With Thanksgiving creeping (ok, barreling) around the corner, it is time to talk about turkey (the bird) and that other b word – brine.
Here’s the deal: a lot of poultry, especially around the holidays, is already plumped and brined. So when buying your bird, to make sure it is absolutely as low in sodium as possible, you have to do a little research.
The best option is to shop at a butcher or at stores like Whole Foods, which can provide in-depth information about their meat products and the farms on which they are raised. You can explain your situation to the people behind the counter and make sure you have a bird that will work well for you and your dietary needs. If you buy your turkey from a larger grocery retailer, like Safeway, I would suggest contacting the company or looking on their website for information about plumping, brining, or any other pre-packaging treatments.
Another option, which I have used for the last seven years, is to actually not eat turkey at all. I know – Thanksgiving blasphemy.
While I still bake a nice-sized turkey for guests (actually, this year it is a Turducken), I make a nice little Cornish game hen for myself. It’s juicy, it’s birdy, and it’s all mine. And to be completely honest, if you are hosting a small-sized dinner party, it is actually more fun and less complicated to cook Game hens. And you can take it one step further, channeling your inner Martha, and serve a feast of personal proportions: everyone gets a game hen, everyone gets mini ramekins of mashed potatoes, everyone gets a muffin tin of stuffing, everyone gets full. I did this a few years ago for my family and it was a blast.
Once you choose what bird you are going to cook, the next question becomes how you will make your meat as juicy as the brined kind, without the salt. Now, I can’t tell you exactly how brining (wet or dry) really works. But between the salt, some magic, and possibly nuclear physics, it locks the moisture into the bird. And if you want a real answer about the mechanics, read this article by Kenji and the Food Lab on SeriousEats.com.
Even without a salty brine, however, there are a few different techniques you can use to mimic the succulence of a brined bird, keeping the skin of your low sodium Turkey nice and crispy while the inside remains tender.
First, there are butter rubs. A good slathering of herbed butter, under the skin and out, will keep the meat moist and will protect it from overcooking. Mix some unsalted butter with herbs, lemon or orange zest, and spices like black pepper, cumin, and smoked paprika. Then, use the openings at the bottom and neck to loosen the skin from the flesh, expertly maneuvering the butter mixture inside. A spatula will prove quite helpful to push the butter down towards the bottom of the bird. Make sure to rub the bird on the outside as well and then throw it in the oven.
If butter, or touching raw meat, is not your thing, another option is to invest in a flavor injector. Yes, that’s right, a flavor injector. By filling this syringe like utensil with salt-free broth, oil, melted butter, or even white wine, you can inject moisture directly into the bird – much like what brining accomplishes. And don’t be afraid to dapple in dry rubs. This will not help with the juicy-factor of your finished product, but it will add more flavor and texture. Fresh or dried herbs, spices, and zest all work well.
This holiday season, mix it up, whether you go with a Game hen or use a combination of the methods mentioned above. In the end, you’ll have a golden, low sodium entre begging to be gobbled. And if not, couscous cooks up rather quickly.