Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trial Turkey; the art and science of brining & breast meat

After entirely too much contemplating, I decided to bite the bullet and cook a test turkey. I'm not totally sure what finally convinced me but sure enough once I'd made up my mind, it became immediately evident that 6-8# turkeys are harder to find than you'd think.
Every grocery store I tried had birds beginning at 12# and up. Late Friday night though, I tracked down a 9 pounder at Whole Foods in Berkeley. A little bigger than I'd hoped for but at least it was an organic and free range bird from Diestel Ranch in Solano. Bi-Rite sells mostly Diestel Ranch birds so I figure I am in good company.
As mentioned, I brined the bird for 24 hours in a concoction of apple cider, salt, brown sugar, soy sauce, scallions, garlic, ginger, star anise, cinnamon and black peppercorns. Brewing this aromatic blend perfumed the whole house with a most delicious scent. Once the turkey was cleaned and dried it was submerged into the now room temperature brine to do its thing.
One hears a lot about brining this time of year but if you are (or were) anything like me, the word didn't register high on your radar. Well, in my turkey crash course I've learned a lot about the art of brining. A brine is essentially a salt-based marinade, be it wet or dry, that keeps the cooked meat moister by hydrating the muscle tissue before cooking. In other words, because the brine is saltier than the turkey (or chicken, or pork chop, or shrimp) the turkey absorbs salt into its muscle tissue and therein denatures the proteins. If using a liquid brine, the liquid works its way in between the proteins to result in a moister meat from start to finish.
After a full 24 hours, the bird was ready to emerge out of the brine and be prepped for roasting. Once the bird was dry, I loosened the skin from the body then applied the melted butter and salt & pepper evenly throughout. Next I loosely filled the cavity and bottom of the pan with apples, celery and onions to add aromatics. Finally, I soaked cheesecloth in the remaining butter mixture and draped it over the breasts. 

The real crux of cooking a whole turkey is that the light breast meat cooks at 10 degrees lower than the dark leg & wing meat. Therefore, if one waits until the dark meat is fully cooked, the light meat will almost inevitably be dried out. There is an endless no of ways of dealing with this issue that range from the logical to the extreme: cooking the bird breast-side down, draping the breasts with cheesecloth, draping the breasts with bacon strips (srsly!?), tenting the breast with foil and finally ice packs on the breast until just before roasting.

Apparently I am among many perfectionists when it comes to getting a good turkey. I opted to drape the breasts in butter-soaked cheesecloth but ended up leaving it on too long, preventing the skin from crisping and browning. Also, even though I took the bird out once the legs reached 155 degrees, the final meat tasted just slightly underdone. Technically, it was most assuredly not undercooked but when there's even the slightest pink it can be concerning. 
For Thursday, I will leave the bird in slightly longer to avoid any questions of doneness. Hopefully between the brining and the butter and the cheesecloth it will still be a moist, delicious bird.

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