Brining your turkey, or salt brining any bird for that matter, is a no brainer.Preparing the brine takes minutes and a brined turkey (or brined chicken or brined game hen or brined pigeon or brined pheasant) has more flavor that is better balanced, and has a firmer, plumper texture.Also, salt brining your turkey makes for a juicier bird, every time, meaning it is better when you cook it right, and if the gods are not smiling on your oven today, it is more forgiving when you over-cook.
How does brining work?Simple: a brine is a salt solution, and salt subtly denatures the proteins in the turkey, allowing them to hold more water, making for a juicier bird.Since you are bringing brine into the bird, make the brine of the finest stuff: sea salt and spring water.
So, rather than squeak around the kitchen like a church mouse, I just say it:This is the best turkey brining recipe in the world, bar none.Though there may be fancier brines, more complicated brines, or in the parlance of pun-insensitive management consultants, “more sophisticated brining solutions,” there is not a better way to brine than the old fashioned way. Use other turkey brining recipes as inspiration for elaboration on this recipe, but show your bird your love by sticking to the fundamentals.
My logic is simple: if salt is the key agent in a brine, a better salt will yield a better salt brine.Use the right salt for your turkey brining and you are vouchsafed something I once read (for real) on a fortune cookie: “eternal fun smart joy.”The right salt will contribute mineral complexity to the flavor of your bird, which in this day and age of large-scale farming, is possibly already mineral-deficient to begin with.From a flavor standpoint, this is not subtle.
Rule one to brining your turkey–and there is only one real rule.Never, NEVER use Kosher salt in your turkey brine.Kosher salt is 100% pure sodium chloride, though at times a touch of sodium ferrocyanide is added for good times.Pure sodium chloride in the form of kosher salt is a calamity that has befallen man far more grave than any wrought by Pandora or Eve.Kosher salt, whether dissolved in a brine or, worse yet, added directly to the food you put in your body, is the equivalent of using Velveeta in you fondue, or cream of mushroom soup in your beef Bourguignon.The refined sodium chloride that is Kosher salt has no correlative in your body or on your palate.That is why it tastes harsh, biting, and painfully sharp.Do NOT use Kosher salt.Lots of recipes call for Diamond brand Kosher salt, or Morton’s Kosher salt, and lots of people like to preach earnestly about the superiority of Diamond over Morton’s, or vice versa.To me, both Kosher salts are fine, if, and only if, you are koshering your meat–which is to say, extracting as much fluid from it as possible.If you are not koshering something, do not, ever, use Kosher salt.
So, back to brining your bird…
Step one: Buy good sea salt.Any relatively mineral rich sea salt will do.You will need about 2 cups, so there is no point in using expensive fleur de sel.A gros sel such as Sel Gris de l’Ile de Noirmoutier, or Sel Gris de Guerande, or any self-styled Celtic sea salt, or Grey Salt which seems to be spelled Gray Salt as well will work well.Many people ask about Himalayan salts.They are fine, and contain about 3 percent trace minerals, which is far less than a good Sel Gris–but still quite good.
Step two: buy a good bird. I just met the Andy Westlund of Harmony J.A.C.K. Farms. He is into dirt. Turkey’s to him, are part of a system based on grasses fed by nutritive, beautiful, healthy soil. Those grasses, and the bugs they accommodate, are are large portion of the all-organic feed of the free-range lifestyle of his birds. Additionally, he raises only Heritage breeds, meaning birds that have not suffered from industrialized genetic selection that favors breast size over all else, including flavor, texture, and healthiness. Buy one of Any’s birds, or find some such equivalent.
Ingredients and recipe for a 16 lb bird
- 1 ¾ cups salt
- 2 ½ gallons of cold water.Like the salt, the water should be good.Do not every use tap water, which contains lots of chlorine.Instead, buy a bottle spring water of some sort, and your turkey will not taste like a freshly exercised Mark Spitze when you are done with it.
- ½ cup maple sugar (my New England Grandma’s touch, and she read Yeats and Keats and Byron)
- 6 juniper berries, crushed
- 1 bay leaf
- 2-3 crushed allspice
- 6 fat fresh peppercorns
Bring 2 cups of the water to a boil, mixing in all the above ingredients, mixing to dissolve the salt as much as possible.Let the water cool for half an hour, then combine back with remaining 2 ½ gallons to make your brine.Put turkey in double layer plastic garbage bag breast down, pour cold brine solution over bird, get all excess air of out of bag and tie off.Place bagged brined bird in fridge and let soak for 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Remove bird from fridge, pat dry, stuff with the stuffing of your choice, sew cavity shut, and roast in the oven.Cook until the internal temperature of the bird (at the inner thick part of the thigh) is 165 degrees (for the love of Pete (or is it peat?).165 degrees kills salmonella, yet leaves the Turkeymoist on the inside and crackly on the outside.Do not cook until it is 180 degrees as called for in some cookbooks, my lyrically inclined grandma’s included. For more detailed brined turkey cooking instructions use the San Francisco Chronicle’s recommendations, which are the best around. Mind you, while the Chez Panisse salt brine recipe referenced by the Chronicle has good points (as does possibly everything else from Alice Waters), Alice has totally missed the boat on the salt–so ignore her and most other chefs who, one can only imagine due to animal reflex and unexamined habit, insist on perpetuating the Kosher salt mantra.
Carve and serve, and when guests melt into smiling lozenges of eternal fun smart joy, sing the praises of your rich natural salt, fresh crispy water, and gregarious clucking turkey.