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Battle of the Brines

After using Alton Brown's and Pioneer Woman's recipes for how to brine a turkey, there is a clear winner.

Last year, I for the first time and loved it. What was once a process shrouded in mystery quickly revealed itself to be worth the extra planning and effort. Brining had won over my taste buds and worked its way into my Thanksgiving tradition.

Always on the lookout for flavor, I wondered if there were a better brine out there than Alton Brown's Good Eats Turkey recipe that I used last year. So I turned to one of the most famous bloggers in the cooking world, Pioneer Woman. This brine caught my eye because it uses apple cider as a base.

Pioneer Woman's turkey brine recipe and roasting method are significantly different that Alton Brown's, so I set about the preparations to determine which would be the keeper recipe.

Preparation

Both recipes, and probably most others, have similar prep work. Find a large pot or clean five-gallon bucket (we used a lobster pot), fill it with the simmered and cooled brine, then submerge and refrigerate the turkey overnight.

If using frozen turkey, be sure to thaw it in your refrigerator for a couple of days before using. I used the same brand of fresh turkey each year, so no thawing is necessary. Also, be sure to remove the innards, which can be saved to make extra broth for the gravy.

Roasting

This is where the two cooking personalities differ in their methods. , roasting the turkey was low maintenance. I didn't even open the oven except to use a little foil to prevent the breast meat from drying out.

Pioneer Woman's instructions call for an initial foil-covered roasting at a low temperature. Then, the bird is uncovered, a thermometer inserted and the butter basting begins. Let me confess that I almost parted ways with the recipe right there. I'm not a fan of basting, but I stuck with it.

The Results

The resulting Pioneer Woman bird was nicely browned and smelled incredible. Even before I tasted to turkey meat, I sampled the gravy made from the drippings. After simmering the drippings with chicken broth and Wondra flour, the gravy was perfectly seasoned without adding a speck of salt or pepper.

But when I sliced into the meat, I was disappointed to see that it was a bit dry and crumbly. Although the recipe called for an internal temperature of 170 degrees, I felt that was too high and pulled the turkey out at 165 degrees. Still, after sitting for 30 minutes, the breast meat was overcooked.

The flavor was a disappointment as well. The intensity of the brine was lost in the roasting, although the gravy added some flavors back. The meat was tasty, but it didn't have the wow factor that Alton Brown's recipe yielded last year. This turkey tasted as if it were roasted traditionally without the brine.

So the lesson here? Go with your gut, or in this case, your taste buds. I'm already looking forward to my date with Alton Brown's bird next Thanksgiving.

