turkey to other side and roast another 15 minutes. Turn breast-side up and roast another 15 minutes.

Reduce heat to 325 degrees and roast until meat thermometer inserted in center of thickest part of thigh registers 160 to 165 degrees, about 2 hours. Remove from oven and set aside 20 minutes before carving.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Each of 12 servings contains about: 394 calories; 792 mg sodium; 236 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 65 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Mark Peel’s Brine
This recipe, inspired by one in “Jeremiah Towers’ New American Classics” (Harper & Row, 1986), is enough for a 12- to 14-pound turkey. The spicing is very faint; mostly you taste the salt and a bit of the sugar. It’s a bit like a very elegant version of commercial smoked turkey, only without the smoke. Peel also uses this recipe for roast pork and smoked fish. For a pork loin, cut all of the amounts by half; for fish or chops, cut them to 1/4.

2/3 cup salt

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup black pepper, cracked

Pinch dried thyme

13 cloves

13 allspice, cracked

3 bay leaves

13 juniper berries, crushed


Combine salt, sugar, pepper, thyme, cloves, allspice, bay leaves and juniper berries in saucepan. Add 1 quart water

and bring to boil. Simmer 5 minutes, then add to 1 gallon cold water. Chill thoroughly before using brine.

Makes about 1 1/4 gallons brine (enough for 12- to 14-pound turkey).