It's 🦃 time!
Some conversations come up every year without fail, and one of those centers around brining that pops up right around Thanksgiving. I don’t want to spend my time arguing on whether dry or wet brines are better; that is not an issue I feel very strongly about. I want to briefly discuss why brining is beneficial to turkey and, more specifically, why fermented dairy brines are very good at achieving juiciness and a tender roasted bird. My preferred method is to brine the bird in kefir or buttermilk (you can use them interchangeably in most recipes with great success) with a few spices before I roast it in the oven.
The use of fermented dairies like yogurt and buttermilk to make meat juicer and more tender is not new, it’s been a part of many cultures from Iran to India since ancient times, and that’s the part I often find fascinating in cooking. Many ancient cooking techniques are deeply rooted in science, and people back then didn’t have the same access to technologies as we do. Yet, they achieved processes that produced remarkable results that we still practice today.
To understand how brining with fermented dairies like kefir and buttermilk works, it's essential to know what we are trying to achieve and why. Let's start with juiciness.
What is Juiciness and Water Holding Capacity in Meat?
One hallmark of meat that’s cooked well is juiciness. Imagine slicing through a dry turkey breast; it’s going to be very disappointing. The juiciness in meat comes from water and from fat (that renders during cooking). Turkey is a lean meat, and it has less fat than chicken, so to make it tastier, the juiciness needs to be increased. Juiciness also goes by another name, Water Holding Capacity (WHC). In meat, 5% of the water present is bound to amino acids on the proteins, while the remaining 95% of water is contained by physical forces such as capillary force in the filaments. The greater the quantity of water bound to the meat, the juicier the meat.
How can Juiciness be improved?
To improve the juiciness of the meat, we need to not only add more water but also make sure it binds well. During cooking, the meat will lose some water due to the shrinkage and change in the structure of the meat (the proteins will denature on heating and lose water). This is where brines and marinades come into play; they help improve water retention, improve flavor and texture.
What is Brining and Marinating? How are they different?
Brining is simply a way to make cooked meat juicier, flavorful, and tender by incubating the meat in a high salt solution. Marination is essentially the same thing but with less salt. Both brines and marinades besides salt can contain cooking acids like lactic acid and/or citric acid; aromatic ingredients like garlic, onions, herbs, spices; tenderizers can be added to either as long as they remain functional (some enzyme-based tenderizers won’t work as well if there’s too much salt in the brine). From a general perspective, marination is a type of brining.
Brines and marinades do not need to be wet; they can be “dry.” There’s still water involved (these reactions still need water to occur), so technically, they’re not really dry, but rather what the dry here refers to is the lack of added water or a liquid like kefir or buttermilk. Some people prefer wet brines and some dry ones. People who like dry brines say the flavor is much more concentrated on the skin, the skin is crispier, and it’s also easier to handle. I’m wading into turbulent waters here. The more important thing is that you should brine your turkey. We're wet brining the turkey in this recipe.
How does the kefir/buttermilk brine work?
In general, the lower the pH, the higher the WHC (meat doesn’t hold water as well at a pH of 5.0 or above); the meat will be juicier.
The use of cooking acids like lactic acid (fermented dairy like kefir, buttermilk, yogurt), citric acid (lemons and other citrus fruits), and acetic acid (vinegar) when included in brines help lower the pH. Of these three common cooking acids, lactic acid is the best. I once ran a series of experiments for Serious Eats to understand why yogurt marinades are so good at maintaining juiciness. It turns out that the lactic acid present in yogurt (and in other fermented dairy products) is much gentler on meat proteins and great at increasing the juiciness of the meat.
