For years, I was a dedicated adherent to the philosophy that one should always brine the Gameday Bird. “Gameday” as in Thanksgiving. Turkey Day is serious business around this camp. My husband is one of those, “The holidays are nothing but a ploy by a bunch of greedy corporations trying to make a buck!” Grinch-type dudes. Thanksgiving is probably the only holiday he looks forward to and enjoys. But, for so long I was chained to the brining technique for our gobbler. It wasn’t until a disturbing encounter with a mutant bird, that I said, “Enough’s enough!” and switched to this dry brine. Since then, I’ve been more chill and much happier with my birds.
So, what was the traumatizing event that made me make the switch? Back in El Paso, we decided to do a “Friendsgiving”. When you’re a military family, almost all of your holiday meals are more populated by your friends than your family. But, this particular Thanksgiving, we had a guy friend tell us he would provide the turkey if I would take care of cooking it.
“Not a problem! Too easy!” I said. I thought.
Now normally I wouldn’t think twice about the deal. In fact, I didn’t think twice- until homeboy pulled up to the house two days before to drop off said bird.
“Where’s the bird?” I asked.
“Oh! ‘He’s’ in Jr.’s carseat,” he replied.
“The hell? The ‘carseat’? Why are you putting raw poultry in your son’s carseat?”
“It’s still frozen. It’s safe.”
“Wait. What?! You didn’t let it thaw?!”
“Oh…no. I didn’t know I had to,” as he gets out to open the back door.
“Ugh! Okay, We still have time. Hopefully it’s less than…fif-teen…poun…”
“…WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!?!!?”
“What!?!? It’s the turkey!!!”
“That’s a freaking pterodactyl!!! That’s not a turkey! How many pounds is it!?!”
“Thirty-two! Why get a little bird when I can get a big bird and we can have leftovers?”
“And it’s still frozen? It’s going to take at least five days to thaw this damned thing!”
“Well, you’re a ‘chef’. Make it happen.”
“First of all, don’t put ‘chef’ in air quotes. I am a chef. You don’t need to air quote it. Second of all, I’m not a Soldier, so chill. Third of all, you’re carrying that beast into the house. Idiot.”
I took so much joy in watching him struggle to walk that animal into the house. I even guffawed when he dropped it on his foot ( although, it ended up being broken). But, reality came crashing down around me when I realized I was now responsible for saving Thanksgiving dinner. There was no way this thing was going to thaw under refrigeration in two days. There was no way I was letting this thing go to waste by buying another bird, either. I ended up having Hector clean out the largest cooler we owned. I put it in our guest bathroom’s tub and ran cold water over it for twenty-four hours. Mission: Thaw this Beast was accomplished.
Almost immediately it dawned on me- I still have to brine this thing! Remember, I was a devotee to the technique. The turkey would never come out juicy and delicious if it wasn’t brined. Or so I believed. I had a cooler that was big enough to hold it, and that was half the battle. But, I didn’t have a refrigerator that was big enough to handle the cooler and the weight of it all. As a result, I had to use some good ol’ fashioned “hood” ingenuity. I made up my brine, however, I concentrated the hell out of it because I knew I would have to keep adding ice to maintain a safe temperature. Long story short (too late), the damned bird was thawed, brined and displayed proudly. I cussed the “friend” out at least five times that evening.
But you know what I learned through that whole debacle? Well, two things: never ask a combat medic to buy your turkey, and that brining isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean “wet brining” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Creating a soaking liquid high in saline is a method used to flavor large pieces of meat. In this case, the turkey is fully submerged in a salt water bath with other flavorings for a 24 hour period to increase its flavor and keep it juicy during cooking. However, I think I threw out my shoulder helping Hector lift the cooler into the tub. I’m hood, but I’m not hood enough to just bathe my turkey in my bath. That year I vowed to never wet brine again, it just didn’t seem like all of the drama was worth the outcome.
But, how to keep that juicy meat and crisp skin that we knew and loved? Cut out the liquid middle man, of course- with a dry brine. It’s just as it sounds.
Loads of salt.
The salt is absorbed into the meat of the turkey, a normally lean meat, which would dry out while roasting. Because of the absorption of salt, the meat is tenderized and (basically) swollen with the salt intake. It’s kind of like us when we eat too much salt. Now that the meat has that added moisture, it stays moist throughout the cooking process. Normally, a brine consists of saltwater– think: pickles. But, because I’m traumatized, I have omitted the water and cut straight to the chaser. You’ll notice ALL of my recipes call for kosher salt. I never use table salt (or iodized salt). Since this is a food blog, and not a medical journal, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which to use in this case. Suffice it to say, I think any salt will be fine for this recipe.
