For years, I have despised turkey with the fury of a thousand octogenarians finding out that their newspapers are being replaced by Jersey Shore reruns. To me, turkey is typically dry, flavorless, and overcooked beyond repair. For 364 days a year this isn’t a problem. However, Thanksgiving turns society into lemmings once a year when it comes to protein and we all have to suffer through easy to fowl up main entreé.
Cooking the Bird w/ Stuffing Inside
This has to stop. Not only does the stuffing have the consistency of a loaf of bread that was left under an opened sunroof during a monsoon, it takes way too damn long to cook. Because it takes so long to cook the stuffing, the meat of the turkey takes on the texture of a mummified Reebok sneaker. Just make the stuffing as a side and allow the turkey cavity to house aromatics.
Cooking the Bird in a Bag
Theoretically, this should work out well; the bird will steam in the bag and it will remain juicy. The problem with this method is that you take away a major texture and flavor component when you don’t get crispy skin. When you cook a turkey in a bag, instead of a crispy skin, you get something that looks like Abe Vigoda’s cheek and has all the lovely elasticity of sweatpant waistband. So, bag the bag and just roast the damn thing.
Buying a Turkey That is Way Too Big
Why?!?! Do you really think that the entire cast of Up With People will be coming over to dine with you? This is perhaps the most egregious of all the Thanksgiving crimes against humanity. I get the thinking behind it. You want to have leftovers. You want a fairly economic way to feed a lot of people. Do you ever think that the time it takes to cook an Ostrich-sized turkey in the oven leaves a greater-than-acceptable percentage of the turkey overcooked and dry? To me, use the concept of quality over quantity. I would rather have fewer leftovers that taste amazing than a whole shelf in the fridge full of turkey shingles.
The Perfect Turkey
So, how do you combat the aforementioned pitfalls? Are we doomed to repeat these flaws year after year? Thankfully, there is a gentleman named Sean Paxton who is an innovative revolutionary when it comes to cooking with beer. He has a recipe for a beer brined turkey that he and many others swear by. Well, I decided that I would give it a try while making a few small tweaks. The results were great and I have documented the step-by-step things I did to bring this deliciousness to fruition.
If you want to guarantee that your bird has a great flavor, I would recommend avoiding the Butterball and Jennie-O turkeys. I know that they are incredibly pocketbook-friendly. However, what you make up in savings you lose in quality and flavor. For me, I have had great luck with the Hampden Co-op in Saint Paul. They have birds of all sizes to suit your needs. These turkeys come from a farm and are fed a much better diet of food to ensure a better flavor. Even before I discovered the Sean Paxton beer brine, I have used free-range turkeys in the past and the difference in flavor is remarkable when compared to the store brands.
Beer for the Brine
When we think about what we like about poultry, it is crisp skin and juicy meat that tend to top the list . Sean Paxton’s beer brineallows you to get both of those factors along with distinct flavors from the ingredients in the brine. For the brine liquid, I used Bell’s Best Brown and Third Stone Brown Ale from Emyprean Brewing Company. To me, the deep malty sweetness in the beer will add the requisite sugars and depth of flavor to the meat. The crispness of the skin will also benefit from the sugars in the beer.
Aromatics Are Important
Just like the hops used in your favorite floral or citrusy IPA, the aromatics used in this brine are key. I recommend following this part of the recipe to the letter of the law. Go ahead and splurge on fresh herbs for this. Not only does it pay off in the finished product, your kitchen will smell amazing when you are bringing the brine together.
Timing is Everything
Pay attention to the length of time that the turkey needs to sit in the brine. Because I don’t believe in roasting a huge bird, I used a 12 lb turkey and therefore only had to brine the bird for 24 hours. If you absolutely have to keep with the tradition of a huge bird, then the turkey should brine for at least 48 hours. This means that you have to plan ahead. Trust me, it is well worth it!
The End Result
All the extra time and effort is rewarded when you pull the turkey out of the oven and let it rest. This gives friends and family time to observe the dark brown sheen of the crispy skin. The color of the skin will take on whatever beer you used and mine was a nice dark brown. When you cut into the bird, you will notice that the meat is still delectable and juicy. The only disappointment was that I did not have as many leftovers as I wanted because people liked the turkey so much, that they all took some home.
The time and effort involved in this process may seem daunting. I am not going to lie to you, it does add some time on the front end of your meal planning and preparation. However, I will never do anything other than this brine because of how well it turns out. I would love to hear about any tweaks that you made to the recipe and how it turned out at your table.
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