Our friends are going to be out of town with family this Thursday, so we had an early Bay Area Thanksgiving on Sunday, and my partner and I hosted.
This was the first time we had brined a bird, and also the first time we've roasted a heritage breed turkey. The results were spectacular, and while I am not sure how much to attribute to brining and how much to the breed of bird, I feel I can recommend both.
I used an Emeril Lagasse recipe for both the brine and the bird. See the link below. His recipe was pleasingly simple, and included a lot of chef'ly touches that worked really well, like actually making a simple stock for the gravy (as opposed to just simmering the giblets in water for a couple hours). Also, the turkey is not stuffed with dressing, but with flavor enhancers--citrus, a mirepoix, and fresh herbs. And I liked the pre-roasting butter massage. Always a pleasure, for turkey and chef alike.
I would recommend Emeril's recipe as a base recipe, whether you brine or not. The only modification we made was to cook the bird at 400 degrees for the first 30 minutes, then turn the temp down to 325.
To brine the turkey, I got a 40-qt bulk food container from the Container Store. It turned out to be bigger than necessary, but better that than too small! And it was a lot cheaper than a super-sized stockpot. These are also available in a 32-qt size. It worked great, after we removed two shelves and the cheese drawer from the fridge. (We employed a cooler, and a chilly back room, to store our vegetables and cold drinks.)
The turkey was a free-range heritage breed (a Narragansett, if the black pinfeathers were any indication) from Mary's Turkeys, a small producer in the Central Valley. It was easy to see that it was not a modern broad-breasted bird. It was long-legged and lanky, looking more like a very large chicken.
Mary's Turkeys are limited to the extent that they come in two sizes, small (8-14 lb) and large (14-20 lb). I had ordered a large, hence my huge brining vessel, but when I went to pick it up it was 14 lb--just enough for our party of eight.
The bird cooked to an internal temp of 165F in three hours exactly. At the end of the cooking time it was a rich golden brown color. Since the heritage birds are skinnier and get a lot more exercise than your average broad-breast, I expected a dearth of white meat, but it turns out that the bird is nearly all white meat--the legs are very skinny, and quite muscular. Yet the white meat is a little darker than usual. And the breast meat is notably muscular, with a dense texture, more like pork.
What dark meat there was, was very dark indeed, and almost caramelized in the crispy skin. The turkey was exquisitely rich, well flavored, and juicy, in both the light and dark meat. Furthermore, it was intensely fragrant. Even today, two days later, I noticed its delicious aroma as I dismantled it to make a pot of stock. I expect this is a bonus from the brining--the moisture seems to be better managed by a day-long salt bath. I've read how brined and roasted meat keeps its flavor and moisture better, even for leftovers, and now I believe it! I am looking forward to trying out brines for roast chicken and pork.
One thing we did this year that seems obvious, but was such a help, was to put the turkey, in its cheap roasting pan, onto a big cookie sheet. This made moving the roast bird around so much easier than usual! Someday I am going to break down and buy a big steel roaster, but for now this is an easy and very practical trick.
Along with the bird, we had a basic bread dressing, mashed potatoes, madeira pan gravy, creamed pearl onions with bacon, green beans with walnuts, braised cabbage, cranberry relish, and yeast rolls...and an apple-custard with cajeta de cabra for dessert.
It's a little odd to have already eaten our leftover turkey sandwiches, and here it is only Tuesday. But I thought I'd take advantage of our early and successful Turkey day to pass along our methods to y'all, in the hopes of helping and/or inspiring some of you for the Day of the Big Bird.
Happy Thanksgiving, chowhounds!