Tag Archives: poultry

MasterChef 4 recap: T-Bones and Live Birds (S4E19)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains the IPA-soaked rants of a former MasterChef survivor who has practically no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.  It’s not fit to be read by anyone.)

So we’re back up to 7 contestants, now that Bri is back.  And it’s time for a mystery box.  Krissi tells us, “I need to step up my game to a whole nother level.”  I just HAVE to pause here to correct what is probably the most rampant abuse of the English language in modern American culture.  And, yes, Krissi…I’m guilty of using it, too.  There’s no such word as “nother.”  That word doesn’t exist.  Yet, I’ve even seen “a whole nother” on a bulletin board on I-35 near downtown Dallas.  I’m not sure who the first person was who uttered “a whole nother,” but if I met him, I’d strangle him with my bare hands.  Or at least give him a tongue lashing.

The writer in me must tell you that there are 2 proper ways of saying that phrase, and they are as follows:

“A whole other level.”


“Another level.”

But “A whole nother level” isn’t English.  It’s something else.  So don’t ever say it again, please.  Just for me.  🙂

Back to MasterChef…

The T-bone steak, with the larger NY strip steak on the left side, and the smaller tenderloin steak on the right

Beneath the mystery box is one of my favorite steaks…a T-bone.  This lovely steak is actually 2 steaks in one…a New York strip and a tenderloin, separated by the T-shaped bone which is part of the lumbar vertebrae in the cow’s spinal column.  The T-bone steak and the Porterhouse steak are actually practically the same steak…but the T-bone is cut from the loin closer to the front of the cow, and the Porterhouse is cut closer to the rear.  So Porterhouse steaks contain a larger ratio of tenderloin to strip, while T-bones contain a smaller tenderloin.  The unfortunate consequence of this is that the tenderloin part of the T-bone tends to overcook, because it’s a smaller muscle.  Porterhouses tend to have a better balance between the meat on both sides, so they’re easier to cook.

Since we can already predict this episode is gonna be more about drama than cooking, let’s pause for a sec and discuss beef.  There are 2 kinds of beef cuts…tender cuts and tough cuts.  The tender cuts are equivalent to the white meat on a chicken: muscles that rarely get used, so they tend to be tender.  On a cow, these are the muscles along the spine (or loin) that flank each side of the spinal column and never actually do much work.  These cuts are renowned for tenderness…but not really much flavor.  So the flavor comes from how you cook it.

The tough cuts on a cow, however, are the muscles that get the actual work…the front and back legs and the abdomen.  Equivalent to the dark meat on a chicken, these cuts are the ones that actually TASTE good…but because the muscles get a lot of exercise, they tend to be tougher.  This is why a perfect burger will taste better than any prime tenderloin ever can…because it tastes like BEEF.  Tenderloin tastes like whatever you season it with, and melts in your mouth like the butter you slather on top of it because it has very little flavor of its own.  So in the quest for the perfect steak, if your primary concern is tenderness, then the T-bone is a fabulous choice…but if your primary concern is good, beefy flavor, you need to look to the tough cuts like skirt steak, flank steak, brisket, chuck roast, and round roast.  These cuts need to be either barely cooked and sliced across the grain to keep them tender, or they need to be braised or smoked low and slow for an eternity to break down all the collagen and connective tissues, so they melt in your mouth.

Walmart is back in the house, and you can tell how excited Joe is to be the first to talk about it.  I’ve ranted enough about the Walmart-MasterChef relationship in previous blogs, so I’ll spare you.  (Just be it known that I DO shop at Walmart…at least twice month.  I don’t ever buy beef there.  Actually, I very rarely buy beef.  What I buy at Walmart are their organic products like milk and eggs…well, before I had chickens in my backyard.)  I absolutely LOVE how “enthusiastic” Joe is as he reads off the cue card “Walmart sells the highest quality choice beef which is inspected by the USDA for quality.”  Poor Joe, I know exactly how pissed off he was to have to say that.  And, for the record, EVERY piece of beef you buy in the grocery store in this country is inspected by the USDA for quality.  Again, Gordon is remarkably silent when it comes to discussing Walmart.  He never says it once.

Gordon says, “T-bone steak, a chef’s dream.  But tonight, we wanna see this T-bone steak elevated, we do not wanna see just meat and potatoes.”  When he asks Graham what he would make, Graham replies, “A simple rub, not too spicy…grill it, and with it: a potato salad.”  I chuckled at that one.  Exactly what Gordon said not to make.  Though, honestly…if you mess with a steak too much, you detract from its beauty.  Simplicity and perfection is key to presenting a great steak.