Animals synthesize lactic acid and citric acid, while acetic acid is synthesized by bacteria and yeast. Consequently, animal cells have evolved to deal with lactic acid and citric acid but not acetic acid. Lactic is gentle on meat texture and does a really great job at improving water binding and holding. Acetic acid/vinegar is extremely harsh on the proteins in meat, so it’s not a good idea to brine or marinate meat for too long (I usually do an hour or less) as the meat texture looks crumbly on the surface after cooking. Citric acid is synthesized in the cell's mitochondria and rarely comes out of the cell, and when it does, the cells immediately do their best to remove it. Citric acid is somewhere in between lactic acid and acetic acid in its efficiency in brines.
In short, BEST Lactic Acid>Citric Acid>Acetic Acid WORST - fermented dairy marinades are the best.
Ok, so what does pH actually do? The low acidic pH from the acids helps change the electric charges on the proteins in the meat and this, in turn, helps the protein bind more water, and the meat starts to swell up.
Can you use the quick hack of making kefir or buttermilk with vinegar or lemon juice and milk?
My recommendation is don’t; this is a better hack for pancakes (I know some bakers who say this hack doesn't work as well with baking because they've noticed differences in the crumb textures of cakes). There are no lactic acid bacteria involved in this hack and no lactic acid. The bird might smell of vinegar, and that won’t be very pleasant. When vinegar or lemon juice is mixed with milk, the milk proteins curdle. While this mixture will contain phosphates, it won’t contain lactic acid but vinegar and citric acid. When it comes to meat, vinegar or acetic acid is one of the harshest cooking acids, with citric acid right behind it. Leaving the meat in a brine with acetic acid or citric acid for an extended period will take its toll.
Last year Samin Nosrat shared her recipe for buttermilk brined turkey and we discussed the use of kefir as a substitute for buttermilk.
How does Salt Help?
Salt (sodium chloride) does a few things.
A huge reason why salt works so well at increasing the water holding capacity in meat is its ability to change the electric charges on the proteins in meat. Salt is ionic, i.e., when dissolved in water/brine, it splits into positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged chloride ions. The amino acids present in the turkey proteins also contain electric charges (both positive hydrogen ions and negative carboxylate ions). What happens next is very interesting. The amino acids love to bind the chloride ions from the salt, and in turn, the amino acids release their hydrogen ions into the brine. This lowers the pH and further increases the amount of water that the meat can hold.
Salt helps solubilize some of the proteins in the turkey muscle, weakening some of the structural proteins that make the meat more tender.
The high salt concentration in the brine prevents the growth of harmful microbes.
Salt also provides saltiness and gets into the meat through osmosis. At the start the salt content inside the meat is less than the salt present in the brine. To achieve equilibrium, the salt will start to move inside the meat over time. It won’t go all the way into the deepest part, but it gets through enough to flavor the meat well. This is why longer brining periods work better than shorter ones.
If you read the ingredients listed on the back of pre-brined meats like a pork tenderloin sold at the grocery store, you might notice in addition to lactic acid/lactate, the word “phosphates” is mentioned. Phosphates are an important player in water retention and are very popular in commercial meat brines. Dairy and fermented dairy contains are rich in phosphates (milk contains several phosphoproteins - proteins rich in phosphates), unlike plant-based milk. When using kefir, buttermilk, or yogurt, those phosphates come into play. Phosphates are also a type of salt and work similarly to table salt (sodium chloride); they’re just much better at water retention in meat. Hence, meat brined in dairy and fermented dairy is very juicy.
So far, I've focussed on water retention using the low pH of lactic acid and the effect of salt and phosphates. I've also mentioned how salt dissolves some muscle proteins and makes the overall texture of the meat better. Another component here that can improve texture and the source for this is the enzymes in the fermented dairy that come from the bacteria. Some of these enzymes called proteolytic enzymes can break down the proteins in the meat, making the meat more tender.
In conclusion brining in fermented dairy like kefir or buttermilk makes us a tastier turkey by acting on the proteins in meat and making them hold water more efficiently and also by changing the structure of the meat proteins so the turkey textures transforms into something wonderful.
Hopefully, after reading this, I've convinced you on the importance of brining.
