Now that we have lived through our awesome 3rd Annual Halloween Bash, it is time to start thinking about the next major holiday, Thanksgiving!
Some people don’t enjoy this holiday very much, but I’m not one of them! I actually like the traditional food (but with a twist!), doing all of the preparations for it and having a relaxed, convivial evening with friends and family. Unfortunately, I have had to travel on this holiday the past few years, so I’m away from my home and kitchen, which means that the cooking gets left to others. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t share my tips and tricks with you! First things first—if you want to have an amazing feast, and you aren’t a vegetarian or vegan, your dinner will most likely center around the turkey. If you want a spectacularly awesome tasting turkey, you need to do the following things: order a heritage bird and brine it before you roast it.
The biggest complaint that I hear from my family and others about the turkey on Thanksgiving is that they don’t like the way it tastes; therefore, they don’t want to deal with preparing one. I totally understand—why waste time, money and effort on preparing a huge protein that no one likes? But if you spring for a heritage bird and you brine it, it will completely change your feelings on the Thanksgiving turkey because it will taste SO MUCH BETTER! I really can’t convey this accurately through this post—the last time I had a large gathering for Thanksgiving, I walked into my kitchen to find people standing over the carcass, pulling the last bits of meat off of the bone and stuffing it into their mouths. It makes a huge difference!
What is a heritage bird? It is a breed of turkey that is, according to Wikipedia, “capable of being raised in a manner that more closely matches the natural behavior and life cycle of wild turkeys.” So, no factory farming, which you probably know all about. These breeds are also very old, some allegedly dating back to the 18th century and have a much richer flavor than the turkeys that are factory farmed. They have a slower growth rate, so they are often much smaller than the now conventional birds that are sold in grocery stores.
You need to pre-order your heritage bird. There are many places online that you can do so, but D’Artagnan and Heritage Foods USA are two good ones. If you live in Southern California, you can order a heritage bird from Mary’s Turkey at many Whole Food’s or Bristol Farms, but you do have to call and reserve. If you are able to pick it up from a store, you save on the shipping costs, otherwise they will be overnighted to you frozen. These birds are much more expensive than what you can pick up from the supermarket and shipping is also expensive, so I suggest that to offset some of the cost, you have everyone else contribute the sides and drinks. I don’t mind springing for this as it is once a year–I want everyone to have good memories of our holidays together and I firmly believe that how the food tastes really factors in to that.
Now that you have the bird, which you should get delivered a few days prior to when you need to cook it, you need to defrost it in your refrigerator. After it is thawed, you need to brine it. Brining, or soaking in a salt water solution with aromatics, ensures that you will have a tender, juicy bird. You can buy a brining mix, but it is so easy and simple, you should make your own–see my recipe below!
Turkey Brine Recipe
- 1 1/2 gallons of water
- 1 1/2 cups of sea salt
- 1/2 cup of white sugar
- 6-8 bay leaves
- 2 tsp fresh rosemary
- 1 Tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 Tbsp fennel seeds
- 2 Tbsp dried juniper berries
- 3 Tbsp whole peppercorns
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
- Rind from half of an orange, chopped into small pieces, no pith
Simmer half the water, salt and sugar over medium heat. Remove from heat, add additional ingredients, allow to come to room temperature. Once at room temperature, add remaining water and pour over turkey. This should cover a turkey that is up to 12 pounds, recipe can be doubled for larger birds.
Before you submerge your bird, you need to decide where you are going to let it chill. Obviously, you have to have a container that can fit your turkey and the brine and then either go back into the refrigerator or you can do like I have done, get a brining bag and set it up in a cooler that has ice on the bottom. You must get a food grade bag or container for storage, as any other type of plastic will potentially leech chemicals into your turkey and that is something to avoid! Let your brine cool to room temperature, stuff the turkey into the brining bag, pour the brine over it, close the bag, put a few more ice cubes around the turkey and then let it rest overnight or about 12 hours. Then, remove the turkey, put it on a tray and allow the skin to dry out in the refrigerator prior to roasting. It isn’t a great idea to cook your stuffing in a brined bird due to the salt content, but you should put some things in there to help maintain the flavor and moisture level. I usually quarter an onion and an orange, along with herbs like thyme and bay leaves and stuff them in there prior to roasting.
Because we included sugar in our brine, the skin is going to darken faster than if we hadn’t, but if the skin is wet, it kinda won’t as uniformly, so you do have to watch this and adjust, depending on what your situation is with the bird and how long it could dry out. You need to follow the included instructions for the time that you roast it, although I usually start at a higher temperature and then lower it after 20 minutes. If the skin is getting too dark, tent it with foil. You can also put bacon strips over the breast to help keep it from getting too dark too soon and then remove about 30 minutes prior to completed cooking time. You should end up with a beautifully brown, incredibly tasty turkey that your guests will rave over for years to come!
As a note, you can’t make gravy with the pan drippings as they will be entirely too salty, but never fear! I have a recipe to make turkey stock and then gravy that I will post very soon!
Do you have any experience with heritage birds? What do you usually do to your turkey for Thanksgiving? Leave me a comment below!