For years I’ve been disappointed by my turkey-cooking efforts because the bird has inevitably been dry and rather stringy. But then I discovered the magical, transforming effect of brining.
Brining a Turkey
Brining takes me back to my school chemistry classes where we were drilled in osmosis. My daughter Rose can still quote from her Year 9 science classes: “osmosis is the process by which water is transported from a low concentration to a high concentration by a semi-permeable membrane”. Brining a turkey is osmosis in action, because the brine (low concentration) moves into the cells of the turkey (high concentration), making it juicy and moist. (Just a quick cooking-science lesson for you!)
Because of this, the turkey absorbs all the good parts of the brine – the salty-sweet flavour of the herbs and spices the brine is made with. Brining is my not-so-secret secret to cooking tender, moist meat without fail. Trust me, it makes a huge difference! I do it all the time now, with chicken, pork and duck as well as turkey. (When I brine duck, I replace the honey in the brine with marmalade and the herbs with a few whole star anise and some ginger root.)
Of course, at this time of year there’s never any room in the fridge. I get around this by brining my turkey in a large plastic bag left inside a chilly bin with ice all around it. If you are brining something small, like a chicken breast or a pork chop, you only need to brine it for an hour or so. With a turkey, I like to brine it overnight.
Yesterday we tested this recipe using a free-range turkey from Croziers, then sat down to enjoy it as an early Christmas feast with the team.
Served with new potatoes, fresh asparagus and broad beans and carrots from the garden, stuffing and a pan gravy, it was simply sublime.
My Top Tips for Cooking Turkey
- The Brine recipe below makes enough to cover a size 4 turkey. Increase the quantities for a larger turkey - you need enough to fully submerge the bird
- Stuff the turkey just before cooking – stuffing it ahead of time allows bacteria to breed
- Spread a sliced onion around the bottom of a roasting dish and put the turkey on top – it forms the most amazing pan brownings
- Adding pear cider to the roasting dish infuses the meat with a lovely sweet flavour and helps keep it moist
- Pop the turkey giblets and liver in to roast as well. Once the turkey is cooked let them simmer with the juices from your vegetables or some chicken stock to make a nice gravy, then remove and discard
Tender, Juicy Brined Turkey
Prep time 30 mins + standing
Cook time 2 hrs 45 mins
2 red or white onions, peeled and thickly sliced
size 4 turkey (4.5-5kg)
50g butter, softened
sprigs of tarragon or thyme
1 litre pear cider (I used Old Mout Pear Scrumpy Cider)
8-10 dried pear halves (optional)
1½ cups salt
¾ cup honey
9 springs rosemary
zest and juice of 3 lemons
18 bay leaves
3 tbsp black peppercorns
a large bunch thyme
9 cloves garlic, crushed
1.5 litres boiling water
4.5 litres cold water
3 rashers bacon or pancetta, diced
½ cup chopped dried pears
½ cup shelled pistachios or almonds
3 tbsp chopped thyme
3 tbsp chopped parsley
2 sage leaves, finely sliced
3 cups fresh soft breadcrumbs (chunky)
salt and pepper, to taste
3 cups chicken stock (or use vegetable cooking water)
¼ cup cornflour ¼ cup cold water
salt and fine white pepper, to taste
Defrost turkey slowly in a chilly bin or the fridge for 24-48 hours. Tip out the juices and rinse well inside and out. To make the Brine, place all ingredients except cold water in a large bowl and stir to dissolve. Mix in cold water.
Place turkey in a large clean plastic bag or busket. Pour in the brine, tie the top of the bag and place in the fridge or in a chilly bin surrounded by ice. Stand 12 hours or up to 24 hours. The following morning, take the turkey out of the brine and pat dry inside and out.
To make the stuffing
Gently cook onions and bacon or pancetta in butter until softened (about 6-7 minutes). Remove from heat and add remaining stuffing ingredients except eggs. Mix to combine. Add eggs and stir through evenly. Stuff inside turkey cavity and truss turkey with string if desired.
Place sliced onions in a large roasting dish and place stuffed turkey on top. Rub softened butter over the top of the turkey. Scatter sprigs of tarragon or thyme into the baking tray with the dried pears, if using. Roast at 180C for 45 minutes. Pour cider into dish, reduce heat to 160C and cook for a further 2 hours or until juices run clear when turkey is speared in the thickest part of the thigh.
Remove from oven, lift turkey out of roasting dish and turn upside down onto its breast in a shallow serving dish (this allows the juices to flow back into the breast meat). Cover with tin foil and a couple of clean teatowels and leave to rest while you make the gravy.
To make the gravy
Discard onions and herbs and put pears with turkey ready to serve. Bring liquids in roasting pan to a simmer on the stovetop and add chicken stock or vegetable cooking water. Mix together cornflour and cold water and stir into simmering gravy to thicken. Season with lots of fine white pepper and salt to taste.
See the Recipe section for more Turkey recipes.