Time is up, and it’s time to taste the 3 best dishes.  Jordan is first, and he’s never won a mystery box challenge.  Jordan has decided to separate the NY Strip and the tenderloin from the bone.  (Luca also did this, but he served both steaks, Jordan only serves the Strip.)  This is a puzzling choice.  It certainly gives the chef better control over each piece of meat…meaning you can cook each one to perfection, which is something you CANNOT do when it’s on the bone.  However, when you separate those two cuts of meat, they simply become two separate steaks.  And that bone is the key to incredible flavor and juiciness.  I almost never buy a roast or steak that is boneless.  Wanna impress the MasterChef judges?  Separate those steaks and cook each one perfectly.  Wanna BLOW AWAY the MasterChef judges?  Present them with a bone-in T-bone steak cooked beautifully.  Because THAT is hard to do.  Jordan’s steak is served with a celery root puree.  If you’ve never tasted celery root…also called celeriac…you need to.  It’s pretty miraculous.  Like a cross between a rutabaga or turnip and celery.  Bold, earthy, nutty flavor…it’s downright divine.  Jordan has also made a compound butter with which to top his steak, consisting of parsley, bleu cheese, and lemon zest.  (yum)  He’s also got caramelized onions and fried squash breaded in parmesan cheese.

(Quick pause here.  “Parmesan” is the English word for a cheese produced in the same style as the cheeses produced in the Parma and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy.  The cheese made there from raw cow’s milk is called “Parmigiano Reggiano.”  All other cheeses made around the world in that same style are called “Parmesan.”)

The judges are very impressed with Jordan’s plate.

Luca is next, and like Jordan, he has removed the bone from his steaks.  But he is serving both of them.  He grilled the filet and served it with haricot verts (French green beans), and roasted potatoes with Parmesan cream sauce.  The NY Strip he pan seared and served with caramelized onions and a pan sauce.  The judges are very impressed.

The final dish comes as a surprise to some of the contestants…it’s Krissi.  And boy, did she take her cooking to a whole nother level!  Krissi had the balls to leave the T-bone whole.  (Good girl!)  She cooked it on cast iron, which she said is the way her grandfather used to cook steak.  And I can’t agree with them more.  There is NO better cooking method for steak than a cast iron skillet.  Certainly not a grill pan, which many contestants used.  (That only gives you sear on the lines where the grill pan meets the steak.  That may look pretty, but you’ve only got a tenth of the flavorful crust you’d get if the whole surface of the steak was in contact with the iron.)  Sometimes I’ll go for a steak grilled on charcoal, because you get some smoke in the flavor, but typically I save that for BBQ.  And don’t ever EVER cook a steak on a propane grill.  In fact, throw away your propane grill…it has no purpose.  If you’re going to grill, you’d better do it over charcoal.  Grilling on the stove is downright silly.  Grilling over a propane fire is the same this as broiling, it’s just upside down.  I laugh until I’m hyperventilating when I see how proud some guys are of their propane grilling skills. The propane grill is the biggest culinary scam ever inflicted upon mankind.  Sell it on Craigslist.  Spend 1/8 what you paid for it on a charcoal grill with cast iron grates.  Your taste buds will thank you.

On top of Krissi’s steak she’s got a compound butter, and she’s serving it with a crispy potato galette that she’s calling “pommes de Krissi.”  I love that.  A “galette” is a French style, crusty, round cake that can be either savory or sweet.  “Pomme” is the French word for potato, and Krissi’s potato cake is really stunning.  While the potato may be the humblest of all ingredients, cooking masterfully with it takes knowledge and incredible skill.  Because starches are far more finicky than proteins.  They turn to sugar at certain temperatures, and then they quickly burn.  Alongside her “pommes de Krissi” she’s got a caramelized onion and Brussels sprout salad.  What a dish!  I would eat the heck out of that.  The judges can’t praise her enough.

In fact, Krissi wins the whole challenge, and while there were probably some VERY stellar dishes we never even got to see, I’d have to agree with the judges on this one, at least with reference to the other 2 plates.  Krissi’s plate showed some really sophisticated technique.  And while the term “sophisticated technique” tends to give me a rash, and I’m not often DYING to taste something prepared with sophisticated technique, I’d have scarfed down every morsel on that plate because it was still familiar and authentic…two adjectives sorely missing from a lot of “sophisticated” food.

