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In the Kitchen: How to brine a Thanksgiving turkey

I wrote my first turkey brining column almost two decades ago. Time sure flies. 

I know when you are in charge of cooking Thanksgiving Day dinner, brining the bird might seem like an unnecessary step — who has time to immerse the turkey in salty water and aromatics and then find a place in the already overcrowded refrigerator to let it soak overnight? I promise it is worth your efforts. 

Every year after Thanksgiving I hear from readers who tell me they brined the bird and no matter how they cooked it — whether they roasted it or smoked it — the turkey was the best one ever. That makes me so happy. 

I don’t want any of my readers to think that gravy was invented because the turkey is going to be dry and flavorless. 

So just what is brining? Simply put, brining involves mixing up a salty water bath you immerse the meat in and let that salt do its magic. The salt breaks down the protein in the meat and infuses it with water and flavor making the meat juicy and delicious when it is finished cooking. Brining benefits mostly lean, drier cuts of meat such as chicken breasts, pork chops, shrimp and of course, turkey. 

The basic ratio for a typical brine is 1 cup salt to 1 gallon of water. I suggest using fine sea salt. Whatever else you throw into the brine is up to you. I like to add some sugar, citrus, bay leaves, smashed garlic cloves and a handful of peppercorns. Sometimes I add a bottle of apple cider or a beer. 

Aim to brine one hour per pound of meat. Always brine in the refrigerator. Do not brine a turkey that has been injected with a saline solution — just check the package to know for sure. After brining, bring the turkey to room temperature and pat it dry thoroughly with paper towels. Here is my favorite roasted turkey recipe. Now get brining people!

Herb roasted turkey 

1 (12-14 pound) turkey

1/3 cup finely minced fresh herbs — I like a combination of sage, thyme, rosemary and parsley leaves

A handful of whole sprigs of a combination of fresh herbs

3 tablespoons butter, softened

1 lemon, cut in half

1 ½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 onion, cut into chunks

1 cup dry white wine

2 cups chicken stock (more as needed)

Remove giblets and neck and set aside. Brine turkey overnight or for at least four hours. Remove turkey from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Mix softened butter with 1/3 cup minced herbs. Rub the herb butter under the skin of the turkey and all over. Sprinkle the turkey with salt and pepper. Stuff the turkey cavity with the herb sprigs and the onion chunks. Squeeze the lemon into the cavity and add the lemon to the cavity as well. Tuck the wings underneath or tie the legs together with twine. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. 

Place the turkey, breast side up on the rack in a large roasting pan. Pour the wine and 2 cups of the chicken stock into the pan. Roast the turkey for 45 minutes, until the turkey is golden brown. 

Remove from oven and place heavy duty foil over the breast. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Insert an ovenproof thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, without touching the bone. 

Return the turkey to the oven and roast until the internal temperature of the turkey is 165 degrees, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. 

Baste occasionally and add more chicken stock if needed. Remove the turkey from the oven and place it on a large platter. Loosely tent with foil for 20 minutes while you make the gravy. 

If you want to use the neck and giblets, you can boil them with some chicken stock for added flavor. Or, add them to the roasting turkey, discarding them when the bird is done. 

Herb gravy

Pour the drippings from the roasting pan into a fat separator or glass pitcher. Skim off ¼ cup of the fat and add to the roasting pan set over two burners. Heat oil over medium-high heat and then add 1/3 cup flour, whisking constantly. 

Measure 2 cups of liquid from roasting pan, discarding excess fat. Pour stock into roasting pan, whisking constantly. Add ¼ cup dry white wine or dry sherry and ¼ cup minced herbs. 

Add a bit of salt and pepper and ¼ cup heavy cream. Taste for seasoning.