Herb-Brined Turkey with Make-Ahead Gravy
Brined turkey first made a splash a few years ago in the pages of Cook’s Illustrated, thanks to a recipe in Jean Anderson ‘s The Food of Portugal (with a few tips from kosher butchers along the way). The brining concept fooled many cooks into thinking that their turkey was juicier, and a new favorite turkey method was born. I am not a fan of the added flavors (your turkey may taste more like a ham than poultry) and the logistics can be daunting. For my money, if you want a brined turkey, buy a kosher or “self-basting” one, as both have already been treated with salt. And, as anyone who has brined turkey knows, finding room in the refrigerator can be a hassle, although I have a solution for that one. But, for those of you who want to try it and shape your own opinion, here’s a recipe that I have taught often in my classes with great success. And I has another interesting aspect–make-ahead gravy.
- I fibbed about the recipe’s success in my classes, as it is not universally loved. The public has become salt-conscious, if not salt-phobic. Some people don’t like the extra seasoning, and find the turkey meat too salty. And the brine firms the meat to give it a texture that some find odd. Don’t kid yourself–brining does not make a juicier bird. You are tasting salted water, not turkey juices. Critics of the brining method argue that you might as well buy a frozen (or as I said above, kosher or self-basting) bird, which has also been treated with salted water. Admittedly, brining is insurance against a dry bird.
- This method only works with fresh turkeys. I repeat–self-basting, frozen, or kosher turkeys have already been salted, so don’t use them for this method. If you are spending the money on a beautiful, organically-raised turkey, I would think twice about brining, as it changes the natural flavor of the bird. I like this method best for commercially-raised fresh turkeys, especially generic supermarket brand birds.
- You’ll need a container big enough to hold your turkey. You will see recipes that require a huge (minimum 5-gallon) stockpot, but few home cooks have such a utensil. Also, the combined weights of the turkey, brine, and pot could challenge the stability of your refrigerator shelf, especially if it is plastic. I now contain the turkey and brine in jumbo oven-roasting bags, then keep the brined turkey chilled in an ice chest.
- To estimate the amount of brine, place the turkey in the bags in the ice chest, pour cold water into the bags to completely cover the bird, then measure the water. The proportions in the recipe are for 2 gallons water, but the amount of brine can be adjusted as needed. For each 2 quarts water, use 1/4 cup plain salt, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons each rosemary, thyme, and sage, 3/4 teaspoon each marjoram, celery seed, and peppercorns.
- Use plain, noniodized table salt for the brine. Kosher salt is problematic, because the crystal size changes from brand to brand. If you wish, use twice as much kosher salt by volume, or 2 cups kosher salt for 1 cup plain salt. Fine sea salt often has a fine grain than iodized, so you need slightly less (about 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons), if substituting for plain salt. I know that many cooks have their favorite salt, but in this case, I find that for consistency’s sake, plain salt is the best choice, and that a particular salt’s subtleties are muddled with the flavors of the turkey and herbs.
- The turkey must be well-chilled during brining. Surround the brined turkey in its bag with lots of ice cubes (buy bags of ice if you don’t want to deplete your freezer’s supply), or use frozen blue-ice packs.
- Salt Alerts: Don’t run the risk of the risk of stuffing the turkey, as the salty juices could ruin it. Instead, loosely fill the cavities with seasoning vegetables and bake the stuffing on the side. As the pan drippings will be seasoned by the brine, as well, they could be too salty to guarantee palatable gravy. For this recipe, gradually add the drippings to the gravy as a coloring/seasoning agent.
- 1 cup plain (noniodized) table salt
- 1 cup packed light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp. dried rosemary
- 2 tbsp. dried thyme
- 2 tsp. dried sage
- 1 tbsp. dried marjoram
- 1 tbsp. celery seed
- 1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
- 6 quarts iced water
- 1 14 to 18 lb turkey, neck and giblets reserved for another use, and fat at tail area discarded
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- 1 celery, chopped
- 6 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 4 Head Start Gravy
- To make the brine, in a large stockpot, mix 2 quarts tap water with the salt, sugar, rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, celery seed, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Remove from the heat. Stir for a few minutes to cool slightly. Add the iced water and stir until the ice melts and the brine is very cold.
- Place the turkey in a roasting bag, then slip the bagged turkey into the second bag to make a double-thickness. Place the turkey in the ice chest. Pour the brine into the bag. Close the bag, being sure that the turkey is completely covered with brine, and secure the bag closed with a rubber band. Surround the bagged turkey with ice cubes or blue ice packs. Close the chest and let the turkey stand for at 10 to 16 hours. Do not brine the bird for longer than 16 hours, or the flavor and texture will be compromised.
- Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 325° F. In a small bowl, mix the onion, carrot, and celery.
- Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse well, inside and out, under cold running water. Pat the skin and body cavities dry with paper towels. Turn the turkey on its breast. Loosely fill the neck cavity with the onion mixture. Using a wooden or metal skewer, pin the turkey’s neck skin to the back. Fold the turkey’s wings akimbo behind the back or tie to the body with kitchen string. Loosely fill the large body cavity with the remaining onion mixture. Place the drumsticks in the hock lock or tie together with kitchen string.
- Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in the roasting pan. Rub all over with the butter. Pour 2 cups of water into the bottom of the pan.
- Roast the turkey, basting all over every 45 minutes with the juices on the bottom of the pan, until a meat thermometer inserted in the meaty part of the thigh (but not touching a bone) reads 180° F degrees and the stuffing is at least 160° F, about 4 1/2 hours. Whenever the drippings evaporate, add more water, about 1 cup at a time).
- Transfer the turkey to a large serving platter and let it stand for at least 20 minutes before carving. Pour the pan drippings into a separating cup, leaving the browned bits in the pan. Let stand for 5 minutes, then pour off and reserve the drippings and discard the fat. Place the roasting pan on two burners over medium-high heat. Add the gravy and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits in the pan with a wooden spatula. Gradually add the dark, degreased pan drippings until the gravy is salted and colored to taste. Simmer until the gravy thickens. Strain, and transfer to a warmed gravy boat.
- Carve the turkey and serve the gravy alongside.
2 jumbo (turkey-sized) oven-roasting bags
A large ice chest, to comfortably hold the brined turkey
About 10 pounds ice cubes or 2 “blue ice” packs, frozen
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