Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Brining meat brings incredibly succulent results – and surprisingly little saltiness

Roasted to perfection – if I do say so myself!
Last year, I shared my recipe for roast chicken. Since then, however, I’ve discovered the joys of brining. I’d known about this technique for years, but like many, I thought the results would mean a slightly salty finished product. My wife Vicki, in particular, doesn’t like things salty, so that was another reason to discount it.

Shortly after writing that post, I decided that, since my salt-cured meats weren’t coming out all that salty, I should give brining a closer look. I did a lot of reading up both in cookbooks I respect and also online.

What I found is, if done correctly (ie: the amount of time per pound you leave the meat in the brine), you can get not only a more succulent end result, but you can get it salted precisely the way you like it. Brining works especially well poultry, although we now brine pork roasts and pork chops, too. So far, I’ve not brought myself to brining beef (except for making corned beef). I suppose it would work there, too. I’ll keep you posted on that…

Brining is simplicity itself, but it does take a bit of planning ahead. You cannot put meat in hot brine because that’s unsafe, so your brine must be made ahead and chilled. No big deal, really, but you need to know ahead of time when you’re planning on preparing a dish containing brined meat.

The basic thing you need is salt and some sugar (to mitigate the harshness of the salt). Past that, you can add whatever herbs, spices or flavorings you think would add to the taste of the particular meat you’re using, or simply use whatever you have on hand. It’s that flexible.

For the past two Christmases, we’ve brined our holiday turkey. We bought a fresh, pastured, organic bird that didn’t come with bionic-looking breast meat (you know the kind I mean). We have this big brining bag which I don’t completely trust, so I make double the brine and use a very large, corn-cooking pot we bought my mother-in-law to hold it. The turkey stays in the brine for one-half hour per pound. Two critical things: the brine must be chilled when the bird goes into it with everything kept chilled throughout, and the bird must be completely submerged at all times (as should any meat being brined).

After brining, we put it into the fridge, uncovered, for about 12 hours so the skin dries out a bit – meaning it will crisp up better by the time the bird is done. If you’re cooking chicken, do the same thing, although I have lately been timing chicken at one hour per pound. I guess smaller takes longer.

For cooking, I do my usual method, that is cooking it covered, so it steams as well as roasts. The results have been amazing every time. Plus, your bird cooks a bit faster (so watch that internal temperature).

Seasoned and ready for the oven.
One other trick I use is to put some bourbon, brandy or scotch in the bottom of the roasting pan. For a chicken, I use about a half-cup, for a turkey, a cup or more. You have to be a bit careful that your oven doesn’t explode from those alcohol fumes. (Don’t laugh. It happened to a friend of mine. There was no major damage other than two singed eyebrows and one frightened cook.) To avoid this, don’t open the oven for at least an hour and a half for a turkey or until you suspect your meat is cooked for a chicken. If you’re cooking your bird enclosed (the only way the alcohol seems to have its effect), you won’t be basting anyway. My theory is the alcohol fumes drive the flavor into the meat. Regardless, you’ll have amazing gravy. Just don’t tell my mother-in-law I’m using her Jack Daniels when I make the Christmas turkey. Promise?

As for the final temperature, government tells us to cook until 180°. Okay. But be aware if you let your bird rest for 15-30 minutes (and you really should), the temperature going to rise at least an additional 5° and possibly more. That means your 180° turkey might be closer to 190° by the time you carve it – and boy, will it be dry then.

So here’s my go-to brine for chicken or turkey. Feel free to mess around with the flavoring ingredients. There’s no right or wrong here!

Poultry brine for roasting a chicken or turkey
Makes 1 gallon (that’s plenty for a chicken. You may want to double it for a turkey.)

1 gallon water (or try half water, half chicken stock (homemade with no added salt or low-sodium if you must buy)
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 head of garlic, sliced in half horizontally
2 lemons
12 stalks of parsley
16 sage leaves
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tsp ground black pepper


  1. Throw everything into a big pot, except for the lemon. Cut it in half and squeeze the two halves into the brine, then throw the peel in, too. Heat everything until it’s not quite boiling and the salt and sugar are completely dissolved. (The heating allows the release of more flavor from your seasonings.)
  2. Cool the brine, then refrigerate it until it’s chilled. Never put meat in warm brine. If you have some cold winter weather going for you, use that big natural fridge outside.
  3. Truss your chicken or turkey (always truss meat that’s going to be roasted) and completely submerge it in the brine, making sure the brine goes into the cavity. If you’re using a plastic bag, this is easy. If you’re using a pot, you’ll probably need to weight the bird with something (I use a dinner plate or two or even three.) If your turkey is enormous, you’re on your own. I guess you could use a cooler or something.
  4. For a chicken, brine for one hour per pound. For a turkey, brine for one-half hour per pound.
  5. When it’s done brining, take it out, pat it thoroughly dry inside and out. You can cook it now, or let it dry for several hours in the fridge.
  6. Roast as you normally would, but be prepared for your bird to cook faster than usual. For a chicken, this will probably be about 15 minutes less. For a turkey probably about a half-hour, possibly more. Always check a bird’s doneness by using a thermometer. It’s really the only reliable method. I usually check the thigh and the thickest part of the breast. Make sure the probe isn’t near bone or the reading won’t be accurate.

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