Many of my friends ask me about cooking a turkey this time of year. Some of them have eaten at my house for Thanksgiving and want to recreate my turkey at home. Others just figure I know everything about cooking, therefore I must know how to make a great turkey.
It is true; I make a helluva turkey. There really isn't a secret, other than a whole lot of salt. Brining makes the best darn turkey.
First, we should talk about turkeys. If you get a frozen supermarket turkey, odds are they have done the work for you. These turkeys have been "enhanced" with the addition of salt and possibly flavorings which will result in a very juicy and flavorful turkey. I don't see the point of brining these turkeys (actually I'm not a big fan of these turkeys but they do happen to be very cheap at Thanksgiving). If you buy a fresh turkey, on the other hand, brining will produce the best turkey ever.
Brine is merely water and salt combined in a prescribed proportion. The formula is 1 cup kosher salt to 1 gallon of water. It's easiest if you use 1 quart of warm water to dissolve the salt and then add 3 more quarts of cold water to get to the correct proportion of salt to water. Your brine should be cold before you immerse your turkey. You need enough brine to cover the turkey, so if your container is large you may need more than one batch. If you are using a bucket, one batch should be enough. You can add herb sprigs or halved citrus (squeeze the juice into the brine first) to the brine. The turkey will absorb some of the flavorings as it takes up the salt.
Folks ask how I deal with a big bird and a bucket of salt water. It doesn't fit in the fridge. This is often true because the turkey is enormous. I am not a "big turkey" gal. Since I have a grill with a rotisserie, I make two 10-12 pound turkeys rather than wrestle with a gigantic 20 pounder. But, you may not have that choice because you only have one place to cook said bird. The answer is, I don't put it in the fridge. I suggest a large camping cooler, one big enough to hold the bird(s), the brine and a bunch of ice packs (more on this in a minute). A five gallon bucket is usually big enough to hold a small turkey but since it's not insulated, you need to fit it in your fridge. Fat chance. A cold garage can sub for the fridge, but you may not have a cold garage. Which is why I use a cooler.
Place your turkey(s) in the cooler/bucket. Cover with brine. If it's not going in the fridge, add a bunch of ice in plastic bags to the cooler. This will keep the turkey chilled. You can skip the ice packs if you can put your turkey in the garage and it's going to stay before 40 degrees F. But, do not just throw a bunch of ice in the brine. This will dilute the brine as the ice melts. Weak brine does not produce a tasty turkey.
The nice folks at Butterball suggest brining turkeys under 12 pounds for 6-8 hours. I put my turkeys in the brine the night before Thanksgiving, so I'm in line with their recommendations. If you have a 12-14 pound turkey, Butterball suggests 12 hours in the brine; more than 14 pounds, the turkey can stay in the brine between 12 and 24 hours.
Next, I'll discuss cooking the marvelous bird.
A friendly reminder - if your turkey is frozen, take it out of the freezer right now and put it in the fridge! Never, ever thaw your turkey at room temperature. It's going to take a good 3+ days for even a small bird to thaw in the refrigerator.