Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dry Brined Turkey

It's apparently all Thanksgiving all the time over at the NYT, with today's Dining Section filled with wine choices, side dishes, and... of course... a turkey recipe. What's interesting about this year's recipe is that it utilizes "dry brining" to give you your extra margin of error when cooking the turkey. What's been the hot thing for many years has been regular brining... that is, submerging the bird in salt water for hours to days... but there's been some push back regarding the side effects of brining. Harold McGee, probably the most famous food science guy in the world, lays it out this way:
So what’s not to like about a brined turkey?

To begin with, the unrelenting saltiness, which it shares with its commercial cousins, the so-called “moisture-enhanced meats.” These ready-to-cook supermarket roasts can be up to 10 percent brine, with eight times the sodium content of the original meat. And saltiness doesn’t necessarily enhance turkey flavor. When I made two turkeys and compared brined and unbrined breasts side by side, the unbrined meat tasted meatier, more intensely turkey-like. That’s not surprising, because the added juiciness of brined meat comes from tap water, not the meat itself.

Worst of all, you can’t use a brined turkey to prepare one of the highlights of the Thanksgiving meal: gravy. Roast a plain turkey and you end up with a panful of browned turkey juices, which you can defat and deglaze and aromatize into a delicious pan sauce. But juice up the turkey with tap water and salt, and its drippings become too salty to use.

A few years ago, Russ Parsons compared dry brined/salted birds to your normally brined ones and found that while dry brining seasoned the meat and kept it moist you didn't get the spongy texture you risk with normal brining. This, of course, is not a new cooking innovation, but something people did for years, but for whatever reason had fallen out of favor somewhat... though the Zuni Cafe made a name for themselves with their dry brined chicken, so it's not like it's a lost art or anything.

Interestingly, Cook's Illustrated... one of the biggest proponents of brining over the years... has a dry-brined turkey recipe($$$) in their latest issue, but they take it to 11 by having you "bard" the breast with salt pork... another classic technique that had fallen to the wayside a bit.

Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be making a turkey this year, but I would lean towards the Cook's Illustrated one since I'm sort of fascinated by barding at the moment... but it's obviously a fair bit more complicated than the New York Times article. It's sort of interesting to see how trends come and go as food writers try to think up something novel for Thanksgiving each year. If you're curious, I blogged my efforts at a butterflied high roast turkey (normally brined) last year.