Thanksgiving was always at our house. Every year, friends, family, neighbors we barely knew wound their way through the fog to our home in the Berkeley hills, bearing pecan and pumpkin pies, sweet potato casseroles bobbing with marshmallows, tureens of green beans, and bowls of guacamole (this last one always arrived with a particularly time-challenged guest after dessert, but was polished off nonetheless).
My father, a vegetarian since his twenties, was for some inscrutable reason in charge of the turkey. A few hours before guests arrived, he’d pull the bird out of its bag of brine (a major Snowden-level leak one November left our fridge permanently frosted in turkey salt) and haul it onto the barbecue. He’d bring out bottles of liquor that had accumulated at the back of our cabinet over the year, and pour them over the bird in their entirety, to dubious effect. There was a lot of head-scratching and bird poking, and eventually he’d decide the turkey was probably done. Someone would take the electric turkey saw to it, and a few minutes later we’d be heaping our plates with steaming slices of miraculously succulent meat.
This year, of course, will be different. Like so many Americans, I will be far away from family and cut off from friends. There will be no procession of guests, no heated debates over gravy and stuffing. My fiancée and I will be eating our holiday meal in our Brooklyn studio apartment, texting or Zooming loved ones, talking hopefully of next year. And without the throngs of Thanksgivings past, a whole turkey would be a waste. Instead, we’ll roast a couple legs and a few sweet potatoes, make a little cranberry sauce, and probably skip the gravy.
But even in these strange circumstances, there is comfort in tradition, and particularly in food. And for everyone making turkey this year, whether a whole bird or a single breast, what better time to improve on memory, and make turkey that is actually, genuinely delicious? To accomplish this small, hopeful act, we need to talk about brine.
Brining involves bathing ingredients in salted liquid. On a microscopic scale, muscle fibers in the meat absorb water through some combination of capillary action and diffusion. But as J. Kenji López-Alt demonstrates in his investigation of the science of Thanksgiving turkey, water isn’t enough. As meat cooks, the proteins denature and contract, squeezing water out of the muscle.
No matter how waterlogged the turkey is when it goes into the oven, it’ll emerge dry as can be—unless it’s been properly salted. Why? Because salt dissolves proteins in the meat to form a gel. The salt ions cause the fibrils within the muscles to repel one another, expanding into an open lattice. This new structure holds water much better, and doesn’t contract in the same way when it is heated. The result is moist, tender, flavorful meat.
Now before you get too excited about brining, I have a major plot twist to throw at you. It turns out that brining, for all its advantages, is a half-measure, a false god, a golden calf. The path to true turkey greatness is the way of the dry brine.
Instead of immersing turkey in a bath of salted water, the dry-brine disciple smothers their bird in salt alone. This achieves the same effect as brining, but without the added water. When the bird roasts (or grills, or smokes), it still retains liquid, but the liquid it retains is more richly flavored. The texture is slightly firmer. The skin is crisper. In fact, when López-Alt compared the two methods, he found that though meat absorbed a tremendous amount of water when brined, it ended up just about equally moist (by weight) as a dry-brined bird.
If a combination of great flavor and perfect texture are the goal, you may be wondering why brining in a flavorful liquid mixture isn’t the way to go. Unfortunately, most flavor compounds don’t do very well at penetrating the meat, so even a bird bathed in chicken broth ends up more watery than its dry-brined cousin. Besides, with the peace of mind you’ll get from knowing there’s no brine leaking from its bag all over your fridge, the choice is clear: Toss the bag and dry-brine your bird.
Two days before Turkey Day, pat the bird dry. (If it’s frozen, give it an extra couple days to thaw in the fridge first.) Remove the giblets, neck, and any other oddments from the cavity, and set up a clean work station to salt your bird.
Salt the bird on all sides and inside the cavity. Remember, you’re salting the entire bird, not just the surface, so season liberally. To allow air to circulate around the bird, which will lead to crisper skin, place the turkey on a wire rack set in a sheet tray, and place uncovered in the refrigerator. Cover loosely with plastic wrap if salting more than two days in advance.
1 to 2 hours before you plan to roast the turkey, take it out of the fridge to bring it up to room temperature.
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