A dry brine should consist of the same things you would use in a wet brine. Because I always added citrus to my wet brine, I now grate in fresh citrus (orange and lemon) peels into my dry brines. Adding flavoring like this is purely a taste preference. The base ingredients for a brine are salt and a sweetener to offset the saltiness. Anything more is bonus. And this recipe comes with many bonuses.
Citrus is a great flavoring to add to your poultry’s dry brine because the flavors compliment the subtle taste that most poultry has. Simply use a microplane to grate the peel into the salt.
Herbs such as thyme, rosemary, savory, and oregano pair beautifully with poultry (another bonus). Because of that, and to save time and money, I add herbs de provence which has all of those herbs, in addition to marjoram and caraway. Before adding it to the dry brine mixture, I crush it between my palms to “wake up” the herbs. It causes them to release more of their flavor when roughed up a bit.
Next, add onion powder.
Now, add the garlic powder. Both of these aromatics are vital to creating a flavorful dry brine.
Freshly ground black pepper is then added to the dry brine mixture.
Now all of that salt would make the bird…well, salty, if we didn’t balance it with a bit of sweetness. I always add brown sugar to my dry brine to do just that. You can also use granulated sugar, but I love the taste of caramel that brown sugar imparts into my food. Honey, or maple syrup, are also good substitutes that won’t compromise your dry brine.
Blend everything together with your hands or a whisk.
And your dry brine is ready to meet it’s life-partner.
In order for the brine to do it’s job, it should have as much contact with the meat as possible, I bypass the skin and rub the dry brine right onto the breast of the bird. To do that I, first, have to separate the skin from the breast. That’s an easy, slightly gross, task. Use your non-dominant hand to grab the skin of the bird. Pulling away from the turkey, use the index finger from your opposite hand to tear away at the membrane holding the skin in place. It’s fairly easy to do, just a bit off-putting if you’re squeamish. Do this until you end up like this:
…talk about intimate. But, now you’re ready to add the dry brine.
Rub the dry brine underneath the skin, inside the cavity, and all over the rest of the bird. Also, be sure to rub it onto the neck of the bird if you plan to make gravy.
Like I do with my roast pork shoulder, I don’t give the flavoring anywhere else to go but back into the meat. If I were to leave it in a container, the herbs and salt would seep out, as they have now liquified, and I’d miss out on a lot of osmosis. Because I’m wrapping it, not only in plastic, but also in foil, I’m forcing those flavors to go into the meat.
Just wrap it tightly in plastic, then follow it up with a wrapping of heavy duty aluminum foil. Tap into your parenting side to swaddle it like a newborn.
About an hour before cooking, rinse off the dry brine. Don’t worry about rinsing under the skin, or in the cavity. You actually want to keep those spices there. Focus on removing the brine from the outside of the turkey. Pat it as dry as you possibly can (I’ll tell you why in a bit). And put it back into the fridge.
While the bird is drying out a bit in the fridge, prepare a your herb bundle for the cavity. Gather together fresh herbs such as sage, thyme, rosemary and oregano and tie them in a tight bundle. Slice an orange, a lemon, a head of garlic and an onion in half.
Pull the turkey out of the fridge and give it one last pat down with paper towels. This will ensure that your bird’s skin is bone dry. Bone dry skin=crispy skin. Stuff the cavity as tightly as possible with the herbs and aromatics. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine to keep it all in.
Now, rub the skin with a tbsp of vegetable oil and season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper.
Rub the spices into the skin
Place your oven’s rack on the lower portion (1/3rd) of the oven. Preheat your oven to 500°F. Place your bird onto a roasting rack inside of your roasting pan. If you don’t have a roasting rack, just prop up your bird on chopped root vegetables, like onions and carrots (or use aluminum foil).
While your oven is heating, create a foil tent for your turkey breast by placing a piece of aluminum foil that’s large enough to cover the bird’s breast and wingtips. Just put the foil onto the breast and press it around it to create a sort of mold.
Remove it and set aside. Use this foil if your the bird starts to brown too fast during roasting.
Once your oven has reached temperature, knock it back down to 350°F, and place the bird into the oven. Roast for 15 mins. per pound of turkey. For example, since my turkey is eleven pounds, I’m going to roast it for about three hours. A thermometer should read 165°f when inserted into the thickest part of the turkey’s thigh. Remove the bird from the oven and allow it to rest for 15 minutes before carving. Resting meat allows it’s juices to redistribute back into the meat instead of them running amok when you cut into it.
Now all that’s left to do is enjoy it…without getting a hernia.
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Dry Brine for Poultry
- 1 cup kosher salt
- rind of one medium orange grated
- rind of two small lemons grated
- 1/4 cup herbs de provence crushed between the palms of your hands
- 3 tbsp garlic powder
- 3 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- Combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
- Use 1 cup per 10 lbs of poultry. Rub brine over the entire bird, making sure to rub some underneath the skin as well.
- Rinse off excess brine from skin one hour prior to roasting.
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