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Feature Article: A life of brine… or how I made a great bird fantastic

brine in a bucket ready for the turkey
A fine brine, ready to work its magic.

I’ve become somewhat obsessed with salt. Now before the health police bang me to rights over daring to start a food blog article with such a provocative statement, I should point out that this is a positive thing as far as my cooking is concerned. You see, I haven’t become fixated with over seasoning my meals, far from it. However, I have discovered the age-old techniques of preserving food – and potentially enhancing the way it cooks – that are salting and brining.

A wee while ago on Scrumptious Scran I mentioned how – inspired by Tim Hayward’s excellent Food DIY – I decided to attempt producing my own salt fish – salted coley, to be precise. The process was both straight forward – merely involving parcelling the soft fillets in sea salt – and fascinating, as the liquid was sucked from the flesh turning it stiff and dry. And when ready to cook with the salt fish all that is to be done is to rehydrate them in a few changes of fresh water for 24 hours or so. I can testify that when incorporated in croquetas the salt fish was delicious, with deep seafood flavour that wasn’t salty at all.

home cured salt fish on a plate
Delicious, home-made salt fish.

And that delicate, yet significant, flavour change is something key. Certainly the primary function of salting food is to preserve it, which is why the process was so popular in the days before refrigeration. But the way salt interacts with meat, fish, and even vegetables can also enhance the taste and texture of the foodstuff. I shall spare you the detailed chemistry lesson, but basically salt reacts with the proteins in the foodstuff to subtly change their structure. This can ultimately transform the tenderness and succulence of your salted food of choice, in addition to how it tastes. Treating food with salt is certainly not a dry subject though, oh no. I am talking brine.

I first became properly aware of soaking food in salty liquid – which is basically what brining involves – when I got my hands on Jane Grigson’s inspiring book, Good Things (to Eat). Although originally published in the early 1970’s the passion for great British ingredients and culinary traditions expressed in this work are still current today. And it features a whole chapter on salting meat, including Grigson’s own recipe for brine, which basically consists of equal parts of sea salt and brown sugar dissolved in water. Yet interestingly, it also features the addition of aromatics – such as bay leaves, juniper berries, and peppercorns – which impart subtle notes of flavour to the meat that is soaked and preserved in the liquid.

Now we are in the depths of January the festive season might seem just a distant memory, but the Christmas just past provided an opportunity to dip my toe into the pond of brining. Turkey is the festive bird of choice at Scrumptious Scran Towers, primarily because my father-in-law is pretty traditional when it comes to Christmas dinner. I always try and get the best quality turkey available – bronze of feather, free-range, organic, probably called Horatio or something similar – to ensure two things: that the meat actually tastes of something; and that it isn’t dry. Choosing top quality usually delivers. But having witnessed a festive TV programme where Nigella waxed lyrical about brining one’s turkey for 24 hours before cooking, I wondered if this could make an already great fowl even more tender and flavoursome, as La Lawson claims.

a turkey in a bucket ready for brining
Horatio the turkey, ready for a brine bath.

So at lunchtime last Christmas eve Horatio the turkey was deposited into a lidded plastic tub together with sufficient salt, sugar and water to make a brine, and a whole host of herbs and spices – bay leaves, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, star anise, peppercorns, juniper berries, clementine juice and peel, thyme, parsley and onions. Then into the fridge it went, until about an hour before cooking Christmas dinner was due to commence, whence it was drained, dried and brought up to room temperature. A mere two and a half hours in the oven – I certainly wasn’t going to overcook the turkey, as much as I wasn’t going to undercook it either – and the bird looked and smelled perfect. But how did it taste?

To be honest, it was blinking amazing. My father-in-law proclaimed it was the most moist, tastiest turkey he had ever sampled. The flesh was truly tender and not at all dry – which was down to more than just the quality of the bird, as the brining process helps lock moisture into the meat. And it had an almost mild gamey flavour, somewhere between guinea fowl and pheasant, but also with a very subtle hint of the aromatics that had gone into brine. This is certainly how I shall prepare our turkey from now on, but brining is not just for Christmas, as Jane Grigson’s recipes for salt duck and spiced salt beef clearly demonstrate. Watch this space!

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