What is the worst thing that can happen to your Thanksgiving turkey tradition? Judging by the number of solutions on offer, it would have to be the dry breast syndrome. All fowl have large fat-free breast meat. Not that long ago low fat meats were all the rage, including bird breast. The only problem for the diner was that eating fully cooked breast meat was very much like eating sheet-rock. It comes out so dry and tasteless that dozens of ways have been dreamed up to keep it from happening or mitigate it if it does.
So, why does this happen to bird breasts? Part of the answer is in the bird, part of it is in your head. Your brain responds to the flavor of the food, to the sight, to the smell. When sufficiently stimulated it will jack up the saliva glands in your mouth to bring the food down. A white, odorless, unsalted and dense slab of turkey or chicken breast just do not have enough of what it takes to make your mouth slobberingly juicy. In the case of turkey there is just not enough skin, which is flavorful and often crunchy and greasy, to go with that slab of blandness. That breast just seems moister when you have a bit of skin to eat with it.
The second half of the equation is how to make the breast meat itself generate the necessary moistening ingredient, saliva. There are two ways to do it, one is hard and of course it is the way you have already heard of, brining. The other thing you can do is far easier and you probably have never heard of it, and that is “larding.”
I say that brining is harder, but only because it takes a day of planning for something as large as a 14 pound (1 stone) turkey. The bird must be completely thawed and it must be submerged in a solution of salt water for an entire day to ensure that the brine is incorporated all the way into the depths of the breast meat. Without doing anything else this will ensure that your turkey breast is a lot harder to overcook. Doing this helps the flesh to retain moisture as it cooks to a high enough temperature to ensure that it is safe to eat, all microbes extinguished, and that they dark thigh and leg meat is also completely cooked. The breast cooks quickest, unfortunately.
Here is an excellent guide to brining from the salt people over at Morton Salt:
Combine Morton® Kosher Salt and sugar in cool water in a large, clean stockpot until completely dissolved. Place the whole turkey in the brine until completely submerged. Cover and refrigerate overnight, up to 14 hours. Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse inside and out under cool running water for several minutes to remove all traces of salt; pat dry with paper towel.
I often soak the bird after brining in a full sink of water to get the salt off of the surface. Do not salt the surface or use anything like salted spices or butters after brining. It is very easy to end up with a too-salty final product if you do.
Larding is something that you have to go looking to find out how it is done. Ever since the middle ages cooks have been fighting too-lean meats. Venison and wild game, living as they do off of the natural forage available to them and constantly running for their lives, are lean for a reason. It makes eating the meats a challenge, eating deer is difficult because the meat is so ‘dry’. What it really lacks is fat and connective tissue. Larding the meat adds fat where you need it, inside the flesh. Here is what a larded turkey looks like, from an antique receipt book:
The little tabs you see are pieces of pork fat, cut into ribbons the size of a matchstick, and threaded through the flesh using a larding needle.
You can purchase a larding needle online, or in a well-stocked kitchen goods store. They are inexpensive and make putting the pork fat as easy as sewing. I have the kind with the hinged jaw which makes loading the needle with fat easy. I will use pork fat, not bacon, because bacon is brined, making it salty. Since I will be brining my bird I don’t want to add more salt to the meat, a brined bird is perfectly salted.
Once the bird is brined and larded then you will roast it exactly the same as you ever do, except you don’t have to worry so much about overcooking the breast. The 180 degree cooking temperature now will serve to melt the lard into the breast meat. Then when you bite into those white slabs of flesh there will be salt and there will be fat to generate that saliva as though the entire bird were that tasty succulent skin.