Oxmas: Brining a Turkey

Oxford is a strange place to be for lots of reasons, one of which is the concept of ‘Oxmas’. Because the University terms are so short, lasting only eight weeks, term finishes very early- this year on Saturday 1st December. If you want a college or society Christmas dinner while everybody is still around, it’s got to happen in the last week of term, i.e. November. All this adds up to spending the last week of November going to carol services, eating turkey and minced pies, drinking mulled wine, and giving your friends gifts before going home and waiting three weeks for Christmas to arrive for everybody else. Very strange.


Oxmas has become an annual tradition now in the Oxfood household, with old university and school friends coming back in early December to catch up, pull crackers, and enjoy some good food. Each year I try to make something different, still sticking on the theme of roast turkey, and, of course, trying to make the food better than last year’s meal. Last year I made a three-bird roast, with a turkey, duck, and pheasant, sowing the entire thing together to create an enormous ‘meat pillow’. The previous year was Christmas dinner en miniature, with a roast poussin each and tiny roast vegetables on everybody’s plates. Christmas pudding has also come in various guises too. Last year was a Christmas pudding millefeuille, with brandy crème patisserie, and the previous year Christmas crackers, made out of filo pastry with Christmas pudding inside. Hard to top? This year I just tried to make basic roast turkey, and Christmas pudding, as well as I could. The ‘Oxmas pudding‘ was made months in advance, but the turkey required more though.

As is well known, one of the main problems with turkey is keeping it moist. There are lots of different solutions- foil, butter, basting for example- but the one I wanted to try this year was brining. Brining involves marinating the meat in a salt solution- the brine- for a few days beforehand, so that the meat can absorb more water to keep it moist in cooking. According to Harold McGee’s ‘McGee on Food and Cooking’, the salting has two main effects. Firstly protein filaments, which normally coagulate into dense substances when cooked, are dissolved, resulting in meat which is more tender. Secondly, the salt causes the an increase in water capacity of the muscle, so the meat can absorb about 10% of its mass in water. You still lose water in cooking, but the meat retains more water through brining. Similarly, the areas of the turkey which are most prone to overcooking- the outside- have absorbed the most water.

It is interesting then to compare this to ‘dry-brining’, which is not much more than salting. I talked to a few friends about cooking turkey beforehand, and they all recommended dry-brining, as it was quicker and easier to do. Given the science of brining above, you would achieve the first effect of dissolving protein filaments, creating a more tender turkey. The second effect of plumping up the turkey with water would not happen, however, so you would still lose the same amount of moisture during cooking as regular turkey. In the quest to get the turkey really moist, it was clear dry-brining wouldn’t do.


There are, additionally, some problems with brining a turkey. Firstly, the logistics. We had large number of people to feed, so needed a big bird. Where do you store a large turkey, along with around 12 litres of brine, for a few days? One option was to buy a disposable plastic bin, but fortunately we had a cool box we borrowed, which (just) fit our turkey inside along with all the brine we needed. Keeping it cool was another challenge (although we weren’t that concerned given how salty the environment was), but we needed a good few ice trays to keep the temperature down. The logistics of brining are definitely worth thinking about if you are going to brine a large animal yourself.

The second problem was a culinary one though. As you would expect, the meat is quite salty, as are the juices which come off it. We rarely eat salty food, so were worried the salt would dominate the flavour of the meat. If you want to make gravy out of the juices, either it will be extremely salty, or you’ll have to blend it with another liquid (we used cider, which worked well). The recipe below also adds a fair amount of sugar to the brine, as sugar counteracts salt on your palate, which can be another solution to this problem.


Overall, I would say that the results were mixed. The texture of the turkey was very good, moist as you would hope, and this was agreed by all of the diners. But I think the brine affected the taste of the turkey too much. It was quite salty, but not as bad as it could have been, but the herbs and spices in the brine came through too strong, and the taste of the turkey was too complex. I’m not sure I would do a brined turkey again, because of the taste. Given the effort it took, and considering there are other good methods to keep a turkey moist, it was just too much. A fun culinary experiment though, and a great Oxmas.


I took this recipe from Nose To Tail Eating. You may need to make several quantities for the whole turkey.

400g brown sugar
600g sea salt
12 juniper berries
12 cloves
12 black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
4 litres water

Make the brine. Boil all the ingredients up together in a large (or several) pans, making sure the sugar and salt have dissolved. Leave to cool before applying to the meat.



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Porcini and Scallop Tartlets « oxfood

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