Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brine: The Weird Idea That Works!

Okay, I am going to be honest here.  I have no new recipe for you.  That's because I strongly believe that you don't mess with perfection. And Alton Brown's Good Eats Roast Turkey recipe is perfection.

I love Alton Brown.  I learned to cut onions from him, and that made me enjoy cooking.

Plus, he's funny.

Good Eats is a cooking show that everyone in the family can enjoy.  I enjoy it for all the great cooking.  Jeff and Jacob enjoy it because he explains just why (with lots of props) a recipe or technique works the way that it works. Kind of like food science.  The little kids even enjoy it because there is an abundance of silliness.

So when I first saw Alton raving about brining a turkey (and I had never even heard of brining meat before he started talking about it), I thought....yeah....whatever.  But it looks fun, so I'll give it a try.

Let me tell you, it is almost magical.  It was the best turkey I had ever had.  The white meat is so moist, not dry and chewy and desperately in need of extra gravy.  And flavorful!  Who knew turkey breast could taste so good?

So I stuck with Good Eats Roast Turkey for several years.  Then, a couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted more leftovers.  There is an abundance of Thanksgiving leftovers recipes on the net, a way to help you out so that you can use up all that stuff that's taking up room in your fridge.  I had found that I just didn't have enough leftovers to try all the recipes that I wanted to try!  I guess the pendulum had swung the other way.  So I thought, since turkey is cheap before Thanksgiving, I would buy two, and serve one for the big dinner, and just use the other one for additional "leftovers".  It didn't seem that brining was necessary for the second one.  It would be fine to throw into casseroles and for sandwiches, with all those additional ingredients.  It's not like anyone would be just eating a slice of it, right?

Well, let me tell you....if I wasn't a believer in brining already, I would have become one that day.  After enjoying the brined turkey for dinner, I went about carving up the second (unbrined) turkey to put away.  It was obvious, even before tasting it, that this turkey was drier.  And when I took a bite, I couldn't believe the difference.  It was endlessly chewy, dry, and hard to get down.  There was virtually no flavor in the meat at all, especially the breast.  In reality, this was no different than any turkey I had ever eaten before I brined my first bird.  But I had become spoiled by the wonder that is brined poultry, and I now know that unbrined turkey just isn't even worth eating.  I am not kidding.  Other than the little bit that I threw into some soup, nobody touched the white meat from that turkey.  The dark meat was passable for casseroles, but I just didn't look forward to the workout that my jaw would get from the white meat.

So, I never really knew what brining really does until the last year or so.  Well, okay....I still don't know how brining works.  But I do know that it has something to do with osmosis and the law of diffusion.  There is a lot of information that can be found easily through the magic of Google.  For the unscientific among us (since I really don't know what osmosis and the law of diffusion are), here is a pretty simplistic explanation that I found here:

First, the salt in the brine actually starts to break down tough muscle fibers. When cooked, these muscle fibers don't tighten as much as they normally would. This creates a more tender mouthfeel and reduces the chewiness in a tough cut of meat.
(This is also why some brined meats can be a little mushy, especially if they were fattier cuts or have been brined for too long.)
Secondly, the salt interacts with the proteins in the meat to draw in and retain water within the cells. When you cook the meat, a certain amount of moisture still evaporates, but enough remains to give your meat a the 'juicy' texture when eaten.
This is one time when we find our old nemesis "water retention" actually playing a beneficial role!
Well, enough for the science lesson.
While salt is what you might consider to be the "active ingredient" in brine, there are often other ingredients, as well.  The most common is some sort of sugar.  Sugar can add flavor to the meat, though it doesn't make it taste sweet, per se.  However, the main purpose of the sugar is to promote browning.  Caramelization.  This can be important, because one other thing that helps browning is a dry surface.  Obviously, a turkey that has been soaking overnight is not going to be as dry as one that has just come out of the bag.  That's a good thing, but you do want your turkey to be golden brown, not pastey white. So I pretty much always use a little sugar in brine.  Letting your turkey drain for about 5 minutes on a rack set over a sheet pan, and then giving it a good little rubdown with paper towels before applying the canola oil helps browning, too.  Don't skip that.
You will also notice some other ingredients in the Good Eats Roast Turkey recipe.  The big one is vegetable broth.  This ingredient serves two purposes.  For one thing, it has lots of salt in it.  This is the only time that I use broth that is not marked "lower sodium".  It is actually intended to add to the salinity of the broth.  But it also has the vegetal flavor that is so good with turkey.  Onions, celery, carrots....all are in that broth and as the brine does its osmosis thing, it carries that flavor into the meat.  It's like stuffing the bird with those aromatic ingredients, but more effective.  The rest of the ingredients, like the allspice and the candied ginger....well, I don't know.  But again, I don't mess with perfection.
So hopefully, I have convinced you to try brining your Thanksgiving turkey.  I'll probably rave about brining pork chops (our dinner last night) and chicken breasts, not to mention brinerades, eventually.  But for now, here is my recommendation for your turkey this year.  

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