The great turkey debate

To brine or not to brine, and other pressing poultry questions
By LOUISA KASDON  |  November 21, 2012

"Brining" is the new vogue in turkey cooking. The basic idea is that you submerge the bird in a water bath with several cups of salt and spices overnight and, through the magic of osmosis, get tender turkey flesh come morning. Brining recipes are rampant in the media; supermarkets now stock brining kits right next to the Butterball display. But is brining worth its salt? Curious, we sought out sage advice from local chefs.

Executive chef of Beacon Hill Bistro

"I personally never brine turkey. If the final product is crispy skin, with nice browned edges, never put it in liquid. Brining makes turkey spongy at the expense of flavor. I think the best thing to do with a turkey is to salt the skin, salt under the skin, put salt in the cavity to season the bird. There's a lot you can do to get a moist, flavorful turkey without dumping it in water. Plus, to brine a turkey for a day, you have to keep it cold and in the refrigerator. That doesn't make a lot of sense, especially if you live in the city. You have to give up your whole refrigerator to brine a good-sized turkey and keep it cold. What you really need is a good meat thermometer."

Executive chef of Storyville and chef-owner of Chef Louie Night and the forthcoming Tavern Road

"Brining? Eh? Meh? Why bother? Brining adds moisture to the flesh but doesn't change the fact that some parts of the turkey cook faster than others. I think the iconic image of the perfectly golden roasted turkey on a huge platter is a stage prop. It looks great but won't be cooked right. It's impossible to get all the meat — light and dark — perfectly done unless you break it down into pieces. Best idea: roast the turkey whole until it is golden and the breast is done, show it around the room, and put the legs back in the oven for 20 more minutes."

Chef-owner of Summer Shack

"Brining is a plus/minus. It can add flavor, but if the bird spends too much time in the brine, you dry it out because the salt extracts moisture. I'm not a briner. The only way to cook a turkey perfectly — meaning uniformly — with all meat being cooked evenly at the same time is to deep fry it. Failing that, split the legs from the breast and cook them separately (on the bone); they will cook very nicely but not look great on the holiday table. That was the way we did it when I worked in the big old hotels."

Chef-owner of Craigie on Main

"Brining is an attempt to put two things into equilibrium by osmosis: the natural salinity of the fresh bird and the higher salt of the brine. The idea is that you can equalize the saline content in the bird and keep it moist and juicy, and can add a little flavor kick to a pretty plain protein without adding more salt. The hard thing is that you can't taste what is happening to the raw bird as it is brining, so you sort of have to take it on faith. Brining works for us in the restaurant, where we have a huge walk-in refrigerator. . . . What I would do at home is break down the bird, brine it in pieces, and then roast it in the oven."

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  Topics: Food Features , Holidays, food features
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