Thanksgiving. Everyone has their own thoughts, their own memories, their own rituals and recipes. But they usually have one thing in common: The turkey.
My favorite way of cooking the turkey is by brining it first. A brined bird has flavor, it is moist and, if you do it right, the skin has the most unique mahogany red-brown color from the slight bit of sugar in the brine. And with brining, even the usually bland white meat will be good, and the turkey will be juicy.
So here are my tips for brining a turkey:
I first brined a turkey from an Alice Waters recipe in The New York Times (she owns Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.). She is a big advocate of buying local, and is credited with founding the whole San Francisco "eat local" food scene about 25-30 years ago.
For brining you need a very big pot, big enough to fill with both liquid and turkey. When you buy the turkey, visualize what pots you have and whether the turkey can fit inside the pot. Also, you need to put this big heavy pot full of liquid and turkey in your refrigerator, which means (a) it's going to be really heavy, (b) you had better be confident your refrigerator shelves are sturdy enough, and (c) there's not going to be a lot of room for all the other vegetables and ingredients you need for Thanksgiving. So you need to be really efficient and organized with the rest of the ingredients.
Calculate the number of days in advance that you need to start the recipe. The turkey should brine for 3 full days, and if you are using a frozen turkey, it usually takes about 3 days to defrost in the refrigerator. What I usually do is start defrosting the turkey (if using a frozen one) in the refrigerator the Friday evening before Thanksgiving. Let it defrost in the refrigerator all day Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday evening, put it into the brine. On Wednesday afternoon/evening, take it out of the brine but still leave it in the refrigerator. Thursday morning, start roasting.
On the fresh v. frozen turkey issue, personally, I don't think it makes much difference. I have tried them all - ranging from 89 or 99 cents a pound frozen at the supermarket, to fresh, to fresh and local. Frankly speaking, I didn't really taste much of a difference. Of course it is always nice to use fresh, and local. However, whenever I go to the poultry farm in Calverton for fresh local turkeys, they are invariably sold out, probably because I do not reserve in advance. I guess I could go out and shoot a wild turkey on the North Fork. Bottom line: Use whatever turkey you want.
Measure the water. Measure the amount of water you need in the pot BEFORE you make the brine. My ingenious way of measuring the water is to put the turkey into the pot, then fill with clean water so that the turkey is covered with water. Take the turkey out of the pot. The amount of water left in the pot is the exact amount of water you need.
Make the brine. No matter how hard I looked, I could not find the original New York Times article on Alice Waters, with the original brine recipe. There are a lot of OTHER "Alice Waters" brine recipes on the internet, but they are NOT the original version. Most brine recipes on the internet, whether they call themselves "Alice Waters" or not, are way too salty, calling for three-quarters cup to a cup of salt. You want to brine the turkey, not pickle it.
The "real", original, Alice Waters New York Times brine recipe is very subtle. You hardly taste any salt, or any flavor, in the brine. You may think, what is this going to do, this tastes almost like water? But remember, it is in the brine continuously for 3 full days, so it will pick up salt from the brine.
- 3 teaspoons salt – any kind. Sea salt, kosher, or any kind.
- 1 teaspoon sugar – any kind. I usually use white, but I think organic natural light brown would be nice.
- Black peppercorns – 10 or 15.
- A few whole carrots - North Fork carrots would be nice. You can put the green tops in too.
- Celery – a few stalks. I tried growing celery in my garden this summer, but the woodchucks ate them.
- Cut-up onions – North Fork onions would be nice. You can use the green tops too.
- Leeks – if you have them. Local would be good – I believe they are seasonal to both the fall and spring.
- Fresh herbs – any kind. The more the better. Thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram, parsley, chives – all would be good. Even lavender flowers or leaves.
Boil the water. Add the salt and sugar. Stir the brine so that the salt and sugar dissolve. Turn the heat OFF. Then add the vegetables and herbs. Do not cook the vegetables. You are just extracting a little flavor from the raw vegetables and herbs. Put the brine in the refrigerator for about an hour, and let it cool down. Do not put the turkey in until after the liquid has cooled down.
Brine the turkey. After cooling down the brine to room temperature or a chilled temperature, put the turkey into the brine. The turkey will float up, and a couple of inches might be sticking out of the brine. It is best to try to push the turkey down so it is fully covered by the brine. Alternatively, once or twice a day, just keep flipping the turkey over, so the end sticking up in the air has a chance to be in the brine.
Prepare the roasting pan. After brining for 3 days, take the turkey out of the brine. Prepare the roasting pan. Slice up one or two onions and put them in the bottom of the pan, and maybe some sliced parsnip or turnip. Put about three-quarters of an inch of vegetables in the bottom of the pan. Situate the turkey on top of the vegetables. The turkey won't stick to the pan, plus the roasted vegetables give a great flavor to the pan drippings for gravy. You can even eat the roasted vegetables as a side dish.
Roast the turkey. My advice is, read the instructions on the turkey package and follow them exactly. If the turkey has no instructions, look up the roasting time and temperature in a good cookbook. Do not guess, do not estimate, do not "wing it", do not think you can tell whether it's ready by how it looks or how it smells.
That's it. Bon Appetit.
As an aside, I've got about 22 wild turkeys living around my property in Mattituck – a flock of 20 in the woods to the south, who have been there for years, and recently a mother and offspring who seem to have split off and taken up in the woods on the east side. Wild turkeys, which disappeared from Long Island in the late 19th century, were reintroduced from upstate New York in 2003. See "Wild Turkeys Stage Comeback on Long Island" (New York Times article)
By 2009, the turkey population in Suffolk County had grown to 3,000, so the DEC began issuing turkey hunting permits.(see New York Times article). See "Hunting for Turkeys, for the First Time" (New York Times article)
Out of the 22 turkeys, I have only seen one tom, and a lot of females and young ones. However, I am sure that some of the youngsters are male and will grow up to be toms.