Aileen November 21, 2011 at 09:17 PM
The key with not over cooking a turkey is to pull it out at around 155. The bigger the piece of meat, or in this case, the turkey, the longer the "carryover cooking" time will be. Poultry is cooked to a safe temperature at 165 degrees. If you pull it out ten degrees or so sooner, than you are allowing for the carryover time to bring you to 165 and therefore a perfectly cooked turkey. I also made Alton Brown's good eat turkey last year. It was the best turkey any of my family had ever had - including 86 year old Grandma who has eaten her share of turkeys. It will be my go-to turkey recipe from now on! Thanks for another great article, yet again!
Jason Kyle November 21, 2011 at 09:50 PM
We brine in apple cider for the past 3 or 4 years and it's phenomenal.
Sandy Hook November 21, 2011 at 10:01 PM
We saw Alton Brown on TV over the weekend. He said to start the turkey at 500 degrees to brown the skin first and lock in the juices. Then after an hour or so, to turn the oven down. I'm not brave enough to try this yet.
Renata Haney November 21, 2011 at 10:55 PM
I too, tried Alton Brown's brine and roasting method 2 years ago. It was fine, but not amazing. This year, I tried The Pioneer Woman's brine, but like you, I hated the idea of basting. So, I used her brine with Alton's roasting method. I must say, it was amazing. I wanted some aromatica, so I added cut oranges and onions in the turkey cavity. I think it's Alton's first 30 minutes at 500 degrees that deals in the juices. Buy I loved, loved, loved her flavors in her brine. I got many 'best turkey I've ever he'll comments. And, it was mine, as well. So, maybe try the combo next year!
JYD November 22, 2011 at 12:22 AM
Have never brined, and gave up using the oven years ago for the turkey. After some experimenting during the summer, I think I have the process down pat and the bird now gets done on the grill. Besides a great flavor, it is so much easier for everything else to get prepped and cooked in the kitchen. The reviews have been great, so I must be doing something right. And while the turkey is resting, the hot grill serves as a great place to keep things warm. Happy turkey day everyone.
Sam Mihailoff November 22, 2011 at 12:56 AM
Each of your methods sound great...If you all want someone to judge the winner, give me a call. Extra bonus points awarded for exceptional stuffing and pumpkin pie...Points deducted for that green bean casserole thing
Hoa Nguyen November 22, 2011 at 01:25 AM
JYD, do you cook your bird whole on the grill or do you cut it up. I can't imagine putting the whole bird in the grill but maybe I'm not thinking of the right grill. If you do oven, you have to do brine -- that really is the only way to get good results. The best turkey I've ever had was done in a smoker -- but I've never been able to get that same taste again from a smoker. Admittedly, I wasn't the cook in either case so I'm not sure what went right and what went wrong. Anyone making turducken? I did once but haven't had a chance to make another one...one of these days, though.
JYD November 22, 2011 at 02:48 AM
To clarify, I'm using a gas grill. Have never cut the bird up to cook it. I've done a whole bird a few times, and the last two years opted for turkey breasts instead of the whole bird simply because not cooking for as many people. This year I have a 6 pound and 7.5 pound breast. If you go full bird, make sure you have an idea of the clearance from the rack to the top of the grill so you don't buy a tall skinny bird that won't fit. Key is hot (500 degrees) for first 30 minutes with a butter baste and S/P, and then medium indirect the rest of the way. Foil pan underneath to catch the drippings. I might do a second butter baste halfway through if I'm not happy with golden browning. Birds come out so darn juicy and flavorful that I've never had a reason to even consider brining. Would definitely recommend a "practice" event over the summer if it's your first one.
Jaimie Cura (Editor) November 22, 2011 at 03:55 AM
Sam, I think you're going to need help judging the winner. I'll even take the green bean casserole!
Lee Elkins November 22, 2011 at 04:56 AM
Great idea - that may be my plan for next year or maybe Christmas! Pioneer Woman's gravy was so tasty.
Jennifer November 22, 2011 at 05:25 AM
Hey, I LIKE the green bean casserole! We are brining too, grabbed the big Y kit for simplicity this year after concocting our own in the past.
Jaimie Cura (Editor) November 22, 2011 at 05:28 AM
I actually like the green bean casserole too, although I've only had it once!
Sam Mihailoff November 22, 2011 at 05:38 AM
I guess I should say that I actually tried that green beaan casserole twice...FIRST and LAST time
vScottv November 22, 2011 at 11:37 AM
I do a cider and orange juice brine (also add cloves nutmeg and cinnemon). The 18 lb bird gets roasted in a tin roasting pan on the gas grill. I add a couple cups of water, carrots, celery, onions, fresh thyme, and rosemary to the pan that makes the gravy(mmmmm). I also throw a couple chunks of cider soaked hickory on the grill for the first hour or so of the roasting.
Tim Quinn November 22, 2011 at 03:13 PM
Basting does nothing. At those temperatures the skin is water proof. All you're doing is reducing heat every hour or so
Alex Tytler November 22, 2011 at 05:58 PM
Anybody try breast down roasting in a rack? It isn't as asthetic but produces a jucier breast. The white meat is lower fat and tends to dry out first. The dark meat has more fat and can tollerate higher heat. Great with chickens too.
Jay November 23, 2011 at 01:24 AM
Yes, I start with the bird breast side down and turn it halfway through cooking. I also stuff the cavity with whole and quartered oranges. It always comes out extremely juicy. I use this method with chicken as well, except I stuff the cavity with rolled fork-pricked lemons. Last year was the first year I used a brine (bought it at Stop & Shop) and we all loved it, so I'm using it again this year.
Hoa Nguyen November 23, 2011 at 04:46 AM
Trussing the bird also plays a big part in keeping the meat juicy. That's part of what makes rotisserie chicken taste so good.

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