“Why don’t you just get a Butterball and be done with it?” says my brother, or my sister-in-law, or my mother at some point every Thanksgiving or Christmas. “Why do you have to make everything so complicated?”
My immediate family – not unreasonably – often finds my and my dad’s insistence on getting a farm-raised bird expensive, unneccessary and annoying. They are probably right. You have to order ahead. You have to spend $3 or $4 a pound more. You have to go pick it up (although turkey pick-up at Restoration Farm involves seasonal festivities that some people need a designated driver for). And yes, you really need to brine it.
About the only advantage the practical (non-obsessed) person could find is that it may not be frozen, so you may not find a block of ice when you stick your hand into the cavity just before you are supposed to bung it in the oven fully thawed. May.
However, there are advantages beyond just that thickheaded compulsion to pretend we are living on the rugged frontiers of the colonial period when it comes to food (and mind you, while I am putting my dad in this category, I am not convinced that he isn’t just going along to humor me, but is as tired of it as everyone else!)
The texture of free-range, farm-raised (as opposed to factory-raised) poultry is incomparable. I am grossed-out by raw chicken meat as a rule, but the yellow fat globules and floppy texture of your average factory bird provokes visceral revulsion in me. And once cooked, many factory birds have a mealiness and blandness to them that makes chewing seem to take forever.
Farm-raised, free-range birds, on the other hand, tend to have cleaner-looking whiter fat and less of it (which will bring us back to the brining later). The meat is more firm to the touch and less squidgy to handle. And when cooked, the texture is firm – more like a medium-rare prime or choice cut of steak than a mealy over-cooked burger.
Call me ridiculous (and believe me, you would not be the first to do so), but that’s one of the major reasons I choose free-range organic when possible (and it is not always possible). There might be environmental reasons, ethical reasons, public safety reasons (antibiotics and salmonella), whatever. But first and foremost to me is the pleasure of cooking and eating.
Having said that, ya gotta brine. Soaking in a water and salt solution plumps up the bird, adding loads of moisture so you retain more moisture when it cooks. The salt breaks down some of the proteins as well. A turkey that has been moving about a yard has less fat and more muscle than a factory bird, so benefits from brining. Let me turn you over to more technical folk for a second:
” Brining enhances juiciness in several ways. First of all, muscle fibers simply absorb liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid gets lost during cooking, but since the meat is in a sense more juicy at the start of cooking, it ends up juicier. We can verify that brined meat and fish absorb liquid by weighing them before and after brining. Brined meats typically weigh six to eight percent more than they did before brining—clear proof of the water uptake.” Finecooking.com on the science of brining
All you have to do is line a 5 gallon bucket with plastic, add two Cups of coarse kosher salt and 8 quarts of water. Stir it up, add the bird (emptied of organs) and keep chilled overnight or for a few hours. Our bird is in now; tomorrow we’ll take it out early and season it. Yum!