Thanksgivings and (bourbon) brining

Ready for a real Thanksgiving controversy? Chefs are strangely divided over whether or not you should brine your turkey. Our advice on this topic is derived from experience: brining makes turkey juicy and delicious. The end. (Also we cook our turkey on the grill, so, brining is really not optional–it might be rather dry, if we didn’t).

So brining is actually kind of a pain. It requires getting a large, raw turkey into a bath large enough to cover it and sit for at least 12 hours. But it appears to work, so, here is what we do.

We will give credit, where due, to the Washington Post for this November 2010 recipe (might be the last time I agreed with the Washington Post). Here is what you need:

  • 16 cups water
  • 4 cups apple juice (best if it is unsweetened and unfiltered)
  • 1 to 1.5 cups bourbon
  • 1 and 1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 and 1/2 cups kosher salt
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 12 whole black peppercorns
  • 1 medium onion (yellow is best), coarsely chopped
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 5 strips lemon peel

This should cover a turkey up to 15 pounds. You need either a brining bag or a clean bucket. if you can swing a bag in a 5 gallon paint bucket, that works the best, but you do need to figure out a way to keep that reasonably cold overnight. Best rule of thumb is 1 hour of brining per pound o’ turkey.

You’ll notice we aren’t doing many photos of this process. That is because it is kind of gross. Just get through it–it’s worth it.

From here it’s pretty simple. Take the turkey out of the bag it came in–give it a quick rinse. Locate the neck and paper or plastic bag of gizzards (trust me–there are in there; try the end of the turkey, where there is an extra skin flap if you cannot find the bag) and get those out.

Throw the turkey into the bag (or bucket), add water and maybe a tad more salt until the bird is as covered as possible, and let sit for the requisite time. We use a brining bag and a roasting pan and we flip the turkey over half-way through. There are probably better ways to do it, but that works fine for us. It looks like this in the fridge:


Told you it isn’t pretty. It’s just worth it.

When you are done, you pull the turkey out, give it a rinse, pat it dry. You need to brine the night before, and when you want to eat determines how late you have to do it.  You will want to allow for at least 30 minutes of turkey out of brine and out of cold before you throw it in the oven or on the grill. One way to spend that time is putting a rub on the turkey. Here is a good one:

  • 2 tablespoons ground sage
  • 2 tablespoons ground rosemary
  • 2 tablespoons dried thyme
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

Rub extra virgin olive oil all over the bird, and carefully rub the oil under the skin and on the meat, being very careful not to tear the skin. Then add this rub both on and under the skin (which you have mixed in a bowl before). Let the turkey sit on a cutting board for a little, getting closer to room temperature, before you start cooking. That is especially important if you are smoking or grilling (getting the smoker or grill back up to temperature is not fun if  you throw a really large, really cold turkey in there).

We’ll discuss actual turkey cooking later, but you are off to a good start if you have gotten this far.

Next up, keys to avoiding arguments with relatives–appetizers! (Cause, blood sugar…)

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