Monday, 16 December 2019

Dry brining a turkey (with recipe and SCIENCE!)

I finally decided, this year, to try brining the turkey, just to see if it makes a difference.
Now, I have always done a dry rub on it before I put it in the smoker, so I figured it wouldn't make THAT much difference.

Boy was I wrong!

As it turns out, there is science behind brining, and, contrary to our mothers' and grandmothers' collective wisdom (well, MY generation's mothers and grandmothers, anyway. I'm pushing 50 now, after all!), salt is NOT the mortal enemy of poultry, or any meats, really.
We were all taught (and often taught others), that salting meat before cooking would dry it out, because it sucks all the moisture right out. Then we were reminded that salt is the main component used for drying out meats to make jerky. Add to that the fact that the salt also makes the meat much tougher. There was even science to back it up; High salt content forces the meat's proteins to bind together, making tougher meat. What more proof could we need??
Technically, all of those "supporting" statements are true, but there is more to the story! 

Yes, salt is used for dehydrating and preserving meats. LOTS of salt. Like, a crapton of salt! Along with circulating air in a dry environment. And yes, salt does draw the moisture out of meats. 

When brining, however, for one, you don't use as much salt, and also, you aren't hanging the meat out in a a drying shed (or modern equivalent). With the exception of (optionally) the last 12-24 hours of brining, the meat is kept in an at least reasonably sealed container. 

So, now we get to the sciencey bits. When the water is drawn out to the surface of the meat. it mixes with the salt, sugar, and flavouring herbs/spices. Then, since it is closed up and refrigerated, the mixture is absorbed back into the meat.
The lower salt concentration, like used for brining (wet or dry), actually helps break down the muscle tissue which tenderises the meat, and also helps the cells in the meat hold more water, and hold it in better (along with the other flavourings). This happens because, as the muscle fibres break down, it creates more spaces for water to collect in between the "layers". All of these things, together, result in a plumper, juicier, more flavourful piece of meat.

Being the nerdy foodie that I am (is there any other kind, really?), all this science talk really made me want to experiment. I was already fairly well convinced by the facts laid out with supporting documents, citations, and a lot more extra sciencey stuff. If you want the REALLY long version, just Google search the science of brining. If you're anything like me, be prepared to lose several hours  in the process. I don't know where they went. It's like some sort of internet, science, wibbly, wobbly, timey wimey vortex or something. 

ANYWAY, Now committed to the experiment, I looked up the basic ratios of salt to meat, looked at several other brine recipes, none of which quite made me happy, and proceeded to devise my own, which will be below. Once my turkey was completely thawed, about 4 days prior to the main event, I rubbed it well with the brine mixture. 
There are more detailed instructions to be found all over the web, but the upshot is, you want your bird to be fairly dry before you start. Some insist that you must actually pat it all the way dry, but I didn't bother with that degree. Do what makes you happy. 

Then, you sprinkle around 2-4 teaspoons (more or less depending on size. I did 4, cause it was a 23 lb bird) of your brine mixture into the cavity and rub it in, then sprinkle and rub about double that amount on the breasts, including under the skin (peel the skin up very carefully), and then distribute the rest on the outside of the skin of the rest of the fowl creature (see what I did there? Har har har). Once it's all coated, wrap it up tightly in plastic wrap, or, better still, put it in a giant, ziploc type bag (like a brining bag!), remove as much of the air as possible from it, and pop it in the fridge for 4-5 days. You can get away with less, but the longer it sits, the more evenly distributed the brine solution will be, and the more time it has to do its work. 
If you want a beautiful, golden brown, crispy skin and you are not smoking your turkey, take the plastic off for the last 12-24 hours before roasting. 

Now, I have been smoking my turkeys for several years now, and they have always turned out nice and moist, despite the naysayers out there, but this one... Oh my gods! It was the most juicy, succulent, flavourful turkey I've ever had, and I had just about everyone at my gathering tell me the same thing. 

The only difference from the last several years was the brining, so I am definitely a believer from here on out! 
Yes, that means I need to add an extra few days into my prep calculations, cause it needs to be thawed before it's brined, but it is SO worth it! I just wish I'd tried jumping on the bandwagon before this year, but I tend to be a slow adapter of a lot of things. 

It means I take a complete pass on the majority of ridiculous fads that come and go and make us wonder what anyone was ever thinking, but sometimes it also means I miss out on something wonderful for longer than I could've. I think it's a fair trade off. 

So, hopefully, this has convinced at least one of my readers to give it a go, and enjoy the amazing results!

Now, as promised, here is my dry brine recipe. 

Keep in mind that this was for a 23 lb turkey. The ratio is about 1 tablespoon of salt for every 5-6 pounds of turkey, so adjust that and then adjust the other amounts accordingly. 

Khaos' Turkey Dry Brine
  •  3 Tbsp coarse kosher or sea salt  
  •  2 Tbsp sugar   
  • 1 Tbsp coarse grind peppercorn medley
  •  2 Tbsp poultry seasoning
  •  1-2 Tbsp Montreal (or generic Canadian) steak seasoning
  •  1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 Tbsp each lemon, lime, and clementine peel, finely zested (any citrus may be used)

Put it all in a small bowl or shaker and mix it up well, then get to rubbing that naked bird! (Yup. I had to go there!)

Happy holidays, everyone!

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