Back in the pantry, there are 6 massive burlap-covered boxes filled with “fresh food,” according to Joe.  One by one, the burlap is lifted, revealing a variety of live birds that we use for food.  The first is a quail…near and dear to the heart of every real Texan.  Our very favorite game bird.

Next is a pigeon, which we’ve already seen this season.  Called “squab” in fancy restaurants, pigeons are basically the same thing as doves, which are also much beloved by game hunters.

Graham next reveals a pheasant, which is the ultimate prize for many game bird hunters.  I’ve had the pleasure of cooking wild pheasant several times…the meat is dark purple, lean, and incredibly delicious.  Graham says, “If you don’t know what you’re doing with this bird, it’s impossible to nail it.”  The trick to pheasant…and ALL game birds, really, is brining.  They have so little fat that you need to get all the moisture you can into the meat before you cook it, to prevent it from drying out.

Next is, of course, a chicken.  That’s a Buff Orphington, by the way.  I have one in my backyard.  They are among the largest breeds of chicken, and just about the friendliest.  They love to be held and petted, they’ll respond to their name, and they make a far better pet than a cat, in my most-humble opinion.

Gordon pulls up his burlap to reveal a duck.  A White Pekin, to be precise.  This breed of duck is native to China, and for almost a century, virtually every domesticated duck eaten in the US was a direct descendent of the 9 Pekin ducks brought to New York from China in the 1800s.

Ducks are one of my favorite animals…I can’t help but laugh when I see them.  I had pet ducks when I was a kid, and I’ve rescued and raised MANY orphaned ducklings over the years.  One year, I rescued an entire nest of ducklings whose mother had been killed by a dog.  The sweltering summer heat continued to incubate the eggs and they began to hatch, but without the moisture from mama duck’s feathers, the inner membrane of the eggs had become too tough for the babies to peck through.  After it became apparent that the babies would die in their shells, I reluctantly helped them hatch.  We saved 4 out of the 7 quackers, and I raised them until they were fully feathered.  A few trips to a local park to teach them to swim were fascinating…the ducks thought they were people and followed me around the park, terrified of the other ducks.  Eventually I returned them to the pond where their mother had lived, and it was heart-wrenching to see how scared they were of the other ducks.  But I had to leave them to figure it out on their own.  A week later I came back to check on them, and all 4 recognized me and jumped out of the water and rushed up to me, quacking like crazy, jumping up and wanting to be held.  You should have seen the look on the other ducks’ faces when those 4 were jumping up and down, wanting me to pick them up.

I continued to visit them each week until the entire flock flew south for the winter.  When they returned the next spring, they had their adult feathers, and I couldn’t recognize which ones were “mine.”  And they didn’t recognize me, either.  So my job was done, after shedding a few bittersweet tears.

The last box contains, of course…a turkey.  I wish we cooked whole turkey more often in this country, because it’s absolutely delicious…when prepared properly.  (And you can rest assured that most turkey is NOT prepared properly.  For a good primer, start here and here.)

Krissi’s job is to assign one bird to each contestant.  They head back to the kitchen for their surprise, and each bird is wearing a medallion with an image of the contestant that will have to cook it.  Luca is adorably skittish of the birds, and tries to tempt his turkey with a big piece of lettuce.

When Natasha picks up her pheasant, you can see a fishing line attached to it’s leg…I suppose to keep it from flying up and roosting in the ceiling of the warehouse where MasterChef is filmed.

