The Perfect Turkey Brine Recipe from a Restaurant Chef

Brining can give you a moist, tender turkey -- if you have the right recipe.Brining can give you a moist, tender turkey -- if you have the right recipe.By Louisa Kasdon

Turkey conversation season is upon us again, with our annual quest for a crisp, moist, perfect bird. Some swear by brining the turkey (or any poultry) in a bucket with spices and salt to improve flavor and texture. I'm a skeptic with a standard home kitchen. Our family is big, and so are the birds we roast to feed them. Do I really need to give my 18-pound turkey an overnight beauty bath? Is the mess worth the work?

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I asked Chef Tony Maws, chef owner of the award-winning bistro Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass. Maws, a recent James Beard Best Chef Northeast winner, is known around town as a perfectionist. One of the pioneers of the locavore movement and nose-to-tail cooking, in his early days Maws was known as a chef whose standards were so high that local suppliers wept during deliveries to his restaurant as he inspected and refused their local bounty. Maws has mellowed a bit. But he's still a stickler known for serving perfect poultry. He seemed like a good person to ask about brining.

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Maws thinks brining is just one of the things you can do to turn out a terrific bird. Brining, he explains, 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 add a 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 as brining, so you sort have to take it on faith."

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Maws says it never hurts a turkey - or any poultry­­ - to be brined for six to eight hours or overnight, and it helps even more if you can rest the bird for another day out of the brine before serving, but he doubts it is practical for most households to add two more steps to a busy holiday ritual. "Brining is an effective tool, but sort of a hassle for a standard home kitchen. Very few people have the space to refrigerate a big turkey in a bucket of water overnight. Not everyone has a restaurant-scale walk-in."

Maws' inflexible turkey rule: "Buy a good turkey. I'm not trying to be hippy-dippy, but all the things you read about free-range and natural birds are true. Turkeys are large, lean birds, much leaner than a plump, fat chicken, so you want to pay special attention to how the turkeys are raised and fed. The better and healthier the bird, the better the texture and flavor."

Tony Maws' Poultry Brine

Ingredients

5 liters of water, or less if you are using a brining bag for a 12- to 14-pound turkey

60 grams kosher salt

11 grams Kombu

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

2 allspice berries

2 juniper berries

1 teaspoon chili flakes

2 cloves

Directions

Mix all the ingredients together in a bucket or container large enough to accommodate the turkey. Add the bird once thoroughly mixed.

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Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of letstalkaboutfood.com. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.

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