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.
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.
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.
Regardless, 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!
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. 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 a little more or less water 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.