For a brief moment, the contestants believe they’ll have to slaughter the birds themselves, but that’s far too gruesome for the American audience.  Which, to me, is sad.  I don’t believe that ANYONE should eat meat if they’re not willing to dispatch the animal themselves.  Because we keep the slaughter of animals hidden away in mysterious buildings, and we only see it when it becomes hermetically sealed packages of pink meat in the grocery store, we’re more comfortable about the fact that we eat meat.  As a result, we’re likely to make horrible, irresponsible decisions when buying our meat.  Like buying $1.99 chicken breast from a chicken that lived its whole live in a tiny cage fighting with 3 other chickens, pumped full of antibiotics so that it grows at 3 times its natural rate, eating poop from the chickens in the 10 cages stacked above it.  When you actually kill the animal that you’re going to eat…you realize how important your choice to be an omnivore is.  You develop a respect for the animal that died to sustain you.  And you cultivate a desire to make sure that EVERY animal that unwillingly gives its life for your dinner plate lives a life according to its nature.  A chicken should wander around all day, scratching for seeds and chasing grasshoppers.  A cow should graze in green pastures and nap beneath a tree in the heat of the day.  A pig should wallow in cool mud and root in the dirt for acorns.  And very few of those things happen on massive, industrialized farms.  Which is why it’s one of the greatest acts you can do as a human to seek out a local farmer and buy from him.  Because you can meet his animals and see how they are treated.  And you sustain his family and your local community when you buy from him.  Yes, it’s less convenient than going to the corner grocery store.  Yes, it may cost a bit more than your $1.99 sale-priced industrial chicken.  (Though it will certainly cost less than buying “artisan” meat at Whole Foods or some other gourmet supermarket.)

But think about it…you make tough choices in your life right now based on things you believe are right, and they make your life harder.  Right?  Some of you go to church on Sunday.  That’s not easy.  But you believe it’s right.  Some of you are extremely involved with your children’s education…you personally know their teachers, you get involved with PTA.  That’s not easy.  Nor is it free.  But you do it, because you believe it’s important.  Say photography is a serious hobby of yours.  Are you gonna buy the cheapest point-and-shoot that Konica makes?  Of course not.

So why would you always stoop to the cheapest food you can find to sustain your very life, and the lives of the people who are most important to you?  Don’t you wanna know where that sh-t comes from?!?  In our country we’ve been spoiled and placated into a place of blissful ignorance about how our food ends up on our table.  And that’s not only gravely dangerous…it’s criminally neglectful when it comes to your kids and the people who trust you to care for them.  Start thinking about where your food comes from.  It is literally the MOST important decision you make on a daily basis.  Yet so many of us make it so flippantly.

*steps off soapbox*

The contestants are given 60 minutes to prepare the perfect dish, with their poultry as the hero.  And while that MIGHT be theoretically feasible for the lucky bastards with the quail (Jordan), pigeon (Bri), duck (James), and chicken (Jessie)…it’s impossible for the pheasant (Natasha) and the turkey (Luca).  Both those birds have dense, lean flesh that needs several hours of brining before you can even think about cooking them.  Granted, the quail and pigeon need to be brined, too, but they’re so small they’ll brine in 30 minutes, leaving plenty of time for cooking.  (For the record…apparently NO contestant brined their bird.  Which is really surprising.)

Time is called, and Gordon asks who thinks they have the best dish.  No one raises their hand.  On my season, Gordon asked this after every single challenge.  (He probably did on EVERY season, it just rarely makes it to the final edit, because on most challenges, EVERYONE raises their hand, and that gets boring.)

Jessie is up first for tasting.  She presents pan seared chicken breast with roasted garlic sauce, mashed potatoes, and summer veggie succotash.  Joe chastises her for being too “homey” and not gourmet enough…but with all the components on her plate, it’s as sophisticated as anything anyone has cooked on this episode.  He’s just sticking up his nose at Southern cuisine for being too primitive.  Her chicken breast, however, is too dry.  (Fancy that…a dry chicken breast!  If you’re a regular reader, you know what I have to say about chicken breast.  The ONLY time to eat chicken breast is when you roast a whole chicken.  If you’re buying parts and you buy boneless skinless breast, I don’t know who you are.  You are dead to me.  At the very least, buy bone-in, skin-on breast.  It’s cheaper, too.)  Graham messes with her mashed potatoes, which have gone gluey.  (To be fair to Jessie, they’ve probably been sitting on the plate for a couple of hours before she finally gets judged.)  However, she did make mashed potatoes from red-skin potatoes, which are “waxy” potatoes and DO NOT lend themselves to a good texture when mashed.  You want starchy potatoes for that, like russets, if you want them to be fluffy.  The judges are not kind.  And Jessie earns some Brownie points in my book for fessing up, rather than making excuses.  “There’s only 6 of us cooking and you can’t get away with simple.  I have no excuse.”  I’ve said it before…I think we’ll be seeing Jessie on Food Network soon.  She is supremely likeable.

Natasha is next, and she has pheasant breast with risotto, purple cauliflower, and white asparagus.  The judges are very impressed.  She used sumac as a seasoning for her pheasant.  Sumac is the ground seeds of a large flowering plant family that grows all over the world.  It is very tart and fruity, and it’s a common spice in Middle Eastern cuisine.  (Native Americans steeped sumac seeds in water to make a tart beverage.  Sumac is one of the first leaves to burst into color each fall and it grows wild all over the mainland US.)

