Why Brine?

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Yes, brining—soaking turkey or other meat in a saltwater solution—can be somewhat cumbersome. You have to plan ahead (ideally, turkeys are brined overnight) and figure out how the heck to keep a submerged turkey cool. But, especially for the aspired show-stopper of The Big Meal, it’s well worth it.

The big benefit to brining is succulent, well-seasoned meat that’s much more forgiving in the oven, especially for lean, white meat that we all know can turn to shoe leather in the time it takes to empty the dishwasher.

How does brining work?

Brining works because nature loves balance. When turkey (or chicken, or meat) is submerged in saltwater brine, the water is drawn into the cells (whose liquid is more strongly concentrated) in order to even things out. The salt is carried along on a similar principle, which causes the protein in the cells to denature, or unravel. When they do, they become more readily available to interact with other cells and form a mesh-like barrier that keeps juices in while the meat is cooking. It’s like the gregarious person who comes into a quiet, cliquey party and gets everyone to mingle. So the water plumps the cells and the salt alters the makeup of the tissue to keep the meat moist (it also bumps up the umami).

How to brine

Dissolve 1 cup of Kosher salt (and up to ½ cup of sugar if you like) into 2-3 quarts of warm liquid along with any additional aromatics. Then cool to just below room temperature. Completely submerge your turkey or meat, refrigerate and brine overnight (or longer, for super-large birds). For smaller cuts, you can get away with a few hours; don’t brine them for longer than 10 hours, though, or the protein cells will break down too much and become mushy. I find a large stockpot works great for turkey breasts and chickens. For whole turkeys, I like to use a giant Ziploc bag in a cooler loaded with frozen gelpacks.

When Not to Brine

When I first “discovered” brining, I soaked everything … chicken, pork chops, turkey. But as I started sourcing my meat more carefully, I discovered that there were things that I didn’t necessarily need to or even want to brine.

My roast chicken, for instance. I now buy locally-raised, organic, air-dried chickens which are succulent and flavorful with a crisp skin without the extra step of brining. I’ve also had heritage turkeys where I wanted their unique flavor to shine through, rather than be overshadowed by a brine.

You’ll also need to be careful about using drippings from a brined turkey in a pan sauce. Add the drippings to the stock a little at a time to avoid making the sauce too salty.

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Cider-Brined, Sage-Rubbed Turkey Breast with Mulled Cider Glaze

If you’re cooking for a couple (and want lots of leftovers) or a small crowd on Thanksgiving–or any time of the year, really–this turkey breast is a serious winner. The brine makes the meat flavorful and moist, the rub gives an extra hit of savory flavor, and the glaze brings the sweet notes of the brine up to the fore.

cider-brined-turkey-breast

Brine:
2 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
4 cups cold apple cider
Half of a bone-in turkey breast (3 to 3-1/2 pounds)

Rub:
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced sage
freshly ground black pepper

Glaze:
1 cup cider
1 teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon cloves
2 star anise

To make the brine, heat water, salt, sugar and spices in a large stock pot over medium heat just until  salt and sugar dissolve. Pour in cold cider. Submerge turkey, cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Combine all the rub ingredients. Place a piece of parchment paper in the bottom of a roasting pan. Remove turkey from brine (discard brine) and place in pan. Pat thoroughly dry with a paper towel.

Wedge your fingertips just under the skin to carefully separate skin from meat. Use your fingers to smear the rub under the skin, then massage it (I find it easier to press on the skin to move the rub underneath, so the butter doesn’t stick to my fingers) to evenly coat the meat. Roast turkey 30 minutes.

While turkey is roasting, prepare the glaze. Bring  cider and spices to a boil in a small saucepan. Boil for 5-7 minutes or until the consistency of a light syrup.

When turkey has cooked 30 minutes, brush all over with glaze. Roast another 15-20 minutes (an instant-read thermometer should read 165F), glazing every 5 minutes.

Remove from oven and let rest for 15 minutes before carving.

Serves 8-12

* Carving Note: It’s easiest to cut the breast into nice, neat slices after you’ve sliced it off the bone. Turn the breast upside down to study the bone. Then carefully cut along it to release the meat. Turn the breast right side up again and cut against the grain into thick slices.

  • Anony

    Love your explanation of brining! Can’t wait to use the recipe!!

    • liahuber

      It’s one of my favorite turkey recipes ever! Enjoy!