A lot of turkey comes to the table dry. So dry that it takes a generous, what-the-hell pour from the gravy boat to make it palatable.
The reason is anatomical: the modern turkey is a large, irregularly shaped composite of white and dark meat (the ratio is about 70 percent to 30 percent). Ideally, the breast would be cooked to a food safe internal temperature of 165 degrees, while the legs and thighs, which have more connective tissue and fat, achieve maximum tenderness at 180 degrees. But cooking and serving the parts separately just can't match the eye-popping appeal of serving that smoke-burnished, handsomely browned holiday bird whole.
Many workarounds have been championed over the years. The two I find most effective (especially when subjecting a bird to the dry heat of the grill) are brining and injecting.
Without getting too scientific, soaking certain animal proteins in saltwater prior to cooking helps keep them moist. Not only do they absorb some of the liquid--their weight can increase by as much as 8 percent--but the salt denatures the protein strands within the muscles, discouraging shrinkage. With its high proportion of white meat, which has inherently less fat than dark, turkey is an excellent candidate for brining. (Read more about brining, and get a Bourbon- and Maple-Brined Turkey recipe.)
The advantages of brining turkey:
• Brining not only hydrates the meat, but uniformly seasons it.
• Brined meat will be noticeably more tender.
• White meat will stay moister while the dark meat finishes cooking.
• Flavorful ingredients like sugar (which helps with caramelization), chopped onion, garlic, citrus peel, whole spices, etc. can be added to the brine to customize it.
The disadvantages of brining turkey:
• Because it, too, has absorbed the brine, the skin will not brown and crisp as readily as skin that hasn't been brined. To overcome this problem, pat the turkey dry with paper towels after brining and let the turkey sit on a rack inside a rimmed baking sheet, uncovered, in the refrigerator for several hours before cooking.
• Drippings will be salty. Keep this in mind if you intend to make gravy.
• A significant amount of refrigerator space, always at a premium around Thanksgiving, must be reserved for the turkey and its brine. Alternatively, put the turkey and brine into a clean insulated cooler and weight with leak-proof bags of ice. Change the ice as needed.
• Brining takes time--up to 24 hours for a whole turkey.
• Brining is not recommended for many brands of mass-produced turkeys which have already been injected with solutions, or in the case of kosher turkeys, already dry-brined.
And let us know which technique you prefer on the Barbecue Board.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.