There’s nothing worse than roasting a turkey or chicken for hours only to find that the end result is a dry, flavorless bird unfit for human consumption. Getting a large bird thoroughly cooked while keeping the meat juicy and succulent is a challenge most of us are familiar with, especially during the holidays where we are expected to serve up a richly flavored, golden-brown turkey for a room full of hungry guests (all sitting in judgment of your hard work). Do not fear: there is a technique that can help fortify your turkey against drying out, while at the same time adding flavor to the bird: brining. Soaking your meat in a brine is simple, inexpensive, and takes only a little preparation, and it’s not only good for your Thanksgiving turkey, but also for chicken (whole or pieces), pork (whole loin or chops), and even fish.
A brine, in its most basic form, is a simple solution of salt in water. Through a process known as osmosis, meat soaked in the brine will retain and gain more water. In addition, the meat takes up some of the salt from the brine, resulting in meat that is seasoned all the way to the bone; this is preferable to a bird that is salty on the surface and bland underneath. This extra water makes for a juicier bird and helps protect your meat from drying out in the oven – or in the case of the chicken wings to the left, brining helps keep them moist on the high heat of a grill. There are any number of seasoning you can add to your brine as well, because anything you add to your solution is going to soak into your meat. For poultry, we like using thyme, sage, and lemons in our brine, as well as adding some sugar to help balance the salt (and help for a crisp, delicious skin). We’ve used fruit juices in pork brines as well, and the sweet/tart flavor of the juice adds a really good taste to the meat. So now that you’re convinced, let’s make some brine!
- 1 Gallon Water
- 1 Cup Salt – Some people prefer kosher salt, but table salt works just fine. If you use table salt, get the non-iodized kind; iodized salt can give a chemical flavor to the meat.
- 1/2 Cup Sugar – regular white sugar is what I use, but you can use brown sugar (especially with pork).
Mix everything up in a large pot and bring to a boil, stirring so that the salt and sugar go into solution. Let the brine cool to room temperature, then chill in the fridge. You want your brine to be cold when you use it, but putting a pot of just-boiled water in your fridge directly can bring up the temperature of your icebox up too much (not good for everything else you’ve got in there). Because the brine needs to be chilled to use, it’s usually a good idea to make it up a day or so in advance.
Now that we’ve done our basic brine, it’s time to get creative. You can add any number of things to the solution – you are pretty much only limited by what flavors you like. Fresh tarragon, thyme, rosemary, sage, or dill are all herbs that add a lot of flavor, and I generally don’t make brine without adding a couple of lemons – just cut them in half, squeeze into the brine, then drop them in. Aromatic vegetables are also fun to use in brine; carrots, onions, shallots, and/or celery are just as good in brine as they are in making stock. For pork, we’ve used a can of frozen apple juice concentrate to give a subtle sweet taste to the meat – citrus juices other than lemon can also be used.
The only other thing you need to know now is how long to soak the meat in the brine. My general rule is to brine something at roughly 1-1.5 hours per pound. Too long in the brine can leave you with meat that is too salty; the best thing is to just brine the heck out of a lot of stuff to get a feel of how you want your food to taste using the brine. Smaller items like chicken wings and pork chops don’t need but an hour or two in the brine while a large Thanksgiving turkey will benefit from an overnight soak. Take your meat out of the brine a few hours before you’re ready to cook it and let it rest. This allows the salt distribution in the meat to even out, and for poultry, it lets the skin dry out some – this results in a crisper, more flavorful skin. Cook just as you normally would, and be comforted in the added moisture and flavor your bird has.
Basic Brined Chicken for Roasting (I prefer the flavor of chicken to turkey)
- 1 batch basic brine with added lemon, bay leaves, sage, and thyme
- 1 chicken for roasting 3-6 lbs
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1/2 cup chopped shallots, 4 cloves roughly chopped garlic, 1/4 cup chopped celery, 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, sprigs of thyme and sage
- Twine for trussing
Submerge your chicken into the brine, using a heavy plate to weigh it down – it’s very important that no part of the bird be above the water. Soak chicken in brine for 6-12 hours. Remove chicken from brine and rinse, allow to rest uncovered in the fridge for 2-4 hours. Rub the skin of the bird and the cavity with half the butter. Stuff the cavity with the shallots, garlic, celery, pepper, thyme and sage. Truss the bird (click that link for an excellent video demonstration). Trussing makes sure all the things in the cavity don’t fall out, and it insures even cooking – plus it just looks nice, so don’t skip this step.
Pre-heat oven to 425. Mix remaining butter with canola oil. Place chicken, breast side up, in roasting pan, roast for 15 minutes to start the skin browning. Turn chicken on its left side, baste with the butter/oil mixture, roast for 10 minutes. Turn chicken on its right side, baste with the butter/oil mixture, roast for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350, leave chicken on its side, basting with the butter/oil mixture every 8-10 minutes – once this mixture runs out, the chicken should have rendered enough fat of its own to continue basting. Roast for another 20 minutes, then turn the chicken to its other side; roast for another 20 minutes, continue basting. Turn chicken back breast side up for the last 20 minutes of cooking to brown. This seems like a lot of flipping and flopping – and it is – but what we’re going for here is an attempt to mimic the way a chicken would roast on a spit – this gets our skin good and crispy and makes the meat delicious on all sides of the bird. When internal temperature is 165 and the juices run clear, the chicken is done – let it rest for 20 minutes before serving. Enjoy!