united states of brining

Here’s another I made earlier - December 2014, Living Within:

Thanksgiving is all over the US as this goes to print, and, honestly, it looks exhausting! We may worry at a Christmas table with an unfeasibly large bird as centrepiece but we don’t have to mix, match, and weigh up the relative merits of culinary traditions and produce in a nation as diverse in climate and historical settlement as exists Stateside. I’m not knocking it, it’s a wonderful mix, and being different in America very much a part of what it is to be united and American.

The Thanksgiving table looks a little like a dress rehearsal for Christmas, one that contains oddities, marvels and seductions. The complexities and sheer volume of dishes: corn breads and puddings; whipped white and candied sweet potatoes; chutneys; sauces; dressings; stuffings; salads, and sweet and savoury mixes, may leave our feast a little in the shade, relatively speaking, but then we are not “behooved” (as one might say in the States) to demonstrate “plenty” either.

What I believe we can learn best from the Thanksgiving table, is how to power up the flavour. Nothing at the US feast is planning to be bland, even if sometimes it sounds like a challenge (sweet pecan pie with turkey gravy anyone?), and the bird is where I am going to follow their lead for Christmas. Poultry in general lacks the stuff that carries flavour; it lacks fat, and it is the fat in a joint of meat that, generally speaking, makes it taste good. The USians have kept a trick from the olden days, the salting of meat, to help change the way that the proteins behave and that enables not only the flavour from the salt to penetrate the meat but also locks in moisture as the meat cooks. Thanksgiving turkeys are often brined, and it makes all the difference to the cooking of the bird and the taste and texture of it afterward.

Brining is a science, there are reasons behind why it works, but I haven’t got the space to explain them all here so you are going to have to take my word for it that it does. It is not uncommon to submerge the bird in a brine containing salt, sugar, spice, herbs, aromatics of whatever kind take your fancy, and to leave it there for a day or two. All you will need is a capacious fridge, a container large enough to hold the bird and its brine, and the ability to strong-arm said (filled) container as and when you need to, without slopping brine all over yourself and your kitchen. Easier by far is the more user friendly “dry” brine (a misnomer of course, but it serves our purpose) and this couldn’t be simpler. Two or three teaspoons or tablespoons of salt, depending on whether we are talking chicken or turkey (I have used chicken in the pictures), and use sea salt for preference. You can mix it with ground pepper and, for a high day or holiday, some grated citrus peel too, but the fundamental thing is to rub salt all over the outside of the bird and wherever you can get it inside as well (in the cavity, on any exposed bits of flesh around the edges). Make sure your bird is untrussed.

Wrap the bird in cling film or waxed paper or place in a plastic bag, and leave it to “brine” in the fridge for as long as you’ve got - a day or two (max) for a chicken, a day or three (max) for a turkey, although an hour or two, if that is all you have, will still make a difference. About an hour before you are ready to put the bird in the oven, take it out of the fridge, unwrap it, pat the skin dry with some kitchen paper, put it in a roasting tin, and when it is at more or less at room temperature, oil up the bird, put a little moisture in the bottom of the tin (a glass of white wine, a ladelful or more of stock) and cook as normal, in a moderately hot oven (180ºC). It is better not to stuff the bird with anything other than a few aromatics (herbs, onions, garlic, a lemon or a clementine) for more than one reason, too much salt in the resulting stuffing only one of them. “Stuffing” can be cooked in a dish alongside.

The bird needs to reach an internal temperature of no more than 75ºC (about an hour for a 1.5kg chicken, nearer 3 hours for a 7kg turkey will get you there). With practice, you can normally tell from the look of the bird whether it is cooked, but the traditional un-thermometered method is to pierce the thickest part of the bird’s flesh (between thigh and breast) and check that the juices are clear (not pink or bloody) and make sure that it is hot. Once you are sure that it is, leave to rest in a warm place, for at least 20 minutes, and then carve and serve when you are ready with whatever trimmings and fixings you choose.

Happy Holidays, whatever they are!

Erica x

Most of you … worrying over the bird are … a few cupfuls of salt away from dazzling your family with the finest turkey they have ever eaten
— John Currence