Holiday meals used to be simple. We inherited our recipes on flour- and butter-streaked cards or from cookbooks splitting at the bindings. Aunt Myrtle brought green bean casserole (opt for our canned-soup free vegan version), and Grandma made her famous marshmallow yams. We roasted and basted our turkeys until the turkey timer popped up, then Dad broke out the carving knife, and we all dug in. Easy, right?
And yet in recent years, all sorts of questions have been raised, including the pros and cons of stuffing or basting. If you really need non-toxic cookware and safe, clean bakeware (you do). And what about whether or not you should opt for heritage turkey. And what about brining? The latter, most of all, is the source of some polemic: after all, while many extol the benefits of brining a turkey, it can seem like a lot of work. At the end of the day, many wonder if it’s really worth the time, effort, and fridge space brining requires.
The idea behind the process of brining a turkey is relatively simple. The whole bird is soaked in a salt-based, flavorful solution in order to give it as much flavor, moisture and tenderness as possible before the actual cooking process. But is brining a turkey actually useful? And if so, is it worth the extra effort at the holidays, when you have tons of other things to consider?
Here’s the real scoop.
Pros of Brining a Turkey
Brining a turkey adds moisture and flavor, particularly when you use a flavorful brine (like this recipe for apple cider and herb-roasted turkey). Brines can include all sorts of flavorings including herbs and spices, making the turkey taste like far more than your average roast bird (here are three hacks for brining meat fast).
But perhaps the biggest pro of brining the turkey is doing away with a dry bird, that so many are used to, in favor of a flavorful moist turkey. The salt in the brine doesn’t just season: It actually changes the texture of the muscle tissue of the turkey via osmosis, allowing it to absorb more water and therefore more flavor. But the problem is that many say it’s ‘fake flavor.’ But is it really? You be the judge, after all you’re the one eating the bird.
It’s no surprise that proponents of brining a turkey cite the dry breast problem as one of the main reasons to consider this technique.
Cons of Brining a Turkey
Of course, brining does have its cons, not the least of which is that it’s a big pain. After all, the idea of brining involves soaking the entire turkey – which can already be hard to fit in the fridge – in a large container of solution. And to avoid food borne illness, the turkey still has to be kept cold.
While that’s not enough to deter some, the added salt content is an additional concern. Brining adds even more salt to the meal, particularly if you opt for dry brining (a salty, herbaceous rub that’s applied several days before you cook your turkey), which is becoming more and more popular to overcome the space problem outlined above.
Holiday meals aren’t known for their healthfulness. Though if you’re trying to turn to more whole foods, making your own pumpkin puree, or our vegan, gluten-free sweet potato casserole, or this canned soup free vegan green bean casserole is a delicious place to start! That said, cramming even more sodium into an already heavy meal could be a deterrent.
To Brine or Not to Brine?
Here’s the long and short of it: There’s no reason to brine your turkey… if you’re starting with a flavorful bird.
When you brine a turkey, you’re adding more moisture to the bird, but the moisture is water. Some say, the heritage turkey (see our guide, 5 Reasons to Choose a Heritage Turkey) you went out of your way to get on your Thanksgiving table won’t be tasting like turkey, but rather like saltwater. Perhaps.
If you want your turkey to taste like turkey, consider, instead, modifying the way that you cook it so that it doesn’t dry out.
We recommend not just covering the breast with foil, but actually inserting a layer of stuffing between the white meat and the skin, (see our recipe for Roasted Split Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing). This will keep the meat from drying out and add even more flavor.
Another option, though it deviates from the traditional holiday turkey centerpiece, is to separate the turkey into breast and legs. This will allow you to achieve a perfect cuisson on both: a moist breast and legs that are cooked through and tender.
However, if you want the traditional centerpiece of a whole turkey, and a guaranteed moist bird, brining may the way to go. There’s no shame in that choice. After all how many times a year do you cook a whole bird for friends and family?
Use the Right Tools
However you decide to cook your turkey, make sure you have the right equipment. Here are two great roasting pan options for veg and or turkey.
We love Made In’s (read our profile on thier brand) high sided Carbon Steel Roast Pan for its excellent, even heat conductivity and searing capability. Carbon Steel develops naturally non-stick properties, the ‘seasoning’, the more you use it. Stay away from acids however, with carbon steel as it will strip the seasoning. If you do use an acid you can simply reseason the pan.
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If you want a roasting pan where you can use acids like wine, citrus or tomatoes to make your favorite sauces, we recommend going with a stainless steel pan like this one from Demeyere (you can find them on our ultimate guide to clean cookware). You can choose from two sizes, the 12.50 inch or the 15.75 inch. Made from 18/10 stainless steel and finished with Demeyere’s Silvinox treatment protecting it from discoloration, while making cleaning a breeze, and keeping the silvery white finish of the pan.
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