Further Recommended Reading:
Golden Garlic Roast Turkey
Tip: You don't need a special roasting pan, I rigged a sturdy high-sided baking pan with 4 ramekin bowls to support the weight of the turkey while it sat on the wire rack and it worked lovely. (My regular roasting pan is wrapped up in a box sitting in the garage as we're currently undergoing a home renovation).
This my straight-forward version of a roast turkey that's extremely unfussy. The turkey is brined in a mixture of kefir that contains lots of garlic and turmeric that gives it a wonderful fragrance and color. The brined turkey is then brushed with olive oil, coriander, and pepper before being roasted slowly at a very low temperature in the oven. The result is a bird that's juicy, tender, and very flavorful.
The Cook's Notes
I've used a turkey that's large enough to feed 8 people. However, for smaller families and groups of people, you'll have enough leftover turkey for a second meal during the week.
I like to spatchcock/butterfly the turkey after brining rather than before. I find it makes the bird easier to handle and also fit in the brining bag. If prefer to spatchcock first and then brine, you can. If you'd rather roast the bird whole and not spatchcock that will work too, just adjust your cooking time accordingly.
You can use either kefir or buttermilk to prepare the brine. My favorite brands for kefir are Lifeway and Green Valley Creamery, their consistency is not excessively thick unlike some of the other brands.
I've roasted turkeys that were brined for 24, 36, and 48 hours brining times. The turkey brined for 48 hours produced the best results in terms of juiciness and texture.
I cover the wingtips and the exposed bone of each leg with a small piece of foil (like a pair of socks). There's little to no meat at these ends and they easily burn. Covering them in foil reduces the risk of burning, it's similar to the trick that pie makers do when baking pie crusts (they cover the edge of the pie crust with foil to avoid them from burning).
The water in the pan helps provide humidity in the oven just like a steam oven.
The low cooking temperature and water in the pan eliminate the need to baste the turkey as it cooks.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 qt/2.8L plain unsweetened kefir or buttermilk
¼ cup + 2 Tbsp fine sea salt
12 garlic cloves (about 1 whole head of garlic)
4 Tbsp ground turmeric
One 9 to 10 lb/4 to 4.5kg turkey
¼ cup/60ml extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp ground coriander
½ Tbsp ground black pepper
2 cups/480ml water
Pat the turkey dry with clean paper towels, remove the gizzard and giblets (I’m going to refer to these as turkey parts), reserve in a ziptop bag, and freeze it to make the gravy (recipe follows).
Place 1 qt/960ml of the kefir in a blender along with the salt, garlic cloves, and turmeric. Pulse on high speed for a few seconds until the garlic is completely obliterated, the mixture is smooth, and the salt dissolved. Pour the liquid into a large brining bag (aka turkey size oven bag), pour in the remaining kefir, and stir to combine. Place the turkey in the bag, squeeze out as much air as possible, and tie the bag up (a food vacuum sealing device and a large vacuum bag are great for this). Gently shake the bag to coat the turkey in the brine and leave it on a large plate or tray in the refrigerator to brine for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 hours. Shake the contents of the bag and flip it over every 6 to 8 hours. Some of the turmeric will settle as the brine sits, this helps redistribute the brine and the turmeric.
When ready to roast the turkey, preheat the oven to 200F/95C.
Use a roasting pan with a wire rack or a rectangular 13 inch by 18 inch by 2 inch/33cm by 46cm by 5cm baking pan. If using the rectangular baking pan, place 4 small ramekin bowls near the four corners of the pan. Place a wire rack on top of the ramekin bowls.
Drain and discard the brine in the bag. Place the turkey in a large bowl and drain and brush off as much liquid as you can get off the turkey, there’s no need to over do this. Place the turkey breast-side down on a cutting board and using a pair of kitchen shears cut the turkey across the length of the backbone and continue until the turkey is cut all the way from the tail end to the neck. Flip the bird over the cutting board to splay out the legs. Take both your hands and place them on top of the breastbone and press down till you hear the bones crack and the bird lays out flat. Oddly enough it feels like performing CPR. Place the flattened bird cut-side down on the wire rack. Cut out the backbone and add it to the ziptop bag with the turkey parts.