James is next, and he has duck breast rubbed with togarashi…a Japanese chili powder.  He serves it with some “quick kimchee” which probably means he simmered the cabbage briefly in vinegar, rather than allowing it to ferment in a salt water brine.  He’s also got ginger scallion rice and oyster mushrooms cooked in duck fat.  Sounds divine, and the judges agree.

Luca presents his prosciutto-wrapped turkey breast with braised Swiss chard, sweet potato puree, sauteed mushrooms, and a red wine cranberry sauce.  (For the most amazing cranberry sauce recipe, click here.  You’ll never go back to the can.)  Joe loves it.

Bri brings her pigeon up to the judges, and we get a snarky comment from Krissi: “I hope it’s raw inside, cuz I hate her.”  I feel like most folks have simmered down on the Krissi attacks recently, but maybe I’m just out of touch.  If you follow Krissi on social media, you know that she and Bri are dear friends.  This is just more producers posturing contestants against each other in their interviews, and it’s not real.  So don’t get mad.  Bri has stuffed her pigeon with green apples, beet greens, sage, thyme, and goat cheese, with arugula, mushroom and cauliflower couscous.  I would order that on ANY menu over anything else if I saw it there.  That sounds incredible.  And she pulled it off.  Gordon continues to be puzzled about how competent Bri is when she cooks meat.  (Though people are speculating that Bri isn’t actually vegetarian based on her previous social media posts about cooking and eating meat…you can read my other blog and related comments on this issue, I don’t have time to get into it now, and it honestly doesn’t matter to me.)

Jordan is next, and his pan seared quail is served stew-style with root vegetables.  His quail is almost raw, but he’s not familiar with cooking it.  The judges are very upset.  And thank you, dear Gordon Ramsay, for suggesting that he should have brined it!

The top 2 dishes of the night are Bri, who celebrates with the line “Winner, winner, pigeon dinner!”  *cackle*  Against her as the second team captain in the next challenge will be, of course, Natasha.

The bottom 2 dishes belong to Jessie and Jordan…both of whom are VERY strong competitors.  And it’s a big shocker to see Jordan get the axe.  Lots of folks assumed he’d be the winner from very early in the competition.  Graham offers him a chance to stage (“intern”) at his restaurant, and you can tell when Gordon speaks that this was a hard elimination for him.  I definitely empathize with the judges.  The final elimination decision is not theirs, and they often have to deal with an elimination they don’t feel is just.  Though Jordan’s dish probably was the weakest of the day, he’s most certainly one of the strongest cooks in the bunch.  Sorry to see you go, Jordan.  (He gives mad props to Natasha as he leaves.)

The edit brings us back to the first time we met Jordan during his signature dish round, where we learned that his mom had recently passed away and he’s giving it his all in her memory.  Jordan is, in a sense, a perfect MasterChef contestant.  He knows a lot and has incredible skill and knowledge.  He is confident…but rarely cocky.  I predict that Jordan will do exactly what he wants to do with his life: open a dive bar that has 5-star food.  Follow Jordan on Facebook and Twitter.  And comment below about what you thought of this episode, particularly if you have a fond relationship with one of the game birds that were featured!

And, lucky readers, this is the LAST MasterChef blog I will write.  (Perhaps ever?!?)  I leave Saturday for my annual pilgrimage “home” to Burning Man, and a subsequent road trip across Idaho and Wyoming and back across the Southwest.  I won’t lay eyes upon a television screen for a blessed month, and it can’t come quickly enough.  Good luck to whoever wins MasterChef (I know you who are!!!), and I’ll touch base with you all on the final results in late September, but you WILL get plenty of updates from me on Facebook, and more rarely on my blog, during my great adventure to one of the most extraordinary things that happens on planet Earth.

Coq au Vin

On Brining…

It’s turkey season, and that means all the TV shows are full of tips and tricks for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.  Baste it every 10 minutes.  Bake it in a bag.  Deep fry it.  Rub butter under the skin.

The turkey, like all meats that have both light and dark on the same carcass, presents a unique cooking challenge because the white meat cooks more quickly than the dark meat.  By the time the thigh meat comes to temperature, the breast is overcooked.  And no amount of basting can solve overcooked meat.  (All basting does is waste heat and electricity and make the turkey skin soggy.)

