A Fowl Mood (That Turkey Brine Thing We Do)

Karin Kallmaker Cheers & Chocolate 4 Comments

Update 2016: Since I’ve received several email requests this week for “that turkey brine thing” I thought I’d repost this April 2008 entry with the recipe and inspiration.

Turkey on the Fence

No doubt others before me have used this fowl pun, and why you may ask am I writing about turkey in April when Thanksgiving is six months away? There’s a turkey sitting on my back fence, that’s why. Plus I love our roast turkey after we’ve taken the time to brine so much, I think about it every four months or so, yearning for Thanksgiving.

The flock of turkeys that live in the canyon below our house is growing, probably over 25 birds now, including three toms that fan out impressive tail feathers as they strut along the hillside. These are probably descendants of some domestic creatures turned loose, epitomizing “free range.” They have no predators. Without hormones, captivity and with a ready supply of food, they have regained some of the instincts of wild turkeys, the kind that Benjamin Franklin called “respectable” as a truly native American beast.

My Mother Strenuously Disagrees with Benjamin Franklin

Or they could be the kind my mother declared “stupid and vicious” based on her experiences working on a turkey farm as a teen. Just as the turkey has been dumbed down by domestication, so has the human being – one reason the flock thrives is that no one here knows how to pluck one.

Turkeys Can Fly

Having flushed a hen and chicks from the underbrush one morning when I was out hiking, I can categorically tell Arthur Carlson of WKRP that turkeys can fly. Just not to great heights or for long distances. I’ll add (nod to classic Monty Python) turkeys are more creatures of the air than sheep.

All that Said?

I look at that turkey on the fence, now joined by two companions busily depositing bird stuff on the wrought iron, and I see Thanksgiving on two legs. Which recalls our tried and true turkey brine recipe we use several times a year, even in summer when the hankering for turkey and all the fixings is too much.

We really like the dark sweetness that’s added by the brown sugar, and the juniper berries are essential too. They add a wild, outdoor, foresty aroma.

We always brine our turkey because the meat tastes fresher longer, and the gravy and soup broth are amazing with intense flavor. When we also stuff the bird, the stuffing is full of layers of flavor. (People fight over it and the leftovers, but I have ways of hiding a stash for myself.)

The Brine for Turkey Recipe

Step 1: Main Ingredients

This produces enough liquid (about 2 gallons) for a 17-25 pound bird. Smaller bird? Scale it down.

  • 1 gallon water or vegetable stock or combination
       (You’ll also need a pot that holds 2 gallons of liquid. See note below.)
  • 2 cups kosher salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 bay leaves, torn
  • 4 tablespoons dried thyme
  • 5 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 5 allspice berries, crushed
  • 4 juniper berries, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon (or small chunk) candied ginger root

Step 2: Second Stage Ingredients

  • 1 HALF gallon of cold water
  • 8 cups of ice cubes if you’ve got them, otherwise cold water
       (You might also need a bit more water at the point when you have the bird in the brine, to cover the bird completely.)

Method: Dissolve by Heating, Then Cool

Combine all Step 1 ingredients in a large stockpot and heat to the point where the sugar and salt dissolve. Remove from heat and add the Step 2 water and ice cubes to speed the cooling off process. Don’t use until mixture is completely cooled for food safety reasons.

Scale Down for Smaller Turkeys and Whole Chickens

Scale all ingredients, including those in Step 2, equally. Okay, it’s hard to scale a juniper berry. Round up or down to the nearest convenient portion, it’s not precise.

We often scale it down to make brine for a whole chicken or if our bird is smaller than about 17 pounds. We also scale this brine down for smaller projects, e.g. to brine other meats, like pork roasts or chops. Another use is a couple of frozen chicken breasts defrosted in the brine overnight – really perks up the taste!

Brine Safely!

A number of cooking web sites cover the steps for having turkey safely in brine for 12-24 hours. Here’s how Martha Stewart’s site does it – the slideshow is helpful.

We use two layers of 13-gallon kitchen trash bags for the turkey and brine, tie it tightly closed, and put it in an ice chest. Thing is, that liquid in the bag will want to spread the bag out until it meets the sides of the ice chest, exposing lots of the bird.

So, with iced brine in the bag with the bird, we pack the outside with blue ice packs under and along the bag, then bolster that with canned goods so the bag can’t spread out and the liquid level inside rises until the bird is covered. It’s basic physics!

Other sites will have tips for helping the skin to crisp; we spray the exterior with olive oil cooking spray before roasting and let it sit out of the brine for about 90 minutes before it goes into the oven.

Sources for the Brine Recipe

The concoction above is a blend of Chez Panisse and Alton Brown brines, tempered with our experiences over the years and ingredients that are not hard to find or what we consider too expensive for the result.

Note Below, about Pot Size

We have an 8 quart stock pot so that’s what we use. A lot of people only have a 5-6 quart as their “big pot.” You can still make the brine, but in a different order.

  • Make the brine in a 5 quart pot as above, then cool to room temp or colder in the fridge. You want it cold for safety’s sake.
  • When you pour the brine over your bird, add the rest of the water and ice cubes from Step 2.
  • Depending on your setup and the size of your bird, you might find you need more water and ice than that to cover the bird completely.

Other Recipes I Love

This is not a recipe blog, and I’m not trying to monetize your eyeballs. I only do a recipe when I really, and I mean REALLY, love the result. Check out my Green Beans, Potatoes, and Ham in the Instant Pot and Cheery Cherry Oatmeal and Dark Chocolate Cookies.

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