Q. I hear Tom talking about the importance of brining his Thanksgiving turkey, but I never paid much attention, because I never had to roast my own turkey. Until this year. Now I can’t remember just how it does. One more time?
A. Brining is probably the first advanced cooking skill I ever learned. In 1967 I was sixteen and working at a Time Saver in River Ridge. The store fried chicken, getting the equipment, recipes, and chickens from an outfit specializing in that. We were told to put all the chicken pieces into a bucket filled with some two gallons of water and a cup and a half of salt. We put the bucket into the walk-in cooler overnight. The next day, we drained the salt brine, rinsed the chicken, applied the coating, and fried the chicken. I liked fried chicken a lot in those days, and sometimes made some just for me, seasoning it my way. I loved it, and remembered the formula.
I would have laughed at the idea that I would become a food writer or broadcaster.
Many years later, there I was. The magazine Cook’s Illustrated made much about brining turkeys at around the time when the daily radio show went on the air. That rang a bell, of course, so I got on the brining bandwagon. Cook’s explanation was that a protein in the turkey meat bound all the natural juices tightly. The difference in weight between the brine and the natural juice was enough for the proteins to unwind and release their juices. The saltiness itself is mostly rinsed away, although for some reason the drippings from a brined turkey are a bit too salty to use without diluting it with turkey stock.
The technique is almost too simple.
1. Dissolve a cup of salt into a gallon of water. (Alternative: three-quarters of a cup of salt and half a cup of sugar, still in a gallon of water.)
2. Put the turkey into a container and cover completely with the brine.* Keep it cold overnight. (Eight to ten hours.)
3. MOST IMPORTANT: Before cooking, dump the brine solution down the drain. Put the turkey into the sink. Rinse with cold running water for three minutes. Don’t miss the cavity or under loose skin.
You may now cook the turkey in whatever way you like.
*The most convenient way to brine a turkey is to buy a box of those plastic turkey-roasting bags. Put the turkey into the bag, then pour in the gallon of brine. Push all the air out and tie the opening closed. Put the bag into a bowl or bucket and put it into the refrigerator. You can also use an ice chest (with ice, unless it’s a cold night outside and you have a safe place to put the ice chest).
Again I tell you: don’t forget to rinse the brined turkey before you start preparing it for the cooker. That’s the only consistent problem that has ever been reported back to me.