Up until I got involved in raising heritage breed free-range turkeys, I associated Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner with dry, tasteless poultry meat. Back in 2018 I began working at Hidden Villa educational farm in California. There, I learned to raise heritage bronze turkey flocks on pasture. Given the 5 months of work I put in, feeding, watering, and moving them to fresh pasture twice daily, I had to save one for my own family to see what the fuss was about. That was the first Thanksgiving I actually enjoyed eating turkey. The meat had more flavour and was far juicier than any I’d tasted.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving (always a Thursday!) we spent all day processing the Turkeys. Given the higher cost of humanely raised, pastured turkeys, I did some research to make sure I cooked it to maximum deliciousness. I chose to ‘wet brine’ it, but some people prefer a ‘dry brine’.
The point of a brine is to introduce salt and other aromatics (e.g., herbs, onions, garlic, lemon…) throughout the meat, rather than just on the surface (like sprinkling some pepper on top of the bird before roasting). Aside from seasoning the meat, salt also holds onto the meat juices during cooking. This means that you can cook the bird longer without drying out the breasts as much.
Salt diffuses from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. So, in the case of a wet brine, immersing meat in a salt solution will pull salt into it, and since salt loves water, some liquid will move into the meat as well. With a dry brine, you rub salt over the surfaces of the bird. This will draw some water out of the meat and skin, but some of this will be reabsorbed and will salt the meat. In this case you are not introducing extra water to the meat (as in the wet brine), which some people prefer.
To achieve the best meat texture, the turkey should rest for 24 hours after processing–in this case I rested it in the brine. I prepared an aromatic salt brine (basically a stock) to soak the turkey for around 24 hours. Wednesday I drained it and let it rest in the fridge to dry the skin to help it brown in the oven. Resting after brining also allows the salt to distribute evenly throughout the meat.
Finally, on Thanksgiving Thursday I trussed the legs together and popped the turkey in the oven. I used an oven probe thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh to keep an eye on progress. Once the thigh had reached 71 C, I moved the turkey to the counter and lightly covered it with foil. About 15 minutes before serving, I put it back in the oven on maximum heat with convection to crisp up the skin before carving.
You may need to double this recipe to submerge the whole turkey, depending on the size of your container. Bring the following to boil in a pot:
- ~4 litres of water
- 225 g of salt
- bunch of tarragon
- bunch of parsley
- 2 bay leaves
- whole head of garlic, cut in half
- 1 onion, sliced
- 3 Tbsp of lightly crushed black pepper
- 2 lemons, halved (squeeze into the brine)
Cool the brine to room temperature. Use a non-reactive pot or container just bigger than the size of the bird, pour in the brine and refrigerate. Once the brine is chilled, submerge the turkey. Weigh down with a plate. Refrigerate for 18-24 hours for a small turkey and 24-36 hours for a larger turkey.