I missed the memo about brining, basting, and spatchcocking.
As you have probably surmised from my previous dispatches on culinary subjects, I am not a particularly serious cook. But as Thanksgiving approaches, I feel a little extra motivation to make a little more of an effort. Mercifully, my beloved Alton Brown recently delivered some memos in which he extolled the virtues of his finely-honed turkey preparation techniques. Because Alton Brown is not only a great cook, but also a food science nerd, his techniques are well-grounded in chemistry and physics, and if we look closely, there might be a bit of metaphysics thrown in for good measure. Join me as I contemplate the nature of the following…
First there’s brining…brining is a basically a technique whereby you cover the bird in a bit of salt or plunge it into some salt water and then just bide your time. Depending on which particular method you employ, there are various stages of covering and uncovering the bird to allow for drying of the skin, etc. What’s fascinating about the science brining is there is something weirdly counter-intuitive about how it works in that the longer you leave the bird in the brine, the less likely it is that the turkey will taste salty. Savor that for a second. There’s something about giving the sodium molecules enough time to break down the muscle fibers or some such geekery, but if you short-change the brining process, you get a weirdly salty bird, but if you if give the process adequate time, the result is a turkey that is moist, tender and just the right amount of salty. Trippy, huh?
Then there’s basting. Conventional wisdom tells us that we’re supposed to be baste the bird at regular intervals throughout the cooking process. I always thought that basting helped to ensure that the turkey stayed moist and that the skin got all brown and crispy. Well, in the world according to Alton, basting doesn’t give you much bang for your buck. He cautions us to think of a turkey’s skin much like our own skin, it’s a barrier that keeps stuff out and doesn’t really allow much to soak in, so basting the outside of the turkey does nothing to flavor or moisturize the meat within. And while dousing the bird in butter every half an hour may result in some decadent turkey skin, the unfortunate trade off is that opening the oven door so frequently lets a lot of heat out, and when the heat goes out, the cooking time goes up. And when the cooking time goes up, so do your chances of having a turkey that turns out something like this…
And last but not least, there’s spatchcocking. Say it with with me…spatch-cocking. Wasn’t that fun? In addition to being a wonderfully ridiculous word, it’s also a great shortcut for impatient cooks like me. It’s a another term for butterflying, which involves taking out the bird’s backbone so it will lay flat in the pan. By coaxing the bird into this position, you increase the surface area, and increased surface area means decreased cooking time. And as noted above, you want your turkey’s time in the oven to be hot and short, kinda like a good trip to Vegas.
So what have we learned? Good turkey takes a little forethought…if you’re going to brine a bird, you have to start the process a few days out, so there’s nothing last minute about it. And basting might be a bit like tanning…it may achieve a cosmetically desirable result, but it might do some damage deeper down. And by spatchcocking the bird (and please, let someone come up with a really awesome and disgusting alternative meaning of “spatchcocking” and put it on urbandictionary.com, like now), you can save hours in the kitchen just by honoring the physics of form following function.
So there you go. All I needed to know about life I learned from Alton Brown’s turkey techniques. Happy Thanksgiving and memo received.