Kate's Global Kitchen
Kate Heyhoe  

Better Tasting Turkeys:
Drowning and Browning the Bird

by Kate Heyhoe


(Don't miss our special Thanksgiving Headquarters: A to Z)

What makes a turkey perfect? A tender, moist flesh—not dried out—and golden brown skin, right? Easy to do, right? Piece-o-cake! Or so they say...

Anyone who has ever eaten turkey breast that could double as drywall, or faced a bird with boot-leather skin, knows that cooking the perfect turkey can be tough. But I've got two secrets of success to share: brining and bacon.


Brining the Bird

Brining the BirdBrining is not the same as pickling. In the latter, food is preserved in a salty solution. But in brining, meats are immersed in a mild salt and water mixture for a few hours, usually with herbs and other seasonings as well. The water is drained and the food is then cooked. The meat turns out intensely moist, flavorful, and tender.

Here's how it works: When the brine, a mild solution of about 2 gallons water and 2 cups kosher salt, is absorbed by the flesh, a chemical reaction occurs. According to author Janet Fletcher, "The muscle absorbs the water. There, the salt begins to denature the meat proteins, causing them to unwind and form a matrix that traps the water. And if the brine includes herbs, garlic, juniper berries, or peppercorns, those flavors are trapped in the meat, too. Instead of seasoning on the surface only, as most cooks do, brining carries the seasonings throughout."

If you fear the bird will taste too salty, don't. As long as you follow the recipes the salt level will be only enough to enhance the flavor of the bird and cause the chemical reaction described above. Brine small birds for 12 hours, and large ones up to 24 hours. Then roast as usual. The result: incredible moist meat, full of flavor.


Bacon as Baster

Bacon-barding is not a new technique for keeping the flesh moist. But in our fat-phobic and cholesterol-heavy society, this age-old method seems to have fallen by the wayside. Frankly, if you want moist breast meat and golden skin, you need to baste the bird with fat. It can be butter, lard, oil—or it can be bacon, which adds its own irresistible flavor to the bird and the gravy.

Use fatty, flavorful bacon, preferably thick-sliced. Drape several pieces of bacon over the breast to cover and roast the turkey as usual. When the turkey reaches 150 degrees F in the thigh, it's not quite done (use an instant read meat thermometer to check), but that's the time to remove the bacon. Dust the bare breast very lightly with flour (I shake through it through a fine mesh strainer or sieve). Drizzle on a bit of soy sauce mixed with pan drippings to aid browning, and continue to cook the bird until the thermometer registers about 170 degrees F. in the thigh, basting occasionally. (Remove the turkey from the oven and tent with foil; the internal carry-over heat will continue cooking the bird until done.) Make the gravy as usual, crumbling the bacon into it or into the stuffing.

Brining and bacon-barding also work well with chicken and lean pork roasts.


Other Turkey Techniques

The quest for the perfect roast turkey yields a number of techniques, like these:

Roasting Breast-Side Down: This technique roasts the turkey initially on its breast and sometimes on alternate sides, then the bird is flipped over to finish roasting on its back. The breast is juicier, but large birds can be hard to turn.

Blast Cooking: Barbara Kafka's method roasts at a whopping 500 degrees. Tasty, but be prepared for smoke-alarms to go wild.

Moisture: A small amount of water or stock in the pan helps prevent dry meat, and keeps the drippings from burning in the pan bottom. Start with 2 cups liquid, adding more as it evaporates. When the juices and basting liquids accumulate in the pan, you can stop adding more moisture.

Two Small Birds: Smaller birds cook faster, stay moister, and have twice the number of drumsticks. Plus, you can serve one for Thanksgiving and save the other.

Keep in mind that the more you cook the meat, the drier it will be. Bacteria are killed at 165 degrees, but the meat will still be a bit too rare for most tastes. On the other hand, the USDA recommended temperatures for doneness generally result in overcooked meat. For best results, cook turkey to 170 degrees F in the thigh, then tent with foil for 15 minutes. This allows the internal carry-over heat to finish cooking the bird, without overcooking it.

(Don't miss our special Thanksgiving Headquarters: A to Z)


Gobble, gobble!
Kate Heyhoe



Alice Waters' Brined Turkey
Father Orsini's Roast, Stuffed Turkey with Bacon


Kate's Global Kitchen for November, 2000:

11/04/00     My, My American Pie: Pie-Making Pointers
11/11/00     Stuffing Tips and Free-Form Techniques
11/18/00     Better Tasting Turkeys: Drowning and Browning the Bird
11/25/00     Turkey + 3 Ingredients = Luscious Leftovers

Holiday Special: Thanksgiving Headquarters: A to Z


Copyright © 2000, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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This page created November 2000. Modified November 2006.