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To Brine or Not To Brine: Cooking Kosher Turkey for Thanksgiving

If you’re buying a kosher turkey, here are a few essential tips for making a perfect Thanksgiving dinner

Leah Koenig
November 16, 2012

Two years ago, my husband and I cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Stuffed with orange wedges, sage leaves, and hunks of onion, the bird was crispy and deeply golden on the outside yet tender inside. It was delicious. It was the first turkey I, a former vegetarian, had eaten (let alone cooked) in over a decade. During those years, I had begun keeping a kosher kitchen, so it was also the first kosher turkey I’d cooked. I could not remember how the bird we made compared to those from my pre-kosher, pre-vegetarian life—although I suspected it stacked up very well.

So, as this year’s Thanksgiving dinner-plotting began, I started wondering if there are any significant differences between non-kosher turkeys and kosher ones (spoiler alert: There are), and how to ensure success when trussing a kosher bird. On the one hand, a turkey is a turkey, whether or not it is slaughtered in a kosher manner. Like their non-hekhshered cousins, the kosher turkeys one finds this time of year can be big (12-16 pounds), bigger (18-22 pounds), or colossal (up to 24 pounds). They can be frozen or fresh, industrially raised with antibiotics and hormones or raised naturally without those things, good quality and less so. Depending on where you live, they can be found in the supermarket—particularly brands like Empire, Aaron’s, Trader Joe’s (Empire’s private line), David Elliot, and Wise Organic Pastures. Or they can be ordered directly through companies like Grow & Behold (where we ordered our bird two years ago) and Kol Foods, which both produce pasture-raised kosher meat and poultry. (Wise brand can also be ordered online.)

And yet there are several notable and surprisingly important distinctions to keep in mind when buying and cooking a kosher turkey. To get the inside information, I turned to two experts: my friend Naftali Hanau, co-owner of Grow & Behold; and Moshe Wendel, chef at Pardes, an upscale kosher restaurant in Brooklyn. Hanau produces O.U.-certified meats (chicken, turkey, beef, and lamb) made from animals raised naturally on small family farms. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, he spends his days with bird on the brain. Wendel has established himself as one of the most creative artisanally minded kosher chefs in New York and is planning to include turkey on his restaurant menu this Thanksgiving. If anyone knows how to treat a kosher turkey right, Hanau and Wendel do. Here’s what they had to say:

Like all kosher meat, turkeys get salted in order to remove any traces of residual blood. Hanau described the process like this: After a turkey gets plucked, it is soaked in cold water for at least 30 minutes then packed inside and out with salt. It rests in the salt for an hour, then gets dunked three times in cold water and soaked for an additional hour in clean, cool water (“to remove some of the salty taste,” he said). No surprise, the resulting bird typically tastes saltier than non-kosher birds. Hanau said that salt-sensitive cooks should soak their bird again at home: A one-hour dunk with water refreshed twice, followed by a 20-minute drain, helps tame some of the saltiness.

On a related topic, brining—the process of letting a turkey sit in heavily salted water before cooking it—has become popular in recent years among non-kosher Thanksgiving cooks. The idea is that brined turkeys retain moisture better and turn out extra-tender, juicy meat.

The salting process that kosher birds go through before you buy them is believed to produce a similar tenderizing effect, without the extra step in your kitchen. In The New York Times’ Diner’s Journal blog, Sam Sifton writes that, thanks to being pre-salted, kosher turkeys “roast into succulence terrifically easily.” (Maybe it wasn’t beginners’ luck that accounted for the juicy bird my husband and I roasted.) Conventional wisdom follows that kosher birds do not need to be brined.

That said, Joan Nathan wrote in Tablet last Thanksgiving that “most kosher turkeys are not as salty as they used to be,” which is why she chooses to brine her kosher bird anyway. Nathan uses “salt with equal amounts of brown sugar, as well as thyme and apple cider.”

Wendel suggests cutting off and frying a small piece of turkey skin. Taste it: If it’s super salty, don’t brine it.

Wendel agrees. “Brining is about more than making your meat juicy; it’s about making it taste good,” he said. His brine includes aromatics like rosemary and juniper, which add depth of flavor to the finished bird. Before making the final “to brine or not to brine” decision, Wendel suggests cutting off and frying a small piece of turkey skin. Taste it: If it’s super salty, don’t brine it. If not, then go for it. Non-briners can add moisture and zest to their birds by rubbing them under the skin with olive oil and chopped fresh herbs.

Immediately after being slaughtered, non-kosher poultry gets scalded in hot water—a process that loosens feather follicles and facilitates cleaner feather plucking. The rules for kosher meat do not allow for this step, Hanau said. Coming into contact with super-hot water can begin to “cook” the bird, which is not permitted in kashrut until it has gone through the soaking and salting process. As a result, kosher birds are sometimes left with a pesky number of leftover feathers after being plucked.

“There’s a certain level of acceptable feathering in kosher birds that you don’t see in non-kosher poultry,” said Wendel. “It’s just the reality.” Some cooks don’t mind a little extra plumage, and Hanau said that the smaller ones burn away in a hot oven. Larger feathers can be plucked out by hand before cooking. Meanwhile for the truly feather-averse, Wendel recommends using a small kitchen blowtorch (like one you might use to brown the tops of crème brulee) held four inches away from the turkey’s skin, to singe off hard-to-remove feathers before it goes in the oven.

Most non-kosher turkeys come stuffed with a package of giblets (heart, liver, gizzard, and other organs), which are useful for making gravy. Kosher turkeys often do not. The reason, Hanau said, is that kosher law requires that some of the giblets be dealt with differently than the rest of the turkey. The liver in particular has to be kashered by getting broiled at very high heat. To avoid confusion, many kosher companies leave out the giblets and pack their turkeys with just a neck. “The neck is great for making flavorful gravy,” Hanau said. Grow & Behold packages and sells gizzards and livers separately for customers who want them. (Kol Foods also sells turkey livers separately.)

In most cases, the popular notion that kosher food is inherently fresher and healthier than non-kosher food is nothing more than bubbe meise (a grandmother’s fable), or wishful thinking. But in the case of turkey and other poultry, it may actually be true. The scalding process described above can begin to cook a non-kosher turkey while it is being processed and packaged, which in turn can encourage food-borne bacteria to form. Kosher turkeys, Hanau said are instead “immediately cleaned, cooled, and salted, which are ideal steps for keeping food fresh and sanitary.”

Perhaps the most important tip for buying a kosher bird is this: Don’t wait. Thanksgiving is just several days away, and turkeys (kosher and otherwise) need days to thaw if you’re buying frozen. Even if you plan to go fresh, there is no guarantee that a good quality kosher turkey will be waiting for you if you buy at the last minute. So, whether you are hosting two or 20 at your table, go get your bird and have a happy, healthy, and delicious Thanksgiving.