“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
- Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
I admit it. I heart Thanksgiving. In fact I have been waiting in anticipation for the last two weeks so I could start writing Thanksgiving posts. Any earlier, and I would risk being one of those “Holiday loons” that wear red acrylic reindeer sweaters with dickeys underneath, proselytizing the winter season right after the last Snickers bar is given away at Halloween.
I know it is so easy to ridicule Thanksgiving. The whole holiday lends itself to a series of uncomfortable family situations that usually end up with your brother showing pictures of himself in drag, your mom sloshing away too much Beaujolais, your sister screeching about how L. Ron Hubbard saved her life and Dad escaping to a very, very remote corner of the house with a case of beer and a television. Luckily, that wasn’t my family. Dysfunctional functionality was everyday reality. Really. That is what happens when you grow up Asian in the US.
But that is also why I love Thanksgiving. It truly is a holiday that has no rules. You can be anyone or anything you want to be and still celebrate Thanksgiving. Albino, gay, legally blind Cambodian? A southern Latino Homecoming Queen? Cranky WASP doing WASP studies? (a.k.a. my husband) Welcome to Thanksgiving. It’s all copasetic. Doesn’t matter where you come from or where you have been. Thanksgiving is for everyone.
This is also true of Thanksgiving dinner. We had turkey, wasabi-cranberry sauce (my creation), kim-chee, oyster pancakes, and a very boozy pecan pie. Other Thanksgivings I have gone to have included pakoras, tom-yum soup, flan, chitlins, green-chili tamales – and they were all delicious. But there is one cardinal rule: turkey. And unfortunately, this is where all too many things go wrong. Dry turkey. Stringy turkey. Flabby turkey. Raw and burnt turkey (my dad’s contribution, via deep-fryer). Turkey’s a bitch and then you die (or at least the tryptophan makes you feel like it).
But there is an answer to your turkey prayers. When I started making the Thanksgiving turkey, my sister thought she was going to be getting another mouthful of sawdust. But I proved them all wrong. The secret to a juicy bird is…brining. Yes, you heard me. Brining. No matter which bird you get, heritage, organic, free-range, whatever is at the grocery store at 11:00 Thanksgiving morning – they will inevitably be dry, unless you brine.
Why? I never thought you’d ask. (Here is the science lesson. If you just want the goods, feel free to skip to the recipe. I’m not offended.) The problem is that turkey has very little fat to keep it moist while it is roasting. This is the same reason why most home-cooked chicken and pork has the consistency of chalk dust. While basting and proper resting help, they do not still solve the fundamental problem of turkey water retention (and please, no bad jokes!).
How does brining allow for a juicy well-seasoned turkey? Osmosis and diffusion. A brine is basically a salt (and often sugar) water solution. Diffusion is the process that dictates that particles go from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. It is the same concept that allows for Tang to make your entire glass of water an artificial orangey flavor. Osmosis is the same process, but with respect to water. In brine, the salt, sugar and water molecules will distribute themselves from the brine to the turkey (higher concentration to lower concentration). The salt (and to some extent the sugar) molecules cause the proteins in meat to start unraveling or denature (the same process that turns a raw egg white into a rubbery mass when it cooks). Through denaturation, the molecules within the meat will start to interact with each other, forming a sticky matrix that absorbs and locks onto the water molecules. Once the turkey is exposed to heat, the matrix forms a gel that prevents both the water and the seasoning from seeping out of your turkey. The result? A turkey that is both seasoned and juicy.
You can use brine for all sorts of low-fat meats and seafood, like pork cutlets, chicken breasts or shrimp. How long the protein sits in the brine depends on the weight of the meat considered. The basic rule for brining is as follows:
1 Qt. Water + 5 oz. Salt + 1/2 c. Sugar = 1 pound of food (not to exceed 2 gallons)
Brine 1 hour per pound, not less than 30 minutes
The only problem with brining is that while you get a lot of moisture into your bird, your bird might be feeling a little flabby on the edges. In other words, no crispy brown skin. But there is a way to solve this. Go Chinese. The Chinese air-dry their ducks before they go into the roaster. Air-drying not only evaporates any excess moisture, but also tightens the skin, thus encouraging crispiness. I have seen various methods to do this, blow-drying, hand-fanning, and the ridiculously labor-intensive straw-blowing between the skin and the meat (Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck suggested this. His sous chefs probably have to be replaced every day). The easiest way is to let your bird dry overnight in the refrigerator after brining, and roast per usual.
Now that you have the turkey secret, go get that bird!
Vietnamese Roast Turkey
Warning! Will Robinson. Warning! You need to prepare this recipe about 3-4 days in advance, especially if you intend to air-dry the turkey before you roast (see above). Most of the work is unattended. Just make sure you have a container that is large enough to hold the bird and the brine. If you are in an area of the country that is cold enough (3-4ºC or 40ºF), you can leave the brine, securely covered (one year, the deer got to my pie) outside (I use the garage). If not, place in the refrigerator.
Time: 4 hours and 15 minutes (making brine and roasting) + 72 hours brining + 1 night air drying
3/4 c. plus 2 tablespoons kosher salt (see note)
3/4 c. sugar
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1/4 c. celery, diced
1 leek, diced
2 bay leaves
1 tbs. black peppercorns
1 tbs. coriander seeds
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. fennel seeds
2 star anise
2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme
12-14 pd. turkey
Sticky Rice Stuffing (see later post)
4 tbs. of olive oil or butter
1. In a 16-quart or larger stockpot (find the largest one that you have), boil 2 gallons of water. Add salt, sugar and stir to dissolve. Turn off heat, and add carrot, onion, celery, leek, spices and thyme. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate.
2. Remove giblets and liver from turkey (reserve for another use). Add turkey to the stockpot and weigh down with a plate so the turkey remains underneath the brine. (Feel free to use another container if there is not enough room for the turkey and the brine in the stockpot.) Refrigerate for 72 hours (see above).
3. If you want the crispy skin, the night before you roast, take out the turkey. Pat dry with paper towels (remember to empty and dry the cavity). Place turkey on a rack (a cooling rack is good for this) with a plate underneath it (to catch any possible drips) and place it uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. (You can skip this step if you don’t have the time, energy or wherewithal – it’s not going to prevent your bird from being delicious.)
4. To roast: Preheat oven to 425ºF. Pat dry any excess liquid that may have accumulated on the turkey skin. Loosely fill turkey with stuffing at both ends, and truss.
5. Place turkey in a large roasting pan, and roasts until it starts to brown slightly, about 20-25 minutes. At that point, reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF, and roast for 12 minutes a pound, until internal thigh temperature is at 130ºF. Baste frequently with olive oil/butter and pan juices. If the turkey browns too quickly, cover turkey lightly with foil.
6. Remove turkey from oven, and tent loosely with foil, and let it rest for 20-25 minutes. Spoon stuffing out of the turkey and serve immediately with wasabi-cranberry relish (see note).Note: Do NOT use table salt for brining. It is much too salty. Only use Kosher salt. Recipes for Sticky Rice Stuffing and Wasabi-Cranberry Relish will come in later posts.