Let’s pretend, if you will, that you invited me over for Thanksgiving supper. This would mean that you have an extra place setting at your dinner table. It would also mean that you condone a guest guzzling gravy directly from its porcelain boat, cranberry sauce fingerprints on your collectibles, and that you’re willing to risk running out of stuffing and at least one to two pies. Purely hypothetical.
But if by chance, and we’re still being hypothetical here, you happened to forget to roast a turkey at said dinner…well, I might not notice. And I wouldn’t even say I’m being polite about that. No disrespect to the bird, but it’s just not quite the showcase showdown I’d like it to be. Sort of like the royal family. It’s more nostalgia, more tradition than commanding presence, that keeps it gracing my Thanksgiving plate(s).
It’s not that it tastes bad. Actually, I like it just fine. It’s just that it’s a little bland and a lot overshadowed by spectacular side dishes like stuffing, glazed yams, and just about every other dish that dots the dining room table. It becomes an afterthought. A bit of a situation where I ask myself earnestly, “How much valuable stomach space am I willing to allot to a dry bird breast?” I should note, though, that there is an unlimited amount of space for crispy browned and buttered skin. We’ve got oodles of room for that.
The turkey, for me anyway, becomes the way that I’m able to legitimize my affection for whole berry cranberry-orange sauce. And it makes it appear slightly less odd when I create a pool of thick, salty taupe gravy on my plate, because the bird could use a swim.
But this year, I tried something new. I gave the bird another go, and this time, I think he might have wooed me. You see, Kikkoman (my go-to Asian sauce brand) sent me a package filled with products to attempt brining my turkey in a salty-sweet Asian-style brine. The box I received had what seemed to be a lifetime supply of soy sauce, a variety of their new natural products and glazes, an apron (maybe they saw the stained clothing in my hamper?), a gazillion gadgets and gizmos, and (be still my heart) a gift card to Whole Foods to buy a turkey so I could give brining a whirl before the big day.
If anyone is slamming their hand in the air in excitement over the idea of a Trial Thanksgiving, it’s yours truly.
So here’s the deal with brining: To oversimplify it, a brine is like a marinade. Generally, it’s water with equal parts salt and sugar dissolved into it. You then put your meat into a large pot or a large resealable bag, cover it completely with the brining solution, and put the whole thing in the fridge for a day or so. The brine (because of its high salt content) infuses flavor and makes the meat more tender and moist because it hydrates the cells of the meat’s muscle tissue before cooking, and it makes it so that these muscle tissue cells hold onto this water while cooking.
Essentially, it makes for a very moist and supple bird.
And…cue the school bell ringing.
Kikkoman sent me their recipe for a savory turkey brine, and I wasted no time whipping it up.
Using a brine really does make a difference in taste and texture when it comes to turkey. The meat is succulent, it’s moist, it’s as juicy as you’d hope for your Thanksgiving centerpiece.
And then there’s that other reason for brining and marinating meat: the flavor. Brines, if you finesse them with a few tasty ingredients, impart a very lovely yet subtle flavor. The soy sauce that I used in my turkey brine, despite what you might ordinarily believe, does not come through as an Asian-inspired flavor but rather, it’s gently salty, a bit of savory meets sweet. There’s a depth, a gentle richness that soy sauce has, and it lends itself beautifully to brining.
The Perfect Brined Turkey
A day before you’re ready to roast, make the brining solution. In a big stock pot, combine water, soy sauce, kosher salt, sugar, dried sage, celery seed, and thyme. Stir all of it until the salt and sugar dissolve.
Thankfully, in my case, Kikkoman also provided me with a Reynolds Brining Bag, which was an enormous help. It holds the meat and all of the liquid without leaking, and once you’re done brining, you just throw it away.
Seal the brining bag with a twist tie (also in the brining bag box) or cover the stock pot, and set the whole thing in the refrigerator overnight, so 24 hours. I flipped the bird over halfway through the 24 hours so that both sides had an even soak in the brine.
