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Brine - It's Not Just for Pickles Anymore

Holidays bring out family traditions. That ornament you made in second grade hangs on the Christmas tree at your parents’ house, and the stories of Aunt Mary’s turkey fiasco make the rounds at the dinner table. Talking turkey eventually comes around to a problem that has plagued turkey cookers since the beginning of time: how do you keep the meat in a roasted turkey from drying out? Our modern age of innovation - which has given us the tofu-built ‘tofurkey’ and the turkey-duck-chicken construction known as ‘turducken’ – has also provided an answer to this eternal question. It’s called brining.

Fans of brining say it brings many benefits. Brining can keep turkey meat moist even if it overcooks by as much as ten degrees. Water conducts heat, so because the meat absorbs water during the process, brining can make the bird cook faster. By adding salt, sugar, and herbs/spices to the water means the turkey does not require additional seasoning later. Thus, brining provides a measure of ‘do-ahead’ convenience for harried holiday cooks!

Following are some important tips to help you brine your first, but certainly not last, turkey:

1. Select a turkey
It’s important to get the right kind of turkey if you are going to brine it. Any fresh or thawed frozen turkey can be brined successfully as long as it has not been ‘pre-basted.’ It is pointless to brine a ‘pre-basted’ or ‘self-basted’ bird. These turkeys have already been injected with broth and/or vegetable oil to facilitate cooking. Kosher birds are recommended for brining.

2. The soaking container
Containers should be made of a material that will not interact with the salty brine solution. The container must also be large enough to hold the turkey and sufficient brine to cover it. Extra-large stockpots, clean buckets lined with clean kitchen trash bags, or specially designed brining bags can be used. Five-gallon plastic buckets also work well if they are lined with two, clean, plastic trash bags. If there is no room in your refrigerator for a large container, it’s possible to put the turkey in cold water in a clean container with a weighted lid and keep it in a cool basement or garage as long as it stays at 40 degrees or colder for the whole brining period.

3. The brining solution
A basic brining solution is a combination of water, salt, and sugar. The salt opens up the cells in the meat to allow it to take in moisture, while the sugar helps to keep the water inside the cells. Expert briners recommend using kosher salt, which is less ‘salty’ than regular table salt. Sea salt can also be used but it is more expensive. If you use regular table salt, use the kind without iodine and use only half as much. The basic recipe for brine: 1 gallon of water, 1 cup of kosher or sea salt (or 1/2 cup of table salt), and 1/2 cup of sugar. This can be multiplied by as much as you need to cover your particular bird. For a 20-pound turkey, figure about four gallons of brine. Some cooks add their favorite herbs and spices to the brine, and some substitute apple cider for half of the water in a brine recipe and molasses or honey for the sugar. Optional herbs and spices may include whole peppercorns, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, anise, orange or lemon peel, cardamom pods.

3. Timing
Experts recommend keeping your brining turkey in a refrigerator during the entire process. A turkey should be put into the brine at least a day ahead of cooking. Place the bird into the brine, cover and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours, turning the turkey halfway through the brining time. About 24 hours is a good rule, but an hour or two either way won’t make much difference. To speed up the process, you can double the amount of salt and sugar. This will cut the brining period in half. The bird must be rinsed off very well before cooking, preferably under running water for several minutes, to remove any saltiness. Then pat the bird dry and continue with your favorite cooking method.

4. Roasting
You don’t need to salt a brined bird before it goes into the oven. Some basic roasting times for a turkey in a preheated 350-degree oven are listed below:

8 -12 Lb. 2 ½ - 3 ½ Hours
12-16 Lb. 3 ½ - 4 Hours
16-20 Lb. 4 – 4 ½ Hours
20-28 Lb. 4 ½ - 5 ½ Hours

Remember, only by using a meat thermometer will you know when the turkey is ‘done.’ Put the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone. When the turkey is done, the temperature will be between 175-180 degrees F. Juices should run clear. If you check the temperature in the breast, it should be 165-170 degrees F. when done. If you stuff the bird, check the temperature of the stuffing too – 160-165 degrees F. indicates doneness.

5. Things to know about a brined turkey
Interestingly, a brined turkey will not taste overly salty. Be aware, though, that some people are sensitive to salt or may be on low-sodium diets. A brined turkey is not best for them. You can reduce the saltiness by adding sugar, decreasing the amount of salt used, reduce your brining time, or soaking the turkey in fresh water for 1 hour before you cook it.

There may not be many drippings available in the pan for making gravy because all the juices are sealed in. You might have to figure out another way to get your gravy fix if you cook a brined turkey.

The cooked meat of a brined turkey is slightly pink in color. This could be upsetting, since we are told practically from birth that poultry must be well-cooked. Check for doneness with a meat thermometer and then reassure any worried dinner companions that the color is normal.

A brined turkey does not have crisp skin when done. This problem can be avoided by removing the turkey from the brine the night before you roast it. Discard the brine; rinse the turkey inside and out under cold, running water. Pat it dry inside and out, then place it, breast side up, on a wire rack over a pan, and refrigerate it for 8 to 24 hours, uncovered. Letting the bird sit uncovered in the refrigerator overnight before cooking results in a crackling and crisp brown skin once it is roasted. The moisture remaining in the skin from brining evaporates overnight, allowing the skin to crisp in the oven instead of steaming from excess moisture.

Last but not least - don’t overcook the turkey! Brining makes it cook faster, so check the temperature often with your meat thermometer and prepare to sit down to the juiciest, most delicious turkey you’ve ever eaten!

© 2006, Davis Virtual Assistance. Reprints welcomed so long as the article and by-line are reprinted intact and all links made live.

About the Author: Bonnie Jo Davis is a novice cook and the publisher of the series “Fifty Fantastic Recipes” available at Visit her site to sign-up for new recipes and to purchase her e-cookbooks.

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