Turkey 101: Why we have it and how to cook it

“No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”

–Alexander Hamilton

Thanksgiving is fast approaching. To well-seasoned and first-time hosts alike, that means preparing a festive feast. Pumpkin and pecan pies, sweet potatoes, fresh greens, cranberries and stuffing are among the sweet and savory items we all eagerly anticipate on a Thanksgiving table, but nothing is more exciting than the centerpiece of the meal — the turkey.

Digging into a turkey has been a harvest tradition since the Pilgrims of Plymouth, but it’s unlikely it was served at the first Thanksgiving. In colonist William Bradford’s journal, he mentions that the colonists hunted and ate wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621. This would certainly lead one to believe that turkey found its way onto the harvest celebration table. However, in colonist Edward Winslow’s personal account of the First Thanksgiving, he mentions the Pilgrims gathered “wild fowl” for the meal. This could mean anything from chicken to ducks to geese.

So then how did turkey become the star attraction of Thanksgiving feasts?

There are several different theories. First, turkey is a large bird, which allowed an entire family to enjoy a meal from one turkey where otherwise the same family might have needed several ducks, chickens or geese. Turkeys also didn’t appear to have a utilitarian purpose in the same way that cows or chickens did –— they don’t lay eggs or make milk. And unlike pork, which was easy to procure, turkeys were less common, making them feel like more of a special occasion main course.

Of course, all of these practical and pragmatic reasons could be pushed aside in favor of an alternate theory — that the turkey was pushed into prominence as a holiday delicacy by Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, when he sends the Cratchit family a Christmas turkey. Whatever the reason, when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the turkey had already found a warm welcome on the harvest feast table.

Thanksgiving trivia aside, the real issue at hand is one nearly every holiday host struggles with: How to make a plump, juicy turkey. The simple answer is to brine the bird.

Brining is a technique that, despite being in practice throughout most of the world for millennia, only made its way to North America in recent memory (think twenty or so years ago). When you wet-brine, it allows the meat or poultry to absorb heavily salted water. When the meat or poultry is cooked, the water stays put. By brining meat or poultry, the moisture loss that ordinarily takes place during cooking is decreased significantly, producing a juicy main course.

Ready to try brining and hit a home-run this holiday?

First, note that most brines require soaking overnight in refrigeration. Brining bags are available at the grocery store and are large enough to hold the bird and brining liquid and still fit in the refrigerator. The brining liquid is more than just salty water; it includes seasonings and spices that add to the complexity of flavors.

Follow along with Chef Greg Martin as he walks through the steps of making his favorite turkey brine recipe.

Bon appétit!

Poultry Brine

Prep time: 5 minutes
Makes: half gallon

1 quart water
¾ cup kosher salt
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon 5 peppercorn mix (whole peppercorns)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig thyme
1 clove

Combine all ingredients in a half gallon microwavable container and microwave (about 2 minutes) until salt and sugar are dissolved. Add enough ice to fill to half gallon mark. Once the ice melts into the warm liquid, brine can be used immediately.

Shelf life: 7 days

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