Brine and dine

I've always enjoyed at least one big bird from the grill each outdoor eating season. This summer's dining experiences flew right by without one little taste of grilled turkey. It may have been the cool days we've had lately that brought this to m...

I've always enjoyed at least one big bird from the grill each outdoor eating season. This summer's dining experiences flew right by without one little taste of grilled turkey. It may have been the cool days we've had lately that brought this to my attention. Along with my longing for a nice hot bowl of homemade soup, came the realization that I had no homemade stock in the freezer.

Rather than purchasing a whole frozen turkey, I discovered a lone unfrozen turkey breast sitting on the shelf in the meat department at the grocery store. It was not very large, under two pounds. But it would be just right as a dinner for two with some leftovers for another meal and it was a perfect candidate for brining.

Brining is an age-old method of preserving and flavoring food that has become popular again in recent years. Before refrigerators were standard kitchen equipment, a brine, which is simply liquid infused with salt, helped to preserve food for longer storage. Today we are drawn to its ability to season meat and poultry right down to the bone.

So how does this magical process unfold? It's a fascinating collaboration between science and cooking. According to "Cook's Illustrated Complete Book of Poultry" (Clarkson Potter, 1999) salt causes protein strands to unwind, creating a tangled web that traps water. When exposed to heat, these strands gel just like an egg white does when it hits a hot frying pan, forming a barrier that prevents moisture from escaping in cooking.

Brining is such a simple process that the most difficult part may be finding the right container. For a smaller piece of meat like the one I was using, it is not too difficult to find a container that will allow space for the meat to be totally immersed in the brine, yet not so large that it floats. Whole turkeys get a bit more challenging.


Most brining solutions call for coarse kosher salt. If you will be substituting table salt, use only half the amount called for.

In Honey-Brined Turkey, apple juice or cider is used rather than water. The recipe can be increased to accommodate larger pieces of meat. A good rule of thumb is 1 cup of kosher salt to each gallon of liquid. In this case, you can use water as part of the liquid. Honey adds sweetness as well as creating a beautiful mahogany glaze as it roasts. The salt helps carry the flavors of mustard and red pepper flakes throughout the meat.

Making the brine is not difficult, but you will need to plan ahead. The liquid is first heated to a gentle boil. Then the honey, salt and seasonings are stirred into the hot liquid. Once the brine has come to room temperature, it is important to refrigerate it long enough to get it thoroughly chilled. When that happens, it's time to give the turkey a nice long bath in the salt solution. The salty bath water will plump up the meat, resulting in the most tender white turkey meat you've ever eaten.

Whether prepared in the oven or on the grill, Honey-Brined Turkey Breast turns out moist and juicy, with just the right balance of succulent sweet-spicy-salty flavors. Any leftovers are especially good in sandwiches, pasta dishes and chef's-style salads. And the remaining bones can turn into a little pot of wonderful soup.

Honey-Brined Turkey Breast
1 quart (4 cups) apple juice or cider
½ cup honey
¼ cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¾ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 bone-in turkey breast half, 1½ to 2 pounds
1 tablespoon olive oil plus a bit for rubbing into roasting pan
2 ribs of celery, each cut in half
1 apple, cut into wedges
2 sprigs fresh rosemary

Make the brine: Bring the apple juice to a boil in a 2-quart pot over high heat. Pour the hot juice into a container that is just large enough to hold the turkey breast and the brine. Let cool for 5 minutes. Add the honey, salt, mustard and red pepper flakes. Whisk until the honey dissolves. Let the brine cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until well chilled.

Add the turkey breast to the chilled brine. Weight with a plate if necessary to keep the turkey breast completely submerged. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 days.

When you are ready to roast the turkey, prepare a roasting pan by rubbing with olive oil. Lay clean stalks of celery in the pan, alternating with rows of apple slices to form a roasting rack for the turkey. Lay 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary on top of the "roasting rack."


Remove the turkey breast from the brine. Position the breast on the "roasting rack." Bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Roast the turkey for 30 minutes, then brush with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Continue roasting, basting once or twice with the drippings, for about 20 to 30 minutes longer, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat, away from the bone, registers 160 degrees. Remove from the oven, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 30 minutes (the meat will continue to cook). Keep tabs on the temperature of the turkey, as brined turkey tends to cook faster than unbrined.

Tips from the cook

--The turkey breast I used was less than 2 pounds. It fit nicely into a 9-inch square glass baking dish with just enough room for all of the brine. Disposable brining bags are now available from many cookware stores. Plastic roasting bags, found near the plastic wrap and foil in the grocery store, can be doubled up for leak protection and once filled with turkey and brine, can be placed within a sturdy pot or bowl to be stored in the refrigerator.

--Use a non-reactive container for brining turkey. An enamel, glass or crockery bowl or a noncorrosive stainless steel pot are ideal choices. Never use cast iron or aluminum.

--This brine also lends wonderful flavor to thick pork chops or a pork roast.

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