Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alton Brown- Brined Turkey, Bon Appetit, 2003- Part 1

I know it has been FOR-EVER since I posted on this blog, but I have been searching for the brined turkey recipe from Alton Brown to reduce having to re-type the article to print out for my friends... it was impossible to find! So, I decided to type it out for all those who are desperate seach of the perfect turkey recipe. I have used it every year since 2003- happy cooking!

"Thanksgiving starts here... " Cooking Class Section of Bon Appetit, 2003
I remember my first turkey. I was 25; it was 20 pounds. I had no idea what I was doing, so I snagged a recipe from a glossy food mag that promised to produce the perfect turkey. The ingredients required for the stuffing and the glaze cost exactly two dollars more than the turkey itself, not including the gas it took to drive to three different markets in search of said ingredients.
To make a long a painful story short, I worked my butt off all day long and was rewarded with a turkey that had all the flavor and mouth feel of pulverized Sheetrock, though the stuffing and skin were sublime. Of course, that's the ultimate goal of most turkey recipes: to create a great skin and stuffing to hide the fact that turkey meat, in its cooked state, is dry and flavorless. Does it have to be that way? No. We just have to focus on what the turkey is and what the turkey needs. And we have to consider what it is we really want. This is how I see it...
The Primary Goal:
To prepare a juicy, flavorful turkey with a pleasantly crisp, brown skin that tastes terrific even without the assistance of stuffing or gravy. All of the (minimal) ingredients you need are in red type.
The Primary Challenge:
Because it's not very moist to begin with, turkey meat is extremely easy to overcook. Once overcooked, it becomes very unappealing indeed. What's worse, turkeys are composed of two different types of meat- white and dark- which have to be cooked at different temperatures.

  • Buy the right bird

  • Alter the nature of the meat

  • Cook the meat in two phases, one to brown and crisp the skin and another to cook the bird to the exact state of doneness

  • Let the meat rest to preserve moisture

Good Bird Hunting

Although you can order a fresh turkey by mail, once you take shipping into account, the cost is usually three times that of a grocery store bird. I prefer frozen turkey in the 18-pound range (which will feed about 12 people). Since a frozen bird is about as pliant as a bowling ball, it doesn't get bruised on its way to the supermarket. If you don't have time to brine the bird, buy a kosher one, which has already spent time in salt.

Breaking the Ice

Quick Thaw

Place the wrapped bird in a 5-gallon cooler with a drain spout. Place the cooler in the bathtub and cover the turkey with cold water. You don't have to do the quick thaw in the tub, but it sure makes things easier. I drain and replace the water every 2 to 3 hours (to keep the water at 40 degrees or below) until the turkey has thawed (8 to 10 hours, depending on beginning temperature).

Slow Thaw

Place the bird in a cooler with about an inch of ice at the bottom. Park it in a cool place and the bird will be workable in about four days. Add more ice if the cooler's temperature rises above 40 degrees.

Time to Brine

Turkeys may not come into the world moist, but there's no reason they have to be dry when they leave. The key is to soak your bird in a salt solution, or brine. Clean your cooler with soap and water, then pour in half a gallon of hot tap water, 2/3 Cup sugar, and a pound of salt. (Remember, different salts take up different volumes. For instance, you need three cups of Diamond Crystal kosher salt to make a pound but only 2 cups of Morton's kosher salt). Stir thoroughly to dissolve the crystals. Then stir in 8 pounds of ice (that's a gallon of water) and 16 Cups of vegetable broth.

Meanwhile, unwrap the thawed turkey and remove any parts (neck, bag o' internal organs, etc.) that might be lurking inside the cavities. If you want to use these to make gravy later, okay. Me, I feed 'em the dog. If there's a metal or plastic clip holding the turkey's back legs together, leave it on.

Place the turkey in the brine, breast side up. If your coooler is too big, the brine may not cover it. If we're talking only an inch or so, don't worry about it. But if your bird is seriously beeched, you'll need a smaller container. If your turkey floats, fill one gallon resealable bag with water and place on top of the buoyant bird. Set the cooler, lid closed, in a cool place for 8 to 12 hours, turning the bird over once if possible. For safety reasons, it is important to keep the brining liquid at 40 degrees or right below. Check it periodically with the probe thermometer. If the temperature is getting too high add a few freezer packs that have been enclosed in resealable bags.

Final Countdown (T minus 4 hours and counting till dinner)

Remove one of the oven racks and set the other in the next to the lowest position, then preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Why 500 degrees? Because we need the fat under the turkey skin to heat quickly and saute the skin from below. If we start with a low temperature, a lot of the fat will melt and roll away to the bottom of the bird without doing any browning at all.

Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse under cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Contemplate the main cavuity. Lots of things can go in there... in fact, only one thing shouldn't: stuffing. Stuffing is evil. Stuffing adds mass, so it slows the cooking. That's evil because the longert the bird cooks, the drier it will be. And since the cavity is a perfect haven for salmonella bacteria, you have to absoltuely certain that the cavity is heated through to 165 degrees, which means overcooking at least part of the bird... which is evil. If you really love stuffing, wait until the turkey comes out of the oven, add some of the pan drippings to the stuffing and bake it in a dish. That's called dressing and that's not evil- stuffing is, though.

FOR PART TWO click here

Alton Brown Brined Turkey, Bon Appetit, 2003- Part 2

Aromatic items such as fresh herbs, onions and celery are cleared for the cavity. Not only will they infuse the meat with their essence, but they also make the kitchen smell very nice, thus priming your diners for the glories to come. So loosely pack your bird with any combination of fresh herbs (for instance, thyme, rosemary, and sage); one onion, two celery stalks, and two large carrots, all roughly chopped. But keep the packing loose- otherwise you might as well have stuffing, and stuffing is, you know...

Place the turkey, breast side up, on a V-shaped rack set inside a large roasting pan. (I just stack together 2 of the big disposable foil pans that populate supermarkets around the holidays). A V-shaped rack is basically a heavy wire rack that holds the turkey up off the floor of the pan and keeps it kind of bunched in on it's self. If you don't have a V-shaped rack, make an aluminum foil snake, about an inch thick and three feet long. Loop it until you got an oval-shaped spiral about ten inches by eight inches. Set this coil in the pan, then place the turkey on the coil. Although V-Shaped racks and snakes will keep the turkey from sitting in it's own drippings, they can't work miracles like promoting browning on the bottom. Oh, well (a non-brown bottom is better than a soggy bottom.
Cut a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil that when folded in half is big enough to cover the turkeys breast. Lay this onto the breast, shiny side up, and mold it into a breastplate (i.e., a triangular sheath that covers the breast meat completely). Remove it, lube the underside with nonstick vegetable oil spray, and set aside.
Now rub a quarter of a stick of butter between your hands until your digits are liberally lubed (if this is just to icky for you, use disposable gloved). Rub the butter into the turkey as if you were a masseuse on a mission.
You'll probably need to re-butter your hands a couple of time in order to get a nice, even coating. When you are done massaging, ditch the remaining butter and the gloved.
Time to get the bird in the box. Since the first segment of this thermal trip is about browning the breast, I go neck end first and neck up. Set your oven timer for half an hour. When it dings, check the breast. It should be nicely browned - if not comma return the turkey to the over and cook another ten minutes. Then remove the bird and apply the breastplate. This will help reflect heat and slow the cooking of the breast meat. That way, by the time the white meat hits the target temp of 161 degrees, the dark meat should be around 180 degrees, which is ideal.
Last but not least, insert your thermometers probe directly into the foil into the deepest part of the breast. Yes, most turkeys come with thermometers installed, but since they are made to pop up at 180 degrees, they're tragically late to the party. Probe thermometers feature, well, a probe that connects to a digital base via a couple feet of insulated wire. The base has a magnet on it so that it can be placed on the outside of the oven while the turkey cooks. Most models also feature an alarm that can be set to go off at the temperature of your choice.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and return the turkey to the oven, breastplate armor securely in place. Set your probe thermometer to go off at 161 degrees (yes, I know that the instant kill temperature for salmonella is 165 degrees, but the temperature will continue to rise inside the bird for several minutes after you take it out of the oven). If you leave the oven door closed, an 18 pounder should hit the thermal finish line 2 to 2 1/2 hours after the oven temperature has been reduced. That means no basting! Basting is evil. Basting does nothing for the meat. Why? Skin. Skin is designed to keep stuff out of the bird. So, basting just lets heat out of the oven. That means the turkey will take longer to cook.
Once 161 degrees has been attained in the breast (and 180 degrees in the thigh) take the bird out of the oven and give it a rest. No matter what you do, do not skip this step. If you slice up that bird straight from the oven, all that juice you worked so hard to get into it will run out all over the platter, lost forever. So cover with aluminum, foil or the lid from your kettle grill and wait for half an hour.
When carving time arrives, first be sure to wow the assembled appetites with the whole bird before breaking it down. I like to create thick slices by removing the breast meat in two lobes, then cutting across the grain.
The only downside to roasting a brined bird is that the pan drippings may be too salty for gravy making. You can usually get around that by mixing the drippings with 1 Cup water, 1 Cup chicken broth and a cornstarch slurry. Or you can look at it this way: the turkey will be so tender that you won't need gravy. Some fresh cranberry sauce would be nice indeed. Besides tasting great on Turkey Day, the bird will still be loaded with moist flavor the next day. And let's face it, in the end, isn't it all about the sandwiches?

Carving The Bird- click on picture to enlarge