Thanksgiving Turkey: No Time? Don't Brine


turkey in oven

Last night I had two turkeys roasting in my oven. That's right. I staged a blind turkey taste-test at a practice Thanksgiving dinner for a bunch of my friends and their families to see which tasted better: a turkey that had been brined overnight or a plain turkey.  Which turkey came out on top? The results will definitely surprise you.


First things first, though: Some of you maybe be asking, what the heck does it mean to "brine a turkey?" Brining is a process by which you submerge a turkey (or other poultry product) in a sugar-salt-water bath for up to 24 hours. People say that brining a turkey produces the tenderest, most flavorful, most juicy turkey they have ever had. I've brined chicken breast before with excellent results. But to brine an entire heavy turkey overnight is quite a different matter. (Trust me, I now know this to be true.) Is it really worth the hassle? Can people tell the difference? I was determined to find out.

For the taste-test, I found two 9-pound frozen turkeys. I brined one turkey for 24 hours in my refrigerator in the following mixture using a turkey brining bag from Grill Friends.

Turkey Brine:

1 cup salt

1cup sugar

2 lemons, cut in wedges

10 whole peppercorns

3 bay leaves, torn

fresh thyme

8 quarts water

Dissolve salt and sugar in 2 quarts boiling water. Add remaining ingredients and bring to room temperature using ice cubes if necessary. Put turkey in bag. Pour in brine. Keep in refrigerator for 12-24 hours turning every so often.

(For anyone who thinks brining sounds like fun, I should take a moment to assure you that it couldn't be less so. There's lot of water spilling everywhere involved; you have to be OK with wrestling raw meat into flimsy plastic bags; you must enjoy disinfecting your kitchen multiple times; and, hey, who doesn't have extra space in their fridge for a giant turkey in an 8-quart water bath?!)

Anyway, back to the taste test:  I cooked both turkeys exactly the same way. I filled the cavities with onion, celery, fresh thyme, and lemon juice, rubbed them with salt, olive oil, and pepper, and roasted them together for 3 hours at 350 BREAST SIDE DOWN (my mother-in-law taught me this smart trick—this way all the juices run into the breast. Yum!).

As I said above, the taste test was blind, meaning that prior to tasting, no one (except myself) knew which turkey had been brined and which hadn't. I was convinced (given the arm muscle involved) that the brined turkey would be the clear favorite and would continue on to win a James Beard award for "Best Turkey Ever." HOWEVER, the results astonished me. Which turkey did people like best? Drum-roll, please. My guests were actually split down the middle. Five liked the brined turkey better: They said it had a more turkey-ier flavor. And five liked the turkey that hadn't been brined: They said it had a good salty flavor. Interestingly enough, everyone agreed that the turkeys were equally tender and juicy.

And the results from the kids table? Who wants turkey when there's candied sweet potatoes to be had? 

My sentiments exactly. The lesson here: Don't have time? Skip the brine.

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