The raging debate to brine or not to brine amongst my fellow food bloggers even included Chef Mario Batali and Chef Michael Symon getting into it via twitter ending with Chef Batali calling Chef Symon “kielbasa boy.” The fervor of the debate, even after I had made the decision to brine and smoke our turkey, did cause me a moment of doubt. Then as my co-host stated, “Jennifer, even if you somehow manage to ruin the turkey, you will not ruin Thanksgiving.” Fair enough point.
After brining our turkey I do understand the reason for the debate. Brining though a simple process is not only time-consuming but serious as well, because done wrong can result with a holiday table full of people very sick with food poisoning. Thus, I can see that for some folks the taste difference may not be equal to the extra time. For us, it was very much worth the time, and even though I had that uncomfortable feeling throughout the entire process of “ I don’t know what the _____ I’m doing.” The resulting bird tasted, looked and smelled like I was an expert. This turkey came out with crispy, savory, smoky skin and juice dripping moist meat that had a slight ring from the smoking. The consistent dark mahogany color of the bird was something I had yet to achieve. As the recipe promised this truly was the best turkey that our guests and I had ever eaten. One of our guests said, “All turkeys in the future will be compared to this one.” Which I took as a high compliment and a much-needed boost to my bruised cooking ego after the goat-aster and the flaming hot rice pudding.
As I mentioned in a pre-Thanksgiving post after reading this recipe: Not Your Grandmothers Thanksgiving Turkey, I made the pitch/decision to brine and smoke/grill our bird. Meathead Goldwyn recipe is extremely clear and I only had confusion over one part of the process. I’m laying out this recipe in the steps that I did them rather than in one long instruction.
It is essential that you purchase a fresh, organic turkey (at least all natural) if the bird has already been treated in anyway you are going to end up with a salt lick. It is also essentially that you add no salt to the broth that will become your gravy, the brining process gives the pan dripping plenty of seasoning.
1 15-20 lb organic turkey cleaned of its giblets, trimmed of its extra skin and neck. Put the skin and neck into a pot and set aside, this is the beginning of the pan gravy.
For the brine you will need a cooler or pot big enough to hold the bird and 5 gallons of liquid. We used this cooler which was perfectly turkey sized that blew into my friends backyard during a tornado, no kidding.
For The Brine
7 cups pickling salt (or 4 cups table or 6 cups kosher, I used kosher)
2 cups dark brown sugar
6 tablespoons garlic powder
4 tablespoons crushed black pepper (I used medium pre-ground)
1 gallon warm water
1 gallon cold water
3 gallons crushed ice
2 more gallons of ice in clean bags.
Mix all the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Add the 1 gallon of warm water and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Pour this into the cooler. Add 1 gallon of cold water. Put the turkey into the cooler breast side down, move the turkey around so that the brine gets into the cavity of the bird. Add the three gallons of ice. On top of this put one more gallon of ice in the clean bags. You need to keep the brining solution at 40 degrees so as not to poison everyone. Leave into the brine for 8-12 hours, I did 9 hours. Check every few hours to make sure your ice is not melting too quickly. Do not freak out when your turkey starts to stiffen up/almost freeze like I did.
I was calmed when my friend Jesse said, “Well, what did you think was going to happen when you put the turkey in flavored ice water?” To which I responded with first a glare then a sulk.
Once your brining time is up take the bird out and rinse it. This is very important, the skin will be inedible if you do not do this. Loosen the skin from the meat where you are going to put the wet rub before it goes on the grill. Put the bird on a rack in a pan and let it sit in the fridge for at least 3 hours. I put my turkey into the fridge overnight. The recipe said this guarantees crispy skin and our skin was so crispy in some places it was crackling.
While the bird is brining, go back to the pot with the neck and skin and start the gravy base.
3 quarts water
1 cup apple juice
2 onions ends removed, quartered, but leave the skins on
2 medium carrots cut into 2 inch pieces
1 stalk celery chopped into 2 inch pieces
1 tablespoon dried sage leaves crumbled (I used large pieces of fresh)
1 tablespoon dried thyme (I just threw in 3 sprigs)
Put all of the ingredients into the pot and bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Cool this and refrigerate it. You are going to put this into the grill in a pan below the turkey while it is grilling.
All of this I did the night before. All I had to do in the morning was make the wet rub.
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
1 cup Olive Oil
For inside the bird
1 onion quartered
2 sprigs of thyme and sage
Put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Take this rub and put it all over underneath the skin, even as far down the legs as you can get it. Then take the remainder and rub it all over the outside of the bird. Put the onion and the herbs into the turkey cavity. Before you put it on the grill cover the tips of the legs and the wings with foil so they don’t burn. Do not truss the turkey; this will give you a more even cooking and crispy skin.
½-3/4 cup beer soaked apple wood chips (This was by far the hardest ingredient to find since it isn’t exactly grilling season in NYC, we got lucky and a chef that we knew had some in his kitchen, if you find yourself in the same position, I would find the nearest BBQ place and offer to buy them off of them.)
Fire up the grill and maintain the heat at 325 F. Once the grill is ready for the bird, sprinkle the wood chips on the coals, place a metal roasting pan with the gravy base on the coals right below the turkey to catch the drippings from the bird. Close the hood and commit yourself to not opening it for an hour. Try and maintain a 3-inch depth of liquid in the roasting pan during the cooking process by adding water when you open the grill. The recipe said that a 15-pound bird should take 3-3.5 hours.
The recipe told me that if the bird wasn’t cooking quickly enough to finish it in a 350 F oven. Another advantage is that the smoking part takes place in the first 45 minutes, so if you can hang on that long you will get the smoked flavor. This I can attest to because about an hour into the grilling process we were having a hard time maintaining the temperature due to snow (or so we thought) and did finish the turkey in the oven. Our bird however, cooked very quickly and was not only done, it was 10 degrees hotter than I usually pull it from the heat and probably would have been overcooked if not for the brining. The bird cooked in 2 hours and 40 minutes, almost an hour quicker than I had anticipated, it required a little improvisation at that point for the dinner over all.
Place the turkey on a cutting board and let sit for 20 minutes. Pour the pan gravy through a sieve into a pot and bring the juices to a boil. Allow the gravy to boil for 10 minutes to intensify the flavors. You can either serve the turkey with the au jus or you can make a roux of 4 tablespoons of butter and 4 tablespoon of flour and whisk in the pan juices, we served both the thickened gravy and the jus.
After going through this entire process I can say that I stand firmly on the side of pro-brining and if time allows I recommend everyone try this at least once.