Thanksgiving Turkey Brine Recipe with Sel Gris Natural Sea Salt

Poultry loves a brine.  The major advantage to brining is that it adds moisture to lean, low-moisture meats – turkey is a prime candidate.  In addition to more moisture, brined turkey has more tender flesh and a plumper texture.

A brine is a salt solution that denatures protein. This means the salt in the brine unravels the spiral formation of the protein molecules, resulting in many more places for water to bond onto the meat. For some lean turkey meat or low-moisture pork (especially ribs), brining can add up to 10% moisture.  But not all brines are created equal.

Salt pans of Ile de ReMost brine recipes call for an industrially-refined salt such as kosher or table salt.  Such salts lack the beautiful magnesium, potassium, and calcium salts that occur naturally and make for a flatter, duller salt sensation—to say nothing of the 80 other sundry minerals that are found in all natural, unrefined salt.  Many salts marketed as “sea salt” – manufactured in huge industrial salt evaporators optimized for yield and global industrial purity standards – are stripped of their natural minerals as well.  Brines are straightforward – a solution of salt, water, sugar and spices – and whatever you put in them gets absorbed into the meat, so you should take care with what you use.  Please use natural salt in your brine.  It makes a huge difference.

I recommend any natural sel gris (aka gray salt, or gros sel) for brining.  A 2 pound 8 ounce bag of excellent sel gris costs $18, and it will leave you with plenty left over for sprinkling on candied yams as a finishing salt, not to mention on buttered crusty Thanksgiving dinner rolls.  In fact, the bag will easily take you through the holidays and into the new year.  Sel gris is just about as old-school beautiful as any salt made.  Plus, all sels gris are especially rich in trace minerals, insuring a flavor that is balanced and full. Actually, there’s another plus: minerals in the salt are absorbed into the turkey along with the water, so you get more of all the good things salt has to offer.

Ingredients and recipe for a 16 lb bird.

  • 1 1/2 cup sel gris (gray salt) or natural traditional sea salt
  • 2 gallons of cold water. Like the salt, the water should be good. (I err on the safe side and avoid tap water, which contains lots of chlorine. Instead, buy a few jugs of spring water of some sort, and your turkey will not smell like a swimming pool.)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 medium-sized branches rosemary
  • 6 sprigs thyme
  • 6 leaves sage
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and gently crushed
  • 9 fat peppercorns, preferably, Parameswaran’s pepper, with it’s succulent lemon-zesty-eucalyptusy-cardamom spice flavors

Bring 2 cups of the water to a boil, mixing in all the above ingredients to dissolve the salt as much as possible. Let the water cool for half an hour, then combine back with remaining water to make your brine. Put turkey in double layer food grade plastic bag breast down, pour cold brine solution over bird, get all excess air 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 very thoroughly, and rub with a thin film of olive oil.  Stuff with the stuffing of your choice, truss to hold stuffing in place, and roast. Cook until the internal temperature of the bird (at the inner thick part of the thigh) is 165°F, about 2 1/2 hours. I know this doneness temperature might be lower than what you are used to.  Many older cookbooks call for roasting turkey to 180°F.  This is excessive.  Bacteria (including salmonella bacteria) is killed at 145°F and roasting poultry much beyond 165°F dries it out.  In the case of a brined bird roasting to too high a temperature can drain out all the moisture you took so much time to get in there.  You’ll get much better results by stopping roasting at 165°F.

Allow the roasted turkey to sit for 20 minutes before carving (you can cover it loosely with foil or a clean towel if you want); a rest period will help the bird retain its juices and firm the meat for easier carving.

Scoop the stuffing into a serving bowl; carve and serve.

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5 Responses to “Thanksgiving Turkey Brine Recipe with Sel Gris Natural Sea Salt”

  1. on 20 Nov 2009 at 2:04 pmJohn DePaula

    Rather than a garbage bag for brining – are those really food safe? I don’t know… – I’d recommend using one of those plastic bags used for roasting in the oven such as Reynolds Oven Bags. (Also useful for making a pouch of pie weights…)

    The brine looks great. How would you modify the time if using for Game Hens instead of a whole turkey?


  2. on 20 Nov 2009 at 3:50 pmJan Hedum

    To answer the question about food safety….no, garbage bags are not considered food safe by food professionals. We have sold fast food at public events, and each health inspector has warned against even using the bags to line plastic garbage can where we stored large quantities of sugar/cinnamon mix.

    Your idea is much better!

  3. on 20 Nov 2009 at 5:03 pmMark Bitterman

    Yes! Agreed! Don’t use a dubious garbage bag with your brine. (For the record the plastic used to make white kitchen garbage bags is often LDPE (low density polyethylene), which is also used to make bottles that require flexibility, grocery bags, coating for milk cartons.) To be safe, definitely choose a food grade plastic bag. Incidentally, there is no law against just increasing the amount of brine and submerging the entire bird in a deep stainless steel or ceramic-glazed pot.

    Regarding brining smaller critters, like game hens: The smaller the piece of meat the greater the ration of surface area to mass. Game hens can be brined in just 12 hours. Cut pieces of poultry need even less time–6 to 8 hours is sufficient.

  4. on 21 Nov 2009 at 7:06 pmBranic Howard

    I am following your lead here with the brining of the turkey. In fact I typed into trusty google ‘brining a turkey with natural salt’ and, serendipitously, your post was the first hit. When I thought ‘brine’ I thought of etymological brine, ‘briny’ which firstly connotes tears and secondly that of the sea. And that is the second point I wanted to bring up, that there is a sea of nothing between here, Syracuse, and Portland, and that swelters a tear in my minds eye. But fortunately I will visit you at the shop come December because I will be out of the Bali Keef you two sent me off with.

    One question: I have used juniper berries in the past…Is that an acceptable addition to your recipe above?

  5. on 22 Nov 2009 at 11:05 pmMark Bitterman

    Hey Branic! Glad that Bali Reef is treating you well. I look forward to seeing you back in P-town in December. And yes, Juniper is a great addition. I actually had written 6 juniper berries in my original recipe, but ended up removing them just to knock it back closer to the most traditional incarnation. Juniper is a must for brining any game bird. Just pretend you shot your turkey yourself!

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