Practice makes perfect especially when it comes to the Thanksgiving meal, but how many of us actually get a chance to perfect our turkey during the year? I say now is the time to practice your brining and cooking technique with some chicken or pork in place of the turkey. You can choose a whole chicken, or just the pieces; a pork tenderloin or even chops works great here too. The point is, since we probably don’t do a lot of brining, or oven roasting, on a regular basis, a little practice now will insure that you bring you’re a-game to the kitchen on Thanksgiving day.
I’ve written about brines before. A lean cut of meat, or any large bird, like a turkey or chicken that has a combination of white and dark meat, can benefit from a little soak in a brine. This salty, flavored solution is soaked up by the meat’s protein so when it’s cooked it there’s a lot more moisture in your meat to keep it from drying out. This is especially important for whole birds – like your Thanksgiving Day turkey, where the white, lean breast meat can dry out way before you’ve hit the done mark on the thermometer.
The standard ratios for a brine are easy enough to remember and using a brine doesn’t require too much effort. So why practice? First, you do need to know how to make and use a brine, so you’re not all flustered the day before Thanksgiving trying to figure out whether you’re using the right amount of salt and whether you’re going to over-brine the bird. But, really, the whole purpose in practicing is to learn how to layer in flavor so your Turkey can be as personalized as the rest of your menu.
Using a brine is easy enough. Use the standard ratios and soaking times and presto, a delicious moist lean cut of meat. Add more liquid or decrease the amount of salt and you can lengthen the time your meat soaks in the brine. (Just remember, too much salt and too long in the brine solution can have the opposite effect.) You can see from my recipe below that I’ve cut the salt way back. But this is practice, and I want the luxury of letting my meat soak all day in the brine. By cutting back on the total amount of salt, I can make the brine solution in the morning and let my meat soak all day without worry.
The real fun in practicing, though, is experimenting with other flavors that can be layered into the brine. Using hard spices, like juniper berry and clove, bay leaf, cinnamon sticks or Szechuan peppercorns, is a great place to start. You can go the fruit or vegetal route by adding to the brine some citrus and apple slices, or onions. Of course you don’t want to forget those fragrant, aromatic nut oils, liquors and liqueurs. A little vegetable stock can’t hurt either.
Try these standard ratios and soaking times to start:
Turkey (average size – 12 to 18 pounds) = 2 cups salt to 1 gallon liquid; 12 hours.
Chicken (average size 6 to 8 pounds) = 1 cup salt to 2 quarts (8 cups) liquid; 6 hours.
Chicken or Turkey breasts, and Pork chops or tenderloin = ½ cup salt to 1 quart (4 cups) liquid. 4 hours.
When you remove your protein from the solution, give a rinse and pat dry, and then let it come to room temperature before cooking. Cook to your desired internal doneness, keeping in mind that after you remove your meat from the oven, especially if it’s a bone-in cut, the temperature will rise on average from 5 degrees to 15 or 20 degrees (for larger birds, like turkeys) while the meat rests. And, rest it must!
This recipe is my go-to brine blend in my kitchen. It has a low salt to liquid ratio, which I prefer simply because of the flexibility it gives me in soaking times. If you can be ready as the standard times listed about suggest, then by all means, up the salt. But what really makes this recipe sing is the combination of the spices, aromatic oil, and the bourbon! The flavors of the cinnamon sticks, red onions, bay leaves, bourbon, and hazelnut oil really do the trick as far as pulling up and layering the flavors of the brine mixture through the meat. But that’s just me, and that’s why we practice: to see what works, what doesn’t and, what we like best in terms of flavor.
You can us this recipe boneless skinless chicken or turkey breasts, or pork tenderloin, and let it soak all day while at work (you can even stretch it to10 hours but don’t push it too much longer or you’ll end up with dry, leathery results). Choose some or all of the add-ins and see what tickles your taste buds. Come Thanksgiving, everyone will want to know your secret for making the best turkey EVER!
Recipe: Thanksgiving Practice Meal
Serves 6 to 8
2 boneless skinless breast of turkey OR 6 to 8 boneless skinless breasts of chicken OR 2 to 3pork tenderloins
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons coarse, grey sea salt (substitute 3 tablespoons coarse (kosher) salt)
1 cup hot water
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil (substitute any other fragrant nut oil, like walnut or pistachio)
3 tablespoons bourbon
2 cups cold water
1 small red onion, peeled and sliced into rings
4 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
15 to 20 peppercorns (assorted varieties)
About 8 allspice berries
About 4 juniper berries
About 6 cloves
2 large, heavy duty zip top storage bags
Make the brine. In a large mixing bowl combine the brown sugar and sea salt. Add the hot water and whisk until the salt and sugar melts. Whisk in the hazelnut oil while the mixture is still hot, and then add in the bourbon. Add the cold water (you can add 1 cup ice and then about 1 ½ cups cold water) and stir to combine. Make sure your brine mixture is no longer hot.
Meanwhile, divide your proteins between the re-sealable plastic bags. Divide the onion and spices between the two bags. Pour half the brine into one bag and zip shut. Repeat the process with the remaining bag. Place the bags in a bowl (to capture any liquid that might leak out) and brine in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 8. Remove from the brine and pat dry about 30 minutes before cooking.
Prepare for oven roasting. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Place a rack over a rimmed sheet pan that has been sprayed with a non-stick cooking spray. Set aside. Place a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When hot add 2 tablespoons of grapeseed oil and swirl to coat the pan. Place the proteins into the skillet and reduce the heat to medium. Pan sear all over until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove the meat to the prepared sheet pan and place in the preheated oven. Continue to cook in the oven for about 8 to 10 minutes more, or until the temperature reads about 135° F on an instant read thermometer (Note this is my preferred temperature for doneness in my kitchen; the USDA suggests a much higher temperature). Remove from the oven and tent with foil to rest, at least 5 minutes, preferably 10; for bone in rest a minimum of 10 minutes, preferably 20. After the resting period, carve the meat into desired serving pieces. Drizzle with any pan drippings. Serve immediately.
Published in Donna Marie Desforback to top