For this year’s Thanksgiving (2005) I had the challenge of working with a large (about 25 lbs.) turkey when the size and time to roast could be an problem for other T-day items that required an oven that day for the small group (around 15 people) at this year’s meal.
The other challenge was to the notion of brining. With the publication of the revised edition of his culinary classic “On Food and Cooking,” author Harold McGee has loudly denounced the latest trend in turkey: brining. McGee contends that salty water merely dilutes the natural flavor of the meat, which is counter productive. His secret to a moist breast AND fully cooked leg and thigh is a temperature differential. From the article that had just appeared in the New York Times titled: “The Pilgrims Didn’t Brine” McGee explains:
“The trick is to establish an unevenness in the temperature of the two different parts, the breast and the thighs,” he said. The easiest way is to set the turkey on the counter and strap a couple of ice packs on the breast about an hour or so before roasting.
This year, Mr. McGee plans to increase the effect by starting the bird breast side down in a cold pan with cold vegetables and placing a sheet pan on the floor of the oven to slow the heat from the bottom. Then he’ll flip the turkey halfway through cooking.
Well, the Pilgrims PROBABLY didn’t brine (although they did preserve many meats in salt…), but it’s also likely that the Pilgrims didn’t eat turkey at the first Thanksgiving! We have been very happy with the results of brining our T-bird for the last five or six years, so I took this advice with a “grain of salt” but I was still intrigued by the notion that I might not be experiencing the full turkey flavor that McGee insists is being diluted. The other challenge was that brining such a large bird would require a large container not normally used for food (i.e. our plastic recycle bins), and that presented the possibility of introducing faint “off” flavors to the meat no matter how well scrubbed the bin was because plastic absorbs odors over time. The thought of turning our home-raised organic bird into something redolent of newspaper ink was distressing.
Very few choices allow me to follow the lazy route AS WELL AS the high-quality route, but here was one of those rare opportunities! The bird would not be brined! That announcement brought an arched-eyebrow glare from my normally adorable wife, which I weathered. This did not, however, solve the problem of oven space and oven time.
Normally our Thankgiving meal includes the staples (turkey, cranberry relish, mashed potatoes, lots of gravy) as well as the inspired (dungenes crab, garlic-braised collards, salad with pomagranet seeds), and it ALWAYS has about twenty different kinds of pie. (Once this inspired a contest, still legend, but that’s another story.) Some of these pies are prepared off-site, but several require oven time on the day of the meal, and the turkey must allow for this. When the bird is mearly 15 to 20 pounds, the two to three hour roasting time will accomodate “day of” pies. But with the monster we were bringing, we would face two or more pie-free oven hours. And if our Brunswick Thanksgiving suddenly had perhaps only seventeen or eighteen different pie choices it just wouldn’t be the same.
I briefly considered grilling the turkey, but the weather outlook was for much snow and sleet, and that would be miserable, not to mention that cooking rate on the grill is always variable.
Then, as I watched Monday Night Football that week, they replayed the fifteen year old tape of John Madden ripping apart a “TurDuckEn” with his giant hands, which is now about as hallowed a tradition as watching “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” I snapped to attention. That’s it!
Another of the annual T-day challenges (and not just for Brunswick, I bet) is the issue around stuffing the turkey (which increases the cooking time by at least half an hour, thus threatening one or more of those pies…), but then never having enough “real” stuffing to go around the table. Our hostess, Katy, is a BIG fan of “real” stuffing and has never been convinced that it can be the same cooked outside the bird. What if, I thought, I boned out the turkey (like for a “TurDuckEn”) but kept the meat and skin intact, then draped this “meat bag” over a mountain of stuffing?? Off the bone, the meat would cook faster, and could probably be arranged someways like McGee plans (breast on bottom, thighs and legs on top) to create that temperature differential that allows a non-brined bird to keep a moist breast while fully cooking the dark meat…by golly I had it. And by boning out the bird, I could even remove and freeze one of the breasts because this year’s smallish group (15 people) didn’t require all of that meat.
I contacted Katy just to make sure that a “deflated” bird would not ruin her finely tuned event. “Nobody sees the finished bird except you and Bill anyway,” she replied, referring to the expert carver. “I don’t see why not…”
And that’s what I did. The one thing I didn’t count on was just how much faster the meat would cook off the bone — both breast and thigh were at 145 °F after about an hour and a half! For once I had to take the turkey out of the oven way early (we could have made an additional pie!), then put it back in during the crab course to get up to the desired 155 °F “just done” temp by carving time. But for the first time in as long as I can remember, all the way back to the Harrision St. Thanksgiving, we had LEFTOVERS of “real” stuffing.
As for the meat — the breast WAS juicy, and the dark meat WAS cooked. As far as flavor goes, it was very good…but not so strong that I thought, “what have I been missing all of these years???” I did notice that the gravy was less salty than in years past because the drippings didn’t also include brine. The skin, although crispy and sinfully greasy as always, also lacked that salty punch it has when it’s brined. Will we go back to brining — it’s still up in the air. But I think I proved that it may NOT be necessary, and it will give us more to talk and think about for 2007.