Saturday, November 11, 2006

Turkey III: A Bit of the Briny

Kitchen failures are always painful, but there is almost always a silver lining. Best, of course, is when you're a reliably good cook and you fail spectacularly in front of a group of friends. Excruciating, yes, but everyone can laugh about it for years. I'm sure that if I were to call my friend R. right now and mention chili, he would remember, as though it were yesterday, that egregious pot of chili I made twenty-two years, three months, and sixteen days ago. Not that I'm counting.

Less entertaining but more instructive is the partial failure: when the food you've produced is seriously flawed but has redeeming qualities and when the problem is clear and easily avoidable the next time you want to make the dish.

Yesterday evening I suffered a partial failure, and I am now appropriately edified. I wrote earlier about the turkey breast I bought last week. The first half of it went into a nice bowl of chili; the carcass went into a (eventually) nice pot of soup. That left me with the other half of the breast that I'd removed from the bone. I wanted to roast it, but I wanted to be sure that it ended up juicy and flavorful, so I decided to brine it.

Brining poultry, especially turkey, is extremely popular these days, but as recently as ten years ago, one rarely if ever saw a brined turkey. I mention this fact mainly by way of explaining that most of my information about brining poultry comes not from my fairly extensive collection of cookbooks but from the television and, by extension, the Internet. Alas, my Internet connection was down five or six days ago when I wanted to make the brine, so I had to try to find the proportions in a cookbook. So off I trotted to Joy of Cooking, which did, in fact, mention brining. Sadly, it was not listed as a means of preparing poultry for cooking, but as a means for preserving food: the first step, I believe, in making some sorts of pickles.

As it happens, the brine for pickling is about twice as salty as the brine one should use for turkey, so that when I'd finished searing and roasting and resting and slicing my turkey breast last night, I bit into a piece that was done just exactly right, was very juicy, had many wonderful flavors, and was almost too salty to be edible. Almost, but not quite: the other flavors convinced me to put up with more salt than I'd normally stand for.

At first I thought that I had perhaps simply brined the turkey breast for too long: I had originally intended to brine it for about a day, and I ended up leaving it in for about five days. But that explanation seemed chemically wrong to me. I am not a chemist, and it's been years since I really had to know any chemistry, but it seemed to me that the turkey breast would have gotten about as salty as it would get within a day or two and that an extra few days would probably not change the flavor much.

I did eventually find the recipe for brine from which I'd departed to make last year's Thanksgiving turkey, and it indicated to me that I'd used twice as much salt as I ought. Alas. The recipe below includes the amount of salt that you should use if you want your turkey breast to be delicious but not too salty.

Brined Turkey Breast

A half turkey breast, without skin or bone

1 quart water
2 T. kosher salt
1 clove garlic, cut in half
3 green cardomom pods, lightly crushed
10 peppercorns
20 very thin slices of fresh ginger

1 T. balsamic vinegar
Coarsely ground pepper

Olive oil

Put the turkey breast in a large zip-lock food bag.

Heat the water, add the salt and stir until dissolved. Add the garlic, peppercorns, cardamom pods, and fresh ginger. Stir. Let cool. Pour the brine into the bag with the turkey breast. Seal and refrigerate for at least a day.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Put a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.

Drain the turkey breast and pat it dry. Put it in a bowl and pour the balsamic vinegar over it. Rub it well all over with the vinegar. Generously grind the pepper over all sides of the turkey breast and rub in.

Either spray the skillet with a small amount of olive oil or just pour a little in the pan. Add the turkey breast and cook without moving for about five minutes. Turn over and cook the other side.

Transfer the turkey breast to a baking dish. Stick your thermometer into the thickest part of the breast. Set your thermometer alarm to go off at 158 degrees.

Roast for fifteen minutes at 375. Turn heat down to 325.

When the alarm goes off, remove the turkey from the oven and let sit for at least fifteen minutes before slicing.

I don't think that slicing the ginger very thin is imperative here. I recently dumped my old V-slicer for one of the more compact Japanese slicer models with a ceramic blade. I used that to slice my ginger (which I keep in the freezer), but you could cut your ginger into relatively fine dice with a knife. You don't have to use ginger, of course, but the very best thing about the turkey breast I made was how well the ginger flavor had permeated the flesh, and how well it went with the considerable amount of pepper that I'd applied to the outside.

I think that a good meat thermometer is really the only way to go if you want to roast any sort of meat. Ever since V. started using my thermometer, his pork has always been perfectly roasted. If you set the alarm at 158 here, the internal temperature will go at least to 160 after you remove the meat from the oven. At that temperature, brined turkey breast will have a decided pink cast to it, but it will, in fact, be entirely done, though still tender and juicy.

If you don't use a thermometer, you're really just guessing, and if your turkey or turkey breast comes with one of those pop-up thermometer, just take it out of the raw turkey and throw it away: they go off at temperatures that are too high to be consistent with moist meat.


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