Primum non nocere. First, do no harm. This Latin phrase, or something close to it, shows up in both the Hippocratic Oath and Star Trek’s Prime Directive. The same principle holds in the kitchen as well. Start with quality ingredients, and then don’t mess with them...too much. As we enter the holiday cooking season this is especially sound advice.
In full disclosure, when it comes to both my Thanksgiving and Christmas meals turkeys are my go-to main course and I’ve “messed” with them a lot. I’ve salted them, wrapped them up in a lattice of bacon, shrouded them with cheesecloth, buttered them under the skin, over the skin, and used all sorts of herb and spice combinations.
The bottom line is that a turkey doesn’t need much help to be a star attraction. The one intervention I keep coming back to, however, is brining. The reason these other techniques don’t add much to the bird is that the flavoring and other benefits that occur when you treat the surface of the turkey remains, pretty much, on the surface of that turkey. Brining, on the other hand, can spread flavor throughout the meat.
When brining, you soak the turkey in a salty liquid solution that pulls the natural juices out of the meat where it mixes with the liquid you’ve added. Then, the now-dry bird acts as a sponge and pulls moisture back in, carrying with it the flavors you’ve added. Honestly, a simple solution of salt and sugar does an amazing job of enhancing the flavor and resulting in a juicier turkey. A few extras are just icing on the cake…or bird…or…never mind, you get the idea.
If you are a fan of the having a bite of cranberry relish with your turkey you may want to consider this recipe for cranberry brine. I recommend 100% pure cranberry juice rather than the “juice cocktail” you might be used to. You can usually find the 100% version in the natural foods section of your grocery store. Also, no need to worry about this turning your turkey pink. It may look a little tinted when you pull it out of the brine but you won’t notice it once it is cooked.
The following is my recipe for cranberry brine and some instructions on technique. Note that if you are using a frozen turkey, be sure the bird is completely thawed.
- 1 gallons of cranberry juice
- 2-1/2 cups kosher salt
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- ½ cup of candied ginger
- 4 tablespoon black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
- 4 tablespoon whole allspice, coarsely crushed
- 12 whole cloves
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 gallon water
- Bag of ice
To prepare the brine, combine in a stockpot 1 gallon of cranberry juice with the next seven ingredients (through bay leaves), bring to a boil. Cook 5 minutes until the sugar and salt dissolve. Let this cool.
Remove the giblets and neck from the turkey. Rinse the turkey and pat it dry with paper towels. Place the turkey in a large plastic cooler. Add the juice mixture and enough ice to raise the level of liquid so that it covers the turkey. Close the cooler and let sit for 12-24 hours. Put cooler outside if cool and check a couple of times to see if additional ice is needed. The cooler should remain cold enough so that ice does not melt. If the outside temperature is below freezing, move the cooler where it will not freeze.
After the brining, remove the turkey, discard the brine liquid, and rinse the turkey in cold water, and pat it dry with paper towels. After brining, the cooler should be cleaned with boiling water and bleach. You would not want salmonella to grow all winter and spoil your next tailgate. You are not ready to cook the turkey as you normally would.
Orignially published in the Winter 2014 issue of B Magazine