The brining technique is different than simply marinating or salt curing a meat/poultry product. By submerging a protein (turkey | chicken | Cornish game hens) into this liquid medium, it allows the properties of osmosis to do its work, resulting in flavoring the protein from the inside out. Crafting a liquid with the right balance of sodium, sugar and flavors (in this case Craft Beer with some herbs and vegetables) becomes the basic medium. The natural moisture in the protein is replaced with flavors of the brine that also hydrate the meat, increases the tenderness by denaturing the proteins, helps preserve the ingredient and provides a temperature cushion, preventing the main course from drying out.
There are several ways to cook this beer brined turkey. The technique of smoked a turkey isn’t difficult as it just requires more attention to the heat source (depending on the type smoker you have) using wood to create smoke. Below this recipe, there are links to all the ways this base beer brine recipe can be cooked. The recipe yields enough brine for a 16 – 24 pound turkey.
At least 2 days in advance of Thanksgiving | 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 beer of choice. 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. Remove any excess fat from around the inside cavity. Turn off the water and lightly dry the turkey off with paper towels.
If cold space is an issue, use a large cooler and sanitize it with a bleach water solution (1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water or 200ppm) or Star San (1 ounce of StarSan per 2 gallons of water).
Place the cooled beer brine into the now clean cooler and add the turkey. Use several gallon size seal-able bags fill with ice, to keep the bird and brine ice cold, but not diluting the salinity or flavor of the brine. This will also work if you are beer brining multiple turkeys at once and have doubled (32 servings) or tripled (48 servings) the beer brine recipe to fill the cooler size you are using.
Beer brine the turkey for at least 24 (for a smaller bird 16 pound) to 48 hours (for a larger 22+ pound 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.
Preparing the Finished Beer Brined Turkey for Cooking:
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 roast it. Place the turkey, back side down, in a roasting pan fitted with a rack. Place the bunch of sage inside the cavity, as the herbs will release their aroma into the meat as it roasts. Let the turkey sit at room temperature for 2 hours prior to being cooked. This will let the turkey warm up, allowing it to cook more evenly. Discard the brine, as it has done its purpose and not safe to re-use.
Under the Skin Preparation:
With the beer brine, the turkey is fine to cook, once it is dried. To add extra flavor and decoration for when the turkey is served, you can dress up the turkey with some flavor bling. Using your finger tips, start at the neck and slide one finger inside the neck skin and start separating the skin from the meat. Gradually add a second finger to finally your whole hand (that is pressed flat against the breast meat), being very careful not to force, but separate the skin from the meat, as the skin can tear. Repeat this same process with the other breast. Once this is done, move to the open cavity and on one side of the turkey start separating the skin from the leg/thigh, working around the thigh to the leg. Repeat this process for the other leg.
Now that the skin is loose, the turkey can be stuffed with herbs, rubs or bacon to add additional flavor to the turkey. And when the turkey cooks, the skin will display the garnish, creating a beautiful finished bird.
Herbs: Try using a mix of fresh herbs like thyme, bay leaves, rosemary, marjoram and/or oregano. Arrange the herbs in a pattern under the skin on each breast. Copy the pattern to the opposite breast to give the finish turkey symmetry when being presented. Use herbs to wrap around the legs and thighs too, creating a unique pattern with what herbs you have. A good tip is to start at the farthest part from you and work towards where you are stuffing from.
Bacon: cured, smoked and sliced pork belly is another great option, as the fat of the bacon renders as the turkey cooks, adding another layer of protection from the breast meat drying out. I like to use a thick cut bacon, that has been smoked. Arrange the strips of bacon alongside of the chest bone and but each strip right next to the last, working your way down the breast. Cut the bacon if it is too long with kitchen sears to fit. Then repeat on the opposite side of the turkey. For the leg/thighs, wrap the bacon around the legs, then continue with the thighs, creating a pin wheel effect. Press the skin down to remove any air pockets and help secure the bacon from sliding.
Rubs: Since the turkey has been brined, seasoning the bird from the inside out, additional flavors should be just that, herbs and spices, not salts. If you have a favorite rub, check to see how much salt is used. Many commercial rubs use a lot of salt as a filler, as it is cheaper than the herbs and spices. Sprinkle the rub mix under the skin, creating an even coating on each side. Mixing the rub with some olive oil or room temperature unsalted butter to create a flavor paste can also be done, again giving the breast meat additional fat to help keep the meat moist and juicy as it cooks.
Over the Skin Preparation:
Remember that the turkey has been seasoned with the brine. Once the skin has been dried thoroughly, you can brush/rub oil (such as olive oil or vegetable oil) all over the skin to help create a wonderful crisp skin, or use room temperature unsalted butter to create a light coat of fat. Very lightly season the skin with salt and pepper if you wish.
A rub can also be used to create multiple flavors. A Cajun spice rub, fresh herb rub or jerk spice can be used to give the turkey a culinary field trip. Be careful of the salt content of the rub, if you are using a commercial made rub, as salt is cheaper than herbs and spices.
Instead of using a traditional oven to cook the turkey, try a smoker. This method of cooking will add a wonderful smoke flavor to the meat and free up the oven to cook other dishes. I love using a mix of woods, to create a layered smoke flavor. For poultry I like using pecan, apricot, alder or cherry wood. I prefer wood chips vs saw dust as the chips last longer (having less surface area). Wood chips benefit from soaking in enough of the same beer used in the brine recipe (about 12 ounces) to cover the chips completely, for at least 30 minutes or longer. If you have a Green Egg or weber style of grill, you can add these direct to the fire. Or you can make a 3 foil pouches with the drained wood chips placed inside and a few holes poked into the foil, to allow a controlled smoke release while cooking. Dividing the chips into separate pouches will add more smoke flavor to the turkey. To use the pouches, place over the heat, adding one in the beginning of the cooking, another hour later and the third, the last hour of cooking. If you have a Traeger or pellet style smoker, do no soak the wood pellets in beer.
Depending on your type of smoker, create or set the temperature to 250°F | 121°C and cook the turkey until the internal temp is 160°F | 71°C. This will take longer than a 350°F | 177°C oven. For a 20 pound turkey, this might take 6 – 7 hours to cook. A key to smoking is to resist the temptation to open the smoker, as each time the door is opened, heat and smoke escape, 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 vs just burn, and not creating the essential smoke ring). I strongly suggest and recommend the probe style thermometer. Using a probe thermometer is critical to monitoring the internal temperature of the turkey for this cooking method, keeping the doors shut, the smoke in and knowing what temperature the smoker is (outside the bird) and inside the meat. Set the alarm for 160°F | 71°C.
If the skin is getting to dark, whether it is from the amount of smoke or the contact with fire, tent the turkey loosely with aluminum foil.