It’s Turkey Time, But You Can Chicken Out

Don’t feel like you have to eat, or cook, a turkey for Thanksgiving. There are lots of choices out there. You have to take into consideration your tastes and your circumstances. I won’t be cooking a turkey this year. Most likely, I’ll go with a chicken. But for those of you who will be doing a turkey, there are some things you might want to think about, even if you’re a seasoned cook.

Almost everyone will be buying a frozen turkey. Just make sure you have yours at least a week ahead of time. No later than Sunday, you should have your turkey thawing in the refrigerator, because it will take anywhere from two to four days depending on size.

When buying your turkey, remember they are all NOT just the same. Some are going to be what’s called “self-basting.” That means they’ve been injected with a solution of salt, broth, and seasonings. While these birds don’t dry out as easily, they are loaded with salt. If you brine the turkey, and you should, you won’t need that. But if you wait too long to buy your turkey, you may have limited choices. As always, check the label. It should tell you if a solution has been added and tell you what’s in it.

Most people buy too big a turkey. If you’re a bachelor like me, you might be eating turkey for weeks. Figure you need about a pound per person per meal. Remember that the turkey’s weight includes bones and all. So, a ten-pound turkey should feed five people two meals each. There are lots of leftover turkey recipes floating around. Maybe you have a favorite you might share with the rest of us. Just enter it in the comments.

Brining means soaking the turkey in a saltwater solution. The best solution for a container is a clean five-gallon bucket. You can find them at a hardware store if you don’t have one available. Another possibility is a large metal or plastic cooler. You need a cool place to keep it, too. If you have access to a walk-in fridge, like they have at restaurants, that’s ideal. Also, a good option is you have a spare refrigerator or one you can borrow the use for a couple days. The turkey and the brine have to remain below 40°F to keep them safe from bacteria. You might think the salt solution would be enough, but there are bacteria that thrive in salty environments. Don’t put the container outside if it’s cold. Animals can smell it and will try to get to it if they can. A cooler works well as long as you can keep adding ice to keep it cold. Just make sure it’s big enough to keep the turkey completely submerged.

You’ll want to make your brine first and then wash your turkey while the brine solution cools. First, thoroughly clean your sink. Use bleach if you have it. Make sure you rinse the sink completely so there’s no soap or bleach left behind. Wash the turkey inside and out. Don’t forget to pull out the bag of goodies inside. Don’t throw it away, it’ll be used later.

There are many recipes for brining solutions out there. If you don’t already have one, here’s a simple one.

  • 1-gallon water
  • 1-gallon ice
  • 1 cup salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon each of rosemary, sage, thyme, and savory or 4 tablespoons of poultry seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon each of optional seasonings such as cumin, oregano, black peppercorns, basil, or red pepper flakes
  1. Combine everything except the ice in a large stock pot and turn the heat up to high.
  2. Bring it to a boil, stirring to make sure everything is dissolved and mixed.
  3. Remove from heat and let it cool completely, for about two to three hours.
  4. Put the turkey into the container breast side down, legs up. Pour in the solution and add the ice. If the solution doesn’t completely cover the turkey, add more water. Make sure the cavity is filled.
  5. Put the container, covered, into a cool place where it can stay below 40.
  6. Brining should take at least ten hours, but not more than 48.

Brining works by using the salt as a conductor for the other flavors. Don’t worry, it won’t make the turkey salty. But it will make it cook faster and retain more moisture.

When you remove the turkey from the brine, drain off as much as you can and then pat dry before preparing it for the oven.