The best solution to the dry turkey problem has been utilized by chefs for millenia.  Brining.  (Also known as “pickling” or “corning.”)  It just means soaking the meat in a salt solution.  And chances are, virtually every piece of poultry meat you eat at a restaurant…even a fast food fried chicken restaurant…has been brined.  This is why the turkey and chicken you cook at home isn’t nearly as juicy or flavorful as when you eat it at a restaurant.

Even ancient cultures knew that brining worked, they just didn’t know WHY brining worked.  As modern science has aimed its microscope toward the kitchen, some hints behind the physics and chemistry of brining have been revealed, but any food scientist will tell you that we still don’t fully understand the complexities behind why brining results in such a delicious piece of meat.  It just does.

Most theories are regarding the permeability of cell walls in relation to salinity levels.  Every cell in our bodies has a wall around it that keeps out pathogens and holds the cell’s contents inside.  In some instances, that cell wall is permeable.  It will allow oxygen to pass through from the blood in your capillaries.  When its moisture content decreases (like when you become dehydrated) it will allow moisture to come through the cell wall to replenish the moisture inside the cell…but only if the moisture contains salt.  (This is why you need to drink electrolytes or eat something salty in addition to drinking water when you are dehydrated…otherwise the water can’t effectively penetrate the cell wall to hydrate the cell.)

We see this pattern in nature through ocean fish.  The reason that ocean fish taste naturally saltier than beef or catfish is because the fish are swimming around in brine, and therefore the salinity level of their cells is higher.  (And they’ve developed ways of dealing with higher salinity in their bodies, which is one reason they don’t freeze to death when the ocean temperature drops below 32F.  Salt water freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh water.  Salty cells do, too.)

If the salinity level of your brine is just right…the cell wall becomes permeable and lets in the moisture.  And if you have packed that moisture with flavors, those flavors go inside the cell, as well.  The cell swells up plump with the brine solution.  And then other magical and mysterious things start to happen.

Most food scientists theorize that the high level of saline in the brine causes the tightly-woven protein structures inside the cell to unwind and collapse on each other, trapping the brine solution inside a gel-like matrix.  This holds the brine inside the cell tightly, and when the baking temperature gets high enough, the brine turns to steam.  This means the food steams itself from the inside-out during baking, resulting in a faster cooking time.  Also, because extra moisture was trapped in the cell by the denatured protein matrix, the end result is meat that is more moist, with a higher salinity content (ie…it tastes better).

Brining is a science, though.  If your salinity ratio in your brine isn’t just right, you can end up STRIPPING moisture out of the meat you’re trying to moisturize!  Soak a steak or chicken in pure water, or a very weak saline solution, and the cell walls become permeable in the opposite direction.  Since the salinity inside the cell is higher than the water outside, the wall secretes salt and water, which dehydrates the cell and removes its natural flavor.  So make sure you’re using a solid brine recipe, and DO NOT modify the salt or water content at all.

The standard ratio for a brine is 1.5 cups of Morton’s brand Kosher salt to 1 gallon of liquid.  If you only have table salt, the ratio is 3/4 cup per gallon.  (Do NOT use iodized salt, or your meat will taste funny.)  If you only have the extra coarse Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, it’s 2 cups per gallon.  For pickling/canning salt, which is the finest form of salt and dissolves very quickly, use 2/3 cup per gallon.

Worried about your meat being too salty?  The traditional formula is to brine for one hour per pound.  This will usually result in a perfectly-seasoned turkey or steak.  If you try it and it’s too salty for you, reduce the brining time to 45 minutes per pound for your next try.  However, it’s actually kinda hard to make the meat too salty through brining, which distributes the salt evenly throughout the entire piece of meat, rather than focusing the salt right on the surface.  Sometimes with massive turkeys over 25 pounds which require more than a full day of brining, the meat near the surface may get a bit saltier than you like.  But large turkeys are practically impossible to cook perfectly WITHOUT brining.

