Over the past two decades, brining of turkeys has grown exponentially in popularity, spurred on by Food Network personality, Alton Brown, and his Good Eats television show.
What is Brining?
Brining is the act of soaking something, in this case a piece of meat or poultry, in brine. Brine is salt rich fluid. The effect of this on meat is that, at first, the salt, because it is hydroscopic, sucks the fluid out of the meat. Then, as the meat is allowed to remain in the brine, the wrung out cells of the meat reabsorb fluids, but the fluids that they are reabsorbing are supercharged with salt.
The Positive Effects of Brining
The salt fluid that is reabsorbed into the meat changes the cellular makeup and it affects cooking and the resultant cooked meat in a several ways.
First, the fluids season the meat from the inside, so, instead of a salty exterior surface rich in salt and relatively bland center meat, the whole thing will be seasoned evenly.
Second, again because of the hydroscopic nature of salt, the meat, now supercharged with salt fluids, tends to not give up moisture as easily, even during long hours of cooking.
Third, once cooked, cooled and stored, the meat still retains much of that moisture, making Thanksgiving leftovers all the more delectable.
The Questions about Brining
All brine is salt water. Some very old recipes call for brine made to taste like sea water. Most brine recipes, however, call for the addition of sugar at the very least, and most call for a variety of flavoring ingredients ranging from apple cider to vegetable stock and herbs and spices. The question is, however, do any of these additional flavorings get into the meat? The sugar does not get into the cells, but it aids very nicely caramelization of the surface, getting that rich mahogany skin that Thanksgiving diners everywhere adore. The other ingredients, however, remain a question – some experienced cooks insist that the addition of vegetable stocks and allspice berries and cinnamon enriches the turkey flavor, and others say that it does nothing. Based on my personal experience with both very complex brines and very basic ones, I think that the best possible brine for turkey is simply 1 cup of kosher salt, ¼ cup of sugar to each gallon of water used.
The Negative Effects of Brining
It is true that brining seasons meats nicely and evenly and allows them to retain their juices during and after cooking, but the problem with it is that when you brine meats, you replace its naturally occurring juices with water. As a result, you lose some of the meats naturally rich flavor, diluting it with flavorless liquid.
The question is: Is there any way to gain the benefits of brining a large piece of meat or poultry without the downside? One possible answer might be to whip up a few gallons of turkey stock in advance of the day, chill it and use that as the liquid in the brine, but the food contamination dangers in a process like that are huge.
No, the answer lies in Jewish tradition, and the act is koshering. The method that I am suggesting is not at all the traditional Jewish manner of koshering, and I apologize to any of the devout who may read this for using that term, but it is an ancient means of preserving meats that has the delectable side effect of making the meat in question all the more delicious.
In a technique suggested by food scientist emeritus, Harold McGee, in an article in the New York Times in 2008, the alternative is to rub the bird down with a great deal of kosher salt. Much more salt is used in this technique than would be used when seasoning immediately before cooking, and more like the volume used in brining. The bird is then tightly wrapped in cellophane and refrigerated for around three days. What this technique does is it draws the bird’s natural juices out, it salts those juices, and then draws them back into its cells, giving the benefits of brining, but the only juice used is that produced by the bird itself. This is a labor intensive technique that takes much longer than brining, but it does produce an excellent bird.
When to Brine
Again, based on personal experience, when I am dealing with mainstream, inexpensive, domesticated turkey, I still go to the brine for the sake of convenience. When I am doing a heritage or free-range bird, I go with the dry technique, as I want to retain the flavors as much as possible. With wild turkeys, because of the strong flavor of their meat, my tendency is to go with the brine, as it tends to soften the flavors a bit.