Let the wild rumpus -– about turkey -– begin! Thanksgiving is right around the corner and, according to Butterball’s Web site, 90 percent of U.S. households will be eating turkey that day. But which turkey? Organic free range? Natural free range? Kosher? Or a heritage breed like a Narragansett, a Jersey Bluff, or a Bourbon Red? Is there anything wrong with Butterball (or whatever else is in the supermarket case)?
The conventional wisdom in our family is to buy the cheapest turkey, but raise the game by brining it. My father (who has been brining and smoking turkeys for about 25 years) always says there is little difference in the taste of an expensive bird and a cheaper one if they have been brined correctly. His turkeys have been consistently excellent across the price spectrum and he tends to side with frugality. In the years that I’ve been in charge of the Thanksgiving turkey, his theory has held true.
Pre-brined turkeys are available at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, among other places. They combine the advantage of brining with the convenience of delivering the bird directly from the package to the mode of cooking. For those who are little more DIY, Williams-Sonoma sells a brining mix.
However, as often holds true, doing something from scratch can yield truly remarkable results. For true control freaks, mad scientists, or aspiring Thomas Kellers (who brines to make his fried chickens, for Pete’s sake), I recommend Smokin’ Okie’s Holiday Turkey Brine. Please note that the list of ingredients is lengthy and might be over the top when money is tight.
The brining process itself is simple. To brine, I use a large pan or bucket that can hold the bird, then line it with a big plastic bag (such as a kitchen garbage bag), then insert the turkey, and then pour the brine in. If you’re lucky enough to have a fridge that will accommodate your turkey for the duration of the brining time (probably about 12 hours), then you’re set. Not having access to a restaurant-scale fridge, I use an ice chest cooler — the kind with a drain plug on the outside — and use as much ice as possible to cover the turkey. I check every couple hours, drain the melt, and add more ice on top.
When the 12-or-so hours is up, you’re ready to cook the bird. We recommend using a spicy rub and then smoking . . . but that’s another story. Cook it via your traditional or preferred method, and, now that you’ve brined it, you’ll find it tastier, more moist, and you won’t be able to wait until next year.