In a small mixing bowl, mix the olive oil, coriander, and black pepper. Brush the mixture all over the bird either with your hands or a brush (a silicone brush is much more efficient).
Cover the tips of the wings and the exposed bones at the end of the legs with a layer of foil. This reduces the risk of charring.
Pour the water into the pan and place the pan in the preheated oven. Cook until the skin turns golden brown and crisp, and the internal temperature of the breasts reaches 150/65C and the thighs reach 165F/74C, for 4 to 4 ½ hours. Rotate the pan halfway through every hour to ensure even browning.
Once the bird is roasted, remove the pan from the oven, tent, and cover with foil, and let rest for 10 minutes before cutting and serving. Transfer the turkey to a cutting board. Cut the turkey and serve with gravy (recipe follows) and cranberry sauce.
NOTE FOR PAN DRIPPINGS: To collect the drippings in the pan for gravy, pour 1 cup/240ml of boiling water on the pan and scrape the pan with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to extract as much of the solids as possible. Transfer the liquid with any solids to a bowl or measuring cup.
Golden Turkey Gravy
This recipe is originally based on the method by Kenji López-Alt's recipe at Serious Eats. I've been using it for a long time to make chicken and turkey gravies.
The Cook’s Notes
This is a question that comes up often, are the pan drippings too salty to make a gravy. The short answer is no. Almost all the brine is discarded and rubbed off before the turkey goes into the oven.
See the roast turkey recipe (recipe above) to collect the pan drippings. You can also deglaze the pan with a dry white wine such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, or Sauvignon Blanc. It’s best to do that while the pan is still very hot. You can warm the wine up in a saucepan to deglaze the pan if the pan cools off quickly. The heat helps extract as much fat as well as any solids stuck to the pan.
I really love the taste of Better Than Bouillon’s Reduced Sodium Roasted Chicken Base here; it’s much more flavorful and circumvents the need to add any other ingredients to build the savoriness of the stock.
Makes approximately 4 ½ cups/1 L
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large/about 300g white or yellow onion, diced
2 large/150g carrots, diced
2 medium/about 100g celery sticks, diced
4 large sprigs of thyme
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp ground black pepper
Turkey gizzard and other parts
1 cup/240ml pan drippings (see the recipe above)
6 cups/1.4 L low-sodium chicken stock or [6 cups/1.4 L water + 2 Tbsp Better Than Bouillon’s Reduced Sodium Roasted Chicken Base] (See The Cook’s Notes)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
¼ cup/35g all-purpose flour
Fine sea salt
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and sauté until tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the thyme, turmeric, and pepper, and sauté until fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Add the gizzard and turkey parts, stir in the pan drippings and stock, bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low, and simmer until the liquid reduces to 5 cups/1.2 L, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve (for a clearer looking gravy, strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth) held over a large heatproof bowl or jug. Don’t press the solids left behind in the sieve, instead shake the sieve to drain and collect as much liquid as possible and discard the solids. Skim and discard the fat that accumulates at the surface.
Wash and wipe the saucepan down. Heat the saucepan over medium heat and add the butter; cook until the butter melts completely. Stir in the flour and cook until the flour turns a light golden brown, 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Pour in 1 cup/240ml of the strained broth and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the second cup of broth and whisk until smooth and free from lumps. Whisk in the remaining broth and cook the liquid over medium-high heat until thickened; the final volume of the gravy will be approximately 4 ½ cups/1 L. Taste and season with salt if needed. Serve warm.
Don't forget to check out the previous two newsletters for all the Thanksgiving sides.
I got to talk about my Masala Cheddar Cornbread on The Splendid Table this week.
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