About 45 minutes before you’re ready to roast the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator. This brings the meat to room temperature, so that the bird spends less time warming up in the oven, and therefore requiring a little less cooking time overall.
Preheat the oven to 375°. Now, since I don’t have a roasting rack, and because I love the flavor that the turkey juices impart, I fill the bottom of my roasting pan with roughly chopped vegetables- really thick hunks of them. This lifts the bird slightly, so that it’s not sitting directly in its own juices, which would make it soggy and prevent it from browning on all sides.
Remove the bird from the bag, dry it well and sit it, breast side up, on top of the vegetables. You can alternately place your bird breast side down, but for this you should absolutely use a roasting rack, so that the skin still browns and crisps. The idea with roasting it breast side down is that the turkey juices fall downwards while cooking and hydrate the breast meat, which is generally a drier, less tender turkey area anyway. I’ve done this before, and with good results. However, I don’t think it makes the most difference if you’ve already gone through the process of brining and buttering under the skin of the bird- as I’ve done below. Do what you’d like.
Now, here’s how to get even flavor into your meat (since lots of people end up removing the skin before eating, and therefore lose the flavor)- try to gently lift the skin up so that you can get your fingers inside. Be careful not to tear the skin.
In a small bowl, combine softened butter, salt, pepper, finely chopped fresh thyme, sage, and minced garlic. Work the mixture directly onto the surface of the breasts and down over the legs and thighs if you can, using your fingertips. Then replace the skin so that it covers the surface again. This will act as a barrier to ensure moist meat.
Sprinkle the whole bird with salt and then place it in the oven on the lowest rack, basting every 30 minutes. For a 14-16 lb turkey, it should take about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, but please don’t go solely by time, go by temperature. You should also note the instructions on the package of your turkey, they generally tell you how many minutes of cooking for each pound of turkey. The most important thing is this: you want the thickest part of the thigh meat to register at 165°F. Tent the turkey loosely with foil once it begins to turn a deep golden, because you don’t want it to burn before the 2 1/2 hours is up!
Let the turkey rest for a full 20 minutes before carving. This allows the bird to cool and redistribute/reabsorb some of its juices.
The Perfect Brined Turkey
Savory Turkey Brine:
2 gallons cold water
10 ounces Kikkoman soy sauce
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dried sage
2 tablespoons celery seed
1 tablespoon dried thyme
14-16 lb turkey
1/2 cup butter, softened and divided
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper
The night before roasting, combine all of the brining ingredients in a large stock pot. Stir to dissolve.
Remove the giblets and neck from the inner cavity of your turkey, rinse it, and pat it dry. Place the turkey in the stock pot with the brine and cover, or use a large brining bag and seal it. Refrigerate the turkey overnight, or at least 8 hours.
An hour before you are ready to roast your turkey, remove it from the refrigerator to bring it to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 375° F. Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry.
In a large roasting pan, set a roasting rack in the center, or alternately, fill the bottom of the roasting pan with thickly chopped vegetables (onion wedges, carrots, and celery). These vegetables help to raise the turkey off the bottom of the roasting pan and prevent it from sitting in its own juices, which would thereby make it soggy and unable to crisp and brown on the bottom.
Place the turkey on top of the roasting rack or vegetables. In a small bowl, mash together 4 tablespoons of the softened butter, the thyme, sage, garlic, and half a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Use your fingers to loosen the skin covering the breasts and legs of the turkey. Work the herbed butter mixture onto the breasts and over the thighs and legs of the turkey (under the skin) using your fingers. Replace the skin to cover all of the turkey surface again.
Rub the remaining softened butter over all of the turkey’s surface. Sprinkle with salt. Place the bird in the oven on the lowest rack possible, and roast for about 2 1/2-3 hours (for a roughly 14 lb turkey), basting every thirty minutes. An instant read thermometer should register 165°F when piercing the thickest part of the turkey thigh. Remember, the temperature matters more than the time, so adjust cooking time accordingly. Tent the turkey with foil once it begins to turn a deep golden brown, as you don’t want it to burn before it’s finished cooking through.