The holidays are a wonderful time to cook. The gathering of friends and family, sharing a great feast, pouring special beers, telling stories, and enjoying the time together are what great memories are made of. Yet to cook a large turkey isn’t always easy or done right. Many times you may have been the guest to a feast, were the main center piece is over-cooked and dry. My beer-brined turkey recipe and techniques will help create a wonderful, flavorful, and juicy turkey that will become the essence of the holiday feast.
It is important, if you are making the turkey, to first get a good bird. Sure, you can get a generic turkey, but with any great meal, getting a great turkey over a good turkey will help the results be memorable. Talk to your local butcher and see what types of turkey breeds are available, the differences between heritage and commercial varieties, the size bird for your crowd and how much leftovers you want remaining.
When selecting a brew for the beer brine, a homebrew recipe and beer style with a lot of melanoidin malts will enhance the natural turkey flavor. The Maillard reaction during the malting of barley creates a wonderful synergy with turkey meat, both white and dark. This backbone flavor added to the brine will flavor the meat from the inside out, creating a very special and tasty bird.
Homebrew Chef’s Beer Brined Turkey Recipe
(Serves: 8–16 people, depending on the size of the bird)
The brining technique of preparing the turkey is different than simply marinating or salt curing a meat/poultry product. Crafting a liquid with the right balance of sodium, sugar and flavors (in this case homebrew with some herbs and vegetables) is the basic medium. Then the protein (turkey, chicken, Cornish game hens) is submerged into this liquid, allowing the properties of osmosis do its work, flavoring the protein from the inside out. The natural moisture in the protein is replaced with flavors that hydrate the meat, increasing the tenderness by denaturing the proteins, helping to preserve the ingredient, and providing a temperature cushion, preventing the main course from drying out.
Beer Brine Ingredients:
1 quart (1 L) water
2 cup salt, kosher (do not use iodized salt)
1 cup sugar, light brown, packed
1 tablespoon peppercorns, black, whole
4 each bay leaves, preferably fresh
3 bunches thyme, fresh
3 each onion, yellow, peeled and chopped
3 stocks celery, sliced
3 each carrots, peeled and sliced
6 each garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 each lemon, quartered
1 each orange, sliced
6 pounds ice or 3 quarts cold water
96 fl. ounces (2.8 L) of cold homebrewed beer, such as a brown ale, bock, dubbel, English mild, roggenbier, weizenbock, or Oktoberfest style
1 each turkey, 16–26 pounds (7–12 kg), preferably free range, organic or heritage
1 bunch sage, fresh
Beer Brine Directions:
At least two days in advance of Thanksgiving (or event/holiday), start the brine. In a large pot, over high heat, add the water, salt, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, onions, celery, carrots, garlic, lemon and orange. Bring the liquid to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes to infuse the flavors together, dissolving the salt and sugar. Turn off the heat and let the brine cool for 20 minutes, then add in the ice and cold homebrew. Craft beer can also be used if a suitable homebrew isn’t available or ready in time. Mix the ingredients together and take the temperature of the finished brine. A thermometer should read 40 °F (4 °C) or lower in order to be safe to use. If it is warmer, place the pot into a refrigerator/kegerator until 40 °F (4 °C) is reached.
Take the fresh turkey and remove it from its package in a large sink. Remove the neck, gizzards and liver, setting aside (for stock or gravy). Rinse the bird under cold water, turning the bird over a few times, washing any blood from the cavity and under the neck flap. Remove any remaining quills from the skin, if visible. Turn off the water and lightly dry the turkey off with paper towels.
Beer Brine Directions:
If you have room in a refrigerator or kegerator, have ready a large food- grade bucket, large stock/brew pot, a brining bag, or an extra-large Ziplock® bag. Place the turkey into the container of choice, then top off with the chilled brine, submerging the turkey completely. Then place in the cold storage.
If cold space is an issue, use a large cooler and sanitize it with a bleach water solution or Star San. Place the turkey in the cooler and cover with the brine. Fill gallon-size sealable bags with ice and float them in the cooler, to keep the bird and brine ice cold without diluting the salinity or flavor of the brine.
Beer brine the turkey for at least 24 (for a smaller bird 16-pound/7-kg) to 48 hours (for a larger 22-pound /10 -kg bird). Keep the turkey and brine cold during this marinating process. Every 12 hours, rotate/flip the turkey in the brine to evenly marinate it.
