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Brining the perfect turkey

November 28, 2008 - Kathie Evanoff
Our Thanksgiving was a huge success. We cooked a free-range heritage turkey for the first time this year and the husband proclaimed it was one of the most tender and moist turkeys we’ve ever prepared. We picked the turkey up from a local farm the Sunday before Thanksgiving and beginning Monday began a dry-brine procedure.

I have wet-brined turkeys in the past and they were always pretty good. One year in particular, our extra large turkey was in the brine for 24 hours. We were able to set it in our unheated garage overnight where it was kept nice and cold as it was too big to refrigerate. This year our turkey was smaller since there were only three of us for dinner.

A dry brine is a simple method of rubbing Kosher salt into the turkey’s skin and storing the bird in a large plastic bag in the refrigerator. For three days we gave our turkey a daily massage, not adding salt but rubbing in the salt we used the first day. The recipe I found on the Internet after a search for “heritage turkey recipes” called for one tablespoon of salt for each five pounds of turkey. Our turkey was a few ounces shy of 10 pounds, so we rubbed one tablespoon of salt into the breast and split the second tablespoon among the legs and thighs. Each day, one of us would give the turkey a gentle massage to encourage the salt to do its job.

Brining is an interesting concept based on osmosis. If you remember your chemistry, osmosis occurs when water flows from a lower concentration of a solution through a permeable membrane. In this case, the membrane is the turkey flesh. In other words, as the moisture is pulled out of the turkey, salt and water are pulled back in. The salt breaks down some of the fiber proteins in the meat, acting as an internal tenderizer. It doesn’t take a lot of salt to accomplish this task and the bird doesn’t taste salty at all.

Some cooks say that wet-brining the bird, soaking it overnight in a water, cider and salt solution, often mixed with herbs and spices as well, makes the turkey drippings too salty; however, and that doesn’t translate into good gravy. With the dry brine, however, I used all of the drippings to make our gravy and there was no salty taste at all.

I don’t know if it was because of the dry brine or if it was because our turkey was raised on a farm where it had plenty of room to go outside and eat all the bugs and clean grass that it wanted, but it was definitely the best tasting turkey we’ve had in a long time. The flavor was not too strong and the meat was very tender. One of the best things about a heritage turkey is that the breast is not the biggest part of the bird. While everyone wants the white meat, and turkey breeders have responded by breeding turkeys with breasts so large they can barely stand, when cooked, those large breasts are done well before the legs and thighs have reached a safe temperature. The result is usually dry white meat. Even with our small-breasted bird, we had more than enough white meat for the three of us and had leftovers too. In fact, there were so many leftovers that tonight will likely be a repeat of yesterday’s meal.

Cooking a heritage turkey is a bit different as well, I was told. I looked up several recipes and some didn’t seem much different with suggestions to cook the bird over a long period of time at low temperatures. But I opted for the one that said to cook it at a high temperature for a shorter period of time. Because the breast is smaller, the entire turkey cooks more evenly, with all parts reaching temperature close to the same time. I roasted my bird over a bed of root vegetables, that later added extra nutrients to the gravy, at 405 degrees. It took about 2 ½ hours for the temperature deep within the turkey’s thigh, to reach 165 degrees. When the thermometer registered that temperature, I promptly removed it from the oven and allowed it to rest for about 20 minutes, giving me enough time to complete the side dishes and make the gravy.

We had a great Thanksgiving and I hope everyone out there had a great one too.

The husband was up early this morning and decided to make breakfast for the two of us. We’re out of cereal so we had eggs and toast. Since tonight is a repeat of T-day, I decided a salad was the best way to go. I forgot to take a photo of the salad before I ate half of it and brought the other half back in a to-go box. Here’s a photo of the to-go box.


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Breakfast: 2 ounces meat; 2 ounces grains; 2 tsps. oils; 80 discretionary calories (butter on toast and sugar in tea)