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A BIRD IN BRINE
IS IT WORTH GIVING THE TURKEY A SALTY SOAK BEFORE ROASTING IT? OUR INTREPID CHEF PUT THE METHOD TO THE TEST

This a tale of two turkeys. One brined and one not brined.

There's been such a buzz about soaking the bird in salt water before roasting that we decided to see if it was really worth the trouble.

We bought two ordinary fresh turkeys, weighing about 10 1/2 pounds each, neither basted or otherwise injected.

We brined one bird for four hours, air dried it for eight hours and then roasted it unstuffed in a 350-degree oven uncovered until it was done. The roasting took about three hours.

We took an easier route with the other bird -- simply washing it, seasoning it before putting in a 350-oven unstuffed and uncovered until it was done. That roasting, too, took about three hours.

Both birds looked wonderful when they came from the oven. A rich brown in color they were; crisp of skin. But the proof of the pudding (or the turkey) is in you-know-what.

While the brined bird was slightly more moist, the difference between the birds was really minimal in taste and texture. Worth the time and mess of the brining process caused?

The short answer: No. Yes, we were surprised, too.

But then turkey has always been a dish that inspires controversy (or creativity -- if that's what you want to call it). Maybe it's because of its size. Still, essentially its preparation is a very simple thing. You take the bird, wash it thoroughly, pat it dry with paper towels. Next, season it to to taste both inside and out and brush it with melted fat, usually butter.

Then, as mentioned above, it goes into a preheated 350 degree oven and -- cooks. You may, if you wish, baste it with the pan juices and more melted butter; you may cover it loosely with foil when it reaches its desired degree of color. But essentially there is nothing else to do.

So be sensible. Unless you really like to fuss and despite what you may read or hear elsewhere, you don't have to buy a prebasted bird -- a turkey that is not prebasted is perfectly moist if you treat it right.

You don't have to turn it during roasting, which is a good thing -- turning a slippery hot turkey is not an action to be taken lightly. You don't even have to change the oven temperature while it cooks. It's 350 all the way.

So if this is your first (or your 40th) Thanksgiving, relax and rest assured that the dinner will be memorable. Here's how:

Brining a turkey

For brining, the first thing to remember is to give yourself time -- it takes a while. And think ahead, too. Decide what vessel you are going to use for the brining. It must be food safe. I used a stainless steel, tall, thin soup kettle that fit into the garage refrigerator. I knew it was going to fit because I don't like surprises. I tried it first and so should you.

You may also use a doubled large turkey roasting bag if you don't have a kettle. Mix the brine in a large bowl then pour it into the bag. This is easier if someone holds it open for you.

Remember that the bag has to rest on a solid foundation because it flops all over the place. Put it on a cookie sheet.

You don't want to use a frozen turkey for this and you don't want to use a prebasted one. You want a fresh turkey. Clean it carefully inside and out.

You can buy commercial brine mixes or use fancy recipes, in which case you follow instructions. But this is a basic ratio: One cup of ordinary table salt to one gallon of water. Dissolve the salt in the water. Two gallons of water is sufficient for most birds.

1. Place the bird in the brine making sure it is totally covered. Use a weight to keep it from floating if you must. Refrigerate.

2. Let the bird stay in the brine for four to six hours. Remove and rinse well under running cold water. Pat it dry with paper towels.

3. Now you may want to air dry, a process said to produce an extremely crisp skin. To air dry, place the bird on a rack over a shallow pan with a rim. Leave it uncovered before putting it in the refrigerator for about eight hours.

4. At last, you can roast. Season it or not as you wish. I did not and it was fine. Stuff the cavity, if desired.

5. Tie the legs together or use the plastic clamp. Brush it with melted butter. Place on a rack in the 350-degree oven, breast side up, pouring put a little water in the bottom of the roaster to make it easier to clean.

6. Roast, basting occasionally if you wish until the turkey is done. An unstuffed 8- to 12-pound bird will take three to 3 1/2 hours. If it is getting too brown, cover loosely with foil.

A 12- to 16-pound bird will take from 3 1/2 to four hours. A 16- to 18-pound bird will take from four to 4 1/2 hours. And so on. A 26- to 28-pound bird will take from 6 3/4 to 7 3/4 hours. Stuffed birds take about half an hour more.

7. Remove turkey from oven and let it stand at room temperature for about 15 minutes before you carve.

Old-fashioned roasting

For the non-brined turkey, follow the above instructions from Step 4 above. In this case, you definitely want to use a salt and pepper seasoning. Rub it into the bird's skin and in both the body and neck cavities.

For both the brined and non-brined turkey, you can tell if it's done if the leg wiggles easily. But if the leg is in the plastic clamp, sometimes you can't wiggle it no matter how hard you try.

So, take its temperature, using an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh where it will not touch the bone. (Don't cook the turkey with the thermometer, insert the thermometer at the end.)

The thigh temperature should be 175 degrees.

One caveat: Don't rely on the pop-up thermometers inserted in some turkeys by the packers. (Here's another example of too much creativity.)

We've often found those little plastic jobbies to be way off base.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com