To Brine or not to Brine

Last year we raised 15 heritage turkeys – the “rare turkey assortment” from McMurray Hatchery. We lost 1 the night before the big trip to the processor, and saved 3 in an ill-fated attempt to keep a few for breeding.  Of the 11 we took to the processor, I sold 7 of them to friends and kept 4 for myself.  I ate 2 of them last year, and have 2 left.  Letting your meat sit a year in the freezer isn’t generally a good idea, but I knew in the spring that we were not going to get any fresh ones this year so I went ahead and saved one to cook for this thanksgiving.

Commercial turkeys are almost always a breed called the Broad Breasted White.  These birds have been raised mostly since after WWII, and were engineered to have put on the maximum amount of weight in the shortest amount of time.  They also have white feathers, which make it easier for people not to notice when there are pin feathers left in the bird after plucking.  These birds get gigantic – and they do it in record time.  They do such a good job at getting big, that they get too big to do the deed, and without the friendly hand of man (ok, who likes that visual 🙂 ) would not be able to reproduce.  They also can’t really walk around that much either – so even if you buy a free range turkey, if it was a broad breasted white chances are it didn’t range far from the feeder.  This makes for some soft mushy muscles – not unlike what you wind up with when you sit in front of a computer all day, only moving to feed yourself.  These turkeys don’t get very old either – they can reach market weight in a little more than 4 months.  Young birds just don’t get a chance to develop much flavor.  But that’s ok – these birds were not bred for flavor, they were bred for cost effectiveness.  That’s why a lot of these turkeys are sold injected with stuff to make them taste better.  Well – I guess that injecting also makes them heavier, so people can charge you for water weight.

By contrast, heritage breeds are a more self-sufficient bird.  They do not get as large as a commercial turkey breed, and as a result have no problems reproducing without our help.  They have not been bred to have DDD size breasts, and they can fly.  They also have better immune systems.  They take longer to reach their market weight, so they’ll be older when they go to the processor – usually at 6-7 months.  This means they have some time to develop more flavor.  They will range easily, and are happiest when they can eat bugs and grass and what not.  They aren’t as food obsessed, so will leave the feeder and go roaming.  This means that they get a lot of exercise, which makes them lean and gives their meat more texture.

So with the big day arriving tomorrow the question of how to cook this fancy heritage turkey has come up again.  If you google “Cooking Heritage Turkeys”, you’ll get a lot of very strong opinions on the subject.  The one thing people agree on is that you probably don’t want to treat this turkey the same way as your standard commercially raised turkey. Two of the biggest things I see people discussing are whether or not you want to brine this heritage turkey, and what type of cooking temperature to use.  Last year I followed the recommendations that I read here and went with the no-brine, high temperature approach.  I pulled it out when the thigh reached 150 for fear of overcooking, just as the article suggested.  The white meat was absolutely perfect and delicious.  The dark meat was undercooked and tough (but still really tasty – I ate it anyway).  Over the summer, I decided to try a different cooking method, and I brined the turkey and smoked it – so the low and slow method.  While the skin was like leather, the meat itself was delicious, and the dark meat was much better cooked this way.  So – I’ve decided that for this Thanksgiving, I’m going to do the brining again and roast it at a lower temperature – I’ll probably do 275.  I’m also going to let the thing come up to a higher temperature.  I found one recommendation for 180 at the thigh, but I think I’ll take it to just 165 and see how that goes.  The recipe I’m using is below – I’ll post a review of how it turned out when I’m done.

To prepare the turkey:

  • Put 1 8 pound heritage turkey in a 5 gallon stockpot with 3.5 gallons water.  Add 1 cup kosher salt per gallon of water, and 1/4 cup maple sugar per gallon water (I ran out of maple syrup, so I used mostly maple syrup and a little bit of honey to get me to the right amount).  Stir up salt till it dissolves, cover pot and put in fridge for 12 hours.  Make sure the turkey is fully submerged.  Remove from brine and allow to air dry in the fridge for 8 hours before cooking.
  • Create an herbed butter mixture with about a pound of butter, whatever fresh herbs I have laying around the yard (which happens to be sage, parsley, and rosemary) and some pepper.  Rub this mixture under the skin as well as on top of it.  Put some in the cavity too.
  • Stuff cavity with onions, celery, and carrots.
  • Put oven at 275 and roast, breast side up till close to correct internal temp (165 at thigh).  I’m guessing this will take a good 4 hours.  Then crank the oven to 450 and brown for about 20-30 minutes to crispy up the skin.

I’m still internally debating whether to mess with starting the turkey breast down and then flipping it, or whether to brown first at 450, then drop the temp, or do the browning last.  I am pretty sure I’m sticking to the plan listed above, but you never know what I’ll do in the heat of the moment. Flipping a bird (heh) is a much more doable thing when your bird is only 8 pounds – I definitely wouldn’t even consider it for one of those giant birds.

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