Our Experiment with Bird Brine

Fearing foul fowl, we turn to an old method with great results.

Brined, spatchcocked, buttered and ready to roast.

Brined, spatchcocked, buttered and ready to roast.

Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching and with it, the daunting task of roasting an incredibly large bird that will be the centerpiece of your feast. It’s interesting that turkey should be the choice meat for this all-American celebration; turkey is often denounced as a dry, tasteless, and boring food, and yet we return to it every year, at least once. Well, it turns out that even the best organic-pasture-raised turkey can be made dry, tasteless, and boring if cooked badly. We are setting out to discover if we can make turkey as juicy, savory, and memorable as other holiday centerpiece meats such as ham.

We are big fans of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. We have found that it perfectly describes the best methods for making many of our favorite dishes better, and of course introduces new ones too. So we turned to the November/December 2015 edition of Cook’s Illustrated for tips about turkey preparation. They recommended brining or salting as the best method for making juicy, tasty turkey. Brine is salt dissolved in water, and occasionally includes seasonings. Brining seasons the meat through and through, while also helping it retain its juices during cooking. For the best brine, we turned to another favorite, Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. It gave us a perfect ratio for brine, one that would result in a flavorful but not over-salted bird: five percent salt, or 20 parts water to 1 part salt. [1] The brine is made by combining the ingredients over high heat, dissolving, allowing it to cool to room temperature, and then refrigerating to chill. [2] We prepared our brine; we were ready for the meat.

Not wanting to get sick of turkey before Thanksgiving even arrived, we chose chicken for our test meat. Chicken can similarly be dry and boring, so making a delicious, juicy chicken would give a good idea of how the method would work on a turkey. After the brine was chilled, we submerged the chicken in it and returned it to the refrigerator for 18 hours. We then took it out of the brine and set it on a metal rack in the fridge to dry while we prepared veggies and seasoning to go with the little bird. This is an important step because not allowing the chicken to dry could have resulted in a soggy skin; we wanted a nice crispy skin.

For cooking method, we turned to yet another favorite, Nom Nom Paleo’s Easiest Roast Chicken Ever. We first spatchcocked the chicken to speed up the cooking process. Spatchcocking is a little more complicated than it sounds, so we recommend watching a video if you’re not already familiar with the process. In short: It consists of cutting out the chicken’s backbone so that it lays flat on the roasting pan and cooks faster and more evenly. We then mixed softened butter with an Italian herb blend (no extra salt is needed because of the brining process) and spread most of it under the skin of the chicken and smudged the rest on top. We laid the chicken skin-side-up on top of some veggies (we used onion, potatoes, and carrots) on a roasting pan. We roasted it at 425°F for about 35 minutes, until the breast registered ~150°F and the thigh meat registered ~170°F. We then let it rest for 15 minutes before carving it up and serving with the roasted veggies underneath it. [3]

Crispy skin, juicy meat (yes, even the white meat).

Crispy skin, juicy meat (yes, even the white meat).

The result was the most well-seasoned, juiciest chicken we’ve ever eaten! The breast meat was not dry in the least, and the dark meat was melt-in-your-mouth quality. It was pleasantly salted throughout, not just on the skin. The skin was fairly crispy, though perhaps more time drying or turning the oven up at the end for a couple minutes would have made it even more so. And, a bonus: It reheated well as leftovers for lunch the next day! The veggies absorbed the chicken's drippings and some of the butter which melted off resulting in nice flavoring too. Though, if you choose to roast carrots we'd recommend cooking them a little before roasting, as they were not as tender as we would have liked.

So the key to a juicy, tender, flavorful chicken: brining! We’ll see if the same can be said for a turkey…


Footnotes:
  1. This is measured by weight, not volume. 

  2. Pg. 154, Ratio, Michael Ruhlman. Available on Amazon. 

  3. These temperatures are below the USDA recommended amount, which we were comfortable with but you may not be.

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