Oven Roasting Directions:
Remove the turkey from the brine and dry well with paper towels, both inside and out. Repeat this several times, to get as much of the moisture removed. This will help the browning of the skin, as moisture will steam the skin instead of roasting it. Place the turkey, back side down, in a roasting pan fitted with a rack. Place the bunch of sage inside the cavity; the herbs will release their aroma into the meat as it roasts. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for two hours prior to going into the oven. This will let the turkey warm up, allowing it to cook more evenly. Discard the brine; it is not safe to re-use.
Pre-heat the oven to 350 °F (177 °C). Use the convection roast/bake if this setting is an option. Truss the bird with twine to help hold its shape and to aid in cooking the turkey evenly. I recommend using a digital temperature probe to make sure the turkey is cooked to a certain temperature (160 °F/71 °C) versus a length of time. Insert the probe into the middle of a breast or in one of the thighs. Make sure the tip of the probe isn’t touching a bone, as the temperature reading will be false. If you don’t have a probe thermometer, a 16–20 pound (7–9 kg) turkey should take between three and three and a half hours to fully cook to 160 °F (71 °C). Check both the breast and the thigh temperature to make sure the turkey is evenly cooked. Other recipes describe cooking a turkey until the internal temperature reaches 180 °F (82 °C) and this is one reason for a dry turkey. Turkey is safe to eat after it reaches 165 °F (74 °C). It’s fine to remove the turkey from the oven at 160 °F (71 °C), as the heat of the oven and the surface temperature is higher than the internal temperature. As the turkey rests, the carry over heat will finish cooking the turkey and bring it to a safe final cooking temperature of 165 °F (74 °C).
Let the turkey rest at room temperature for 20–30 minutes before carving. This is critical in keeping a moist and juicy turkey. This resting will relax the muscle fibers, helping re-distribute the juices and allow the bird to be easier to handle when carving. Cover the turkey with a large sheet of aluminum foil.
Instead of using an oven to cook the turkey, try a smoker. This frees up the oven for other dishes and adds a wonderful flavor to the turkey. I love using a mix of woods, to create a layered smoke. For poultry I like using pecan or cherry wood chips vs saw dust, soaking for 30 minutes in enough beer (about 12 ounces) to cover the chips completely. Depending on your type of smoker, create or set the temperature to 250 °F (121 °C) and cook the turkey until the internal temperature is 160 °F (71 °C). This will take longer than a 350 °F (177 °C) oven. For a 20 pound (9 kg) turkey, this might take six to seven hours to cook. A key to smoking is to resist the temptation to open the smoker, as each time the door is opened, heat escapes, causing the temperature to drop, and slowing the cooking process. Only open the door to add more soaked wood chips (causing the wood to smolder and smoke versus just burn, and not creating all the flavor that a smoked meat should have). As with the oven roasting directions, using a probe thermometer is critical to monitoring the internal temperature of the turkey and when it is done.
If turkey isn’t the main entrée of your holiday feast, try using this same beer brine for four 4- to 5-pound (1.8- to 2.2-kg) chickens and brine them for 24–36 hours. You can also brine eight to ten Cornish game hens in this recipe, giving each dinner guest their very own special bird.
To carve the turkey, start with a large cutting board and sharp carving and deboning knives. I like to remove all the large muscle groups from the whole bird. This makes the carving easier to cut and slice into nice pieces and helps with the leftovers, as a large carcass is harder to store. Using a deboning knife, first cut and remove the leg/thighs from the bird. Cut the drumstick from the thigh and place onto a bottom edge of a serving platter. The drumsticks are hard to slice/trim the meat off, as they are full of tough tendons. Next, cut the thigh bone out, then cut the dark meat into slices and arrange next to the drumsticks, re-creating the leg/thigh look. Repeat with the other leg/thigh.
To remove the breasts from the chest, first remove the wish bone from the back of the bird. Then, find the center of the chest bone, move the edge of your boning knife over a few millimeters, then cut through the breast, sliding the knife’s edge down the breast bone, towards the wing. Tilt the edge of the knife, keeping it against the rib cage, getting as much meat in one piece as possible. Remove the knife and cut parallel to the cutting board, just above the wing, removing the whole breast muscle in one piece. Cut out the wing and place onto the top end of the platter. Using a slicer/carving knife, slice the breast meat, starting from the narrow end. Cut the meat on a bias, into even thickness pieces, keeping the meat together. Repeat this process with the other breast and arrange the sliced meat on a serving platter. Garnish the platter with some herbs, citrus slices or pomegranate seeds. Wrap the platter in aluminum foil and keep in a warm place until you are ready
For other beer-centric holiday recipes and techniques for cooking with your homebrews — visit Sean’s website: www.homebrewchef.com.