Some paranoid food agencies have declared brining dangerous, because the meat isn’t typically refrigerated when it’s in the brine.  (Though there are very few organisms that can withstand the salinity levels of brine, and if your brine is also very acidic, like mine usually is, you’ve got a VERY inhospitable environment for pathogens.)  You can easily brine chicken breasts, steaks, roasts, and fish in the fridge, but a turkey is a different story.  In this case, replace some of the water content in your brine with ice.  (A gallon of water weights 8.3 pounds, so if you’re using a 10 pound bag of ice, you’ve got just a little over 1 gallon plus 1 quart of water.  Factor that into your ratio.)  Stir the ice vigorously into the brine, which will lower the temperature of the brine to near freezing.  Brining is most effective in the 32F-36F range, so adding the ice helps the brining to be more effective.  If you place a cold, thawed bird straight from the fridge into a cooler and cover with icy brine, you probably don’t need to worry about anything else.  But sometimes I’ll toss an extra bag of ice on top of the bird to help weigh it down and keep it below the surface of the brine, and to help keep everything cold.  Make sure to wrap the ice in a garbage bag, though, to make sure it doesn’t melt and dilute the brine.  Jiggle the cooler every few hours to make sure the brine is contacting the meat at every spot.

I have experimented with thawing frozen meat directly in brine, and I’m sad to say, it doesn’t work.  Your meat needs to be completely or at least mostly thawed before it goes into the brine.  So if your turkey is still frozen the day before Thanksgiving, you have to rapid thaw it in the sink or bathtub in ice water before it can go into the brine.  Immerse a completely frozen turkey in brine, and it will still be solidly frozen 12 hours later.  I would have thought the salt water would unfreeze the turkey, like pouring salt on ice melts it…but it doesn’t.  It allows the temperature of the brine to actually drop BELOW 32F, which is basically just like a freezer for the turkey, keeping it nicely frozen.

Any additional flavorings you place into the brine will be transported into the meat.  The best brine I ever made was a jalapeno honey brine.  (But MAN was it expensive with all that honey!)  Most of the time, though, I just use water, salt, and sometimes a little brown sugar (especially for pork, but occasionally for poultry).  Water and salt is all you need.  Adding flavors typically means heating up the brine to extract the flavors (like from herbs, garlic, etc.), which results in evaporation, and subsequent cooling…and you end up with messed up and unknown ratios.  So I try to seek out liquids that are already flavored, like juice, wine, and vinegar, which have the added benefit of acids to help protect and tenderize the meat.  My go-to Thanksgiving brine is half apple cider, and half apple cider vinegar.  The flavor ends up INCREDIBLE.  Some fans have expressed concern over using so much vinegar, but I’ve used apple cider vinegar as the SOLE liquid in my brines with fabulous results.  It smells a little funny while baking, but the meat is incredible.

You might not be aware that most of the poultry you buy in the store is ALREADY brined.  Look for a statement to the effect of “Enhanced with a solution of broth and sodium phosphate.”  That’s a mild brining technique that drives chicken broth into the meat so that it will weigh more and therefore sell at a higher price.  Tricky, right?  One of the benefits of brining at home is that it will suck out the industrial brine and replace it with your own brine, reducing the amount of sodium phosphate in the meat…because your brine has a higher sodium ratio than the industrial brine.

For my recipe for perfectly brined Thanksgiving turkey, click here.

One of the only drawbacks to brining is that it saturates the skin with liquid, and it doesn’t get as crisp as unbrined meats.  There are some ways to counteract this.  First, brine the turkey so that you can remove it from the brine 12 hours before baking.  Thoroughly dry the skin with paper towels, and let the turkey sit in a pan in the fridge for 12 hours to dry out.  Then rub the turkey all over with olive oil, and start the roasting at a very high temperature…450F or 500F for the first 30 minutes, to really crisp up that skin.  Then lower the temp to 350F or 375F and roast until it’s done.  Please note that the weight of the bird will eventually squeeze some of the brine out of the meat, so don’t leave a brined piece of meat in the fridge for longer than 24 hours, or you’ll begin to lose the benefits of the brine.

While brined meats can be cooked to a higher temperature than unbrined meats, and still remain moist, this doesn’t excuse you from using a meat thermometer.  NEVER cook a turkey without one, and never trust those awful plastic thermometer that come inserted into many store-bought turkeys.  Don’t pull it out because that leaves a hole for juices to leak out.  Leave it in, ignore it, and remove it only after the meat has rested for 10-15 minutes after coming out of the oven.  Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast (make sure it’s not touching a bone) and remove the turkey when it hits 161F.  Tent it lightly with foil and let it rest so the juices are reabsorbed into the meat, and then carve the most delicious turkey you’ve ever tasted.

Feel free to check out my complete video guide to thawing, brining, and roasting a turkey: