In this age of culinary enlightenment, confusion persists about whether a kosher turkey benefits from brining, partly because of a misconception about how much salt the bird is exposed to during processing.
First, why brine? To even out the cooking of dark and white meat in a whole turkey. Dark meat contains more collagen, a protein that begins to break down at 160 degrees. The lighter breast meat is done at 145 degrees and starts to dry out at around 150 degrees. So the challenge is to get all the meat to the food-safe temperature of 165 degrees while keeping it all moist and pleasantly edible. That’s where the salt of a brine comes in.
In a wet brine, water and salt move slowly, over a number of hours, into the meat as the bird is submerged. The overall water content of the bird increases and the salt begins to break down some of the muscle proteins, making them less able to contract when heated. Liquid still leaves during roasting, but because less of it gets squeezed out and the bird begins cooking with a greater amount of water present within the meat, more of it remains. The result is a moister, more tender turkey.
For a dry brine, about a tablespoon of salt — often with flavor add-ins — per five pounds of turkey is rubbed outside, inside and under the skin, and the turkey is refrigerated, again, for hours or days.
The religious requirements of preparing kosher meat and poultry include the application of dry salt to all exposed surfaces, which is intended to remove as much blood as possible; this is called kashering. The key differences between that and brining are length of the salting and the intended goal.
Kosher food can be found in nearly every major grocery chain nationwide. Religious requirements aside, some consumers believe kosher products are inherently better because of their required rabbinic supervision. Perhaps that’s why, while Jews make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population, more than 40 percent of the packaged food sold in the country is certified as kosher, according to the market research firm Mintel. The market for kosher food is steadily growing, with food quality, healthfulness and safety being the most common reasons cited by nonobservant kosher food consumers.
While poultry is not, in the strictest sense, “meat,” early rabbis declared that it should be treated as such to avoid potential confusion between such items as a chicken breast and a veal cutlet. Thus, turkey, duck, chicken and other similar birds are subject to the same rules as beef. For those who prepare and serve exclusively kosher food at home — like my family — buying kosher-certified poultry is the way to go.
Here’s the process for kashering turkey, as described by Rabbi Moshe Klarberg from the Orthodox Union, the principle kosher certifying organization in the United States:
“The turkeys are soaked in water for at least 30 minutes. After that, they are given a few minutes for excess water to drip off them and then they are ‘salted.’ Salt is applied both inside and outside the turkeys until they are totally coated with a thin layer of salt. Any type of salt is suitable but, of course, sea salt is preferred. After one hour, the birds are rinsed by a sequence of hosing them down and by immersion in three successive tanks of water. There is no stagnant water used, but it is constantly being refreshed. The procedure is mostly automated, but there is manual labor involved at certain points.”
The amount of time the birds are actually in water during the rinsing and immersion varies among the different kosher poultry processing plants because there is no specific time period required (for religious purposes). The goal is to remove the salt and blood, not to enhance the water or salt content of the meat.
Because there isn’t enough time for the kashering salt to affect the flavor of the bird, that means a kosher turkey isn’t subjected to a true brine.
The rabbi’s explanation backs up what I’ve been doing for the past 12 years: brining my kosher turkeys for Thanksgiving. Although the components of my brines have differed slightly over the years, the results have not.
I switched to a brine after trying and combining a number of other methods to avoid dried-out white meat. Those methods included roasting the turkey breast side down; placing herbed margarine between the skin and breast meat; filling the cavity with cut-up fruit; basting frequently; varying the cooking temperatures; and the very popular “turkey in a bag.” None of those approaches consistently resulted in white meat as moist, flavorful and tender, and skin as crispy, as when I brined my kosher bird.
This year’s main course at my house will again be wet-brined for 16 to 24 hours using a premixed package from World Market that contains sea salt, cranberries, garlic, sage, apple, orange peel, juniper berry, peppercorns, thyme and rosemary. The brined turkey will be air-dried in the refrigerator for at least eight hours, on the wire rack that will go into the roasting pan. I’ll rub the skin with canola oil, place some fresh herbs in the cavity and pour some herbed chicken stock into the pan.
As per Alton Brown, it will spend the first 30 minutes of oven time roasting at 500 degrees, then the rest of the roasting will be done at 350 degrees, until I get a white-meat read of 161 degrees on my instant-read thermometer. I’ll tent the bird loosely with foil and let it rest for at least 15 minutes before carving.
My family will be happy, and their cook will be, too.
Marmon, a pediatric surgeon based in Potomac, writes about wine and spirits at Grapelines.com.