To brine, to bard or to baste…that is the question if you have a bird in hand to roast. Like most of the big questions in life, this one begs several others before the answer is to be found:
Which bird is it? Where did it come from; how did it live?
The grain-fed Butterballs of the world are bred to be busty and are plumped with chlorinated water before delivery to the supermarkets in their vacuum-sealed straight jackets so they are nearly guaranteed to be moist and juicy without much intervention.
You can rinse, dry and roast these birds as is or add a handful of fresh herbs like thyme, sage and parsley to the cavity and a hearty dose of salt and pepper to the skin for some actual flavor. Cooking times are usually included in the packaging along with a curious little plastic pop-up thermometer to let you know when it’s done; all convenient but less than ideal.
In the real food world, game birds like wild turkey, pheasant, quail and grouse bear little resemblance to their bourgeois relatives. They’ve lived beyond the crates and confines of industrial farms and thus offer more depth of character and flavor in their lean flesh. Pastured chickens and turkeys allowed to live omnivorously in the open air are similar.
If you want to access this richness of flavor and prefer moist meat, you may want to brine, bard or baste your bird. Here's a quick guide to each method.
To brine means that you soak it in salted water* for several hours or overnight before roasting. This is a time-honored way of adding moisture to the meat while enhancing its natural flavor. Some people are fond of adding herbs to the brine but it may be more effective to add them to the cavity as stated above or to tuck them under the barding fat to truly influence the flavor of the meat.
To bard means that you wrap the bird with strips of fat like bacon while it roasts. It’s customary to tie the fat to the bird with kitchen twine but you may find that using a piece of cheesecloth is a much simpler way to keep the fat from slipping off. Sadly, the bird tends to look like a bandaged victim so be sure to remove the cloth and the fat strips 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time in order to brown the skin and get it looking as good as it will taste.
To baste means that liquid added to the roasting pan is periodically poured over the meat as it roasts. Wine, broth, cider or water is added to the pan and allowed to combine with the juices released from the roasting bird. Using a ladle or “turkey baster” gently pour some of the liquid over the breast every half hour or so. Any bird benefits from basting as it adds more fat and moisture. A piece of cheesecloth is an effective way to capture the basting liquid on the surface of the meat and again, must be removed to allow the skin to get brown and crispy for the last 15 minutes of cooking time.
SUGGESTED COOKING TIMES
Allow at least 15 minutes per pound if cooking at 350 degrees and cook to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. That reading should be taken with a thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the thigh. A good rule of thumb is when you can easily pull the leg and thigh away from the bird, it is well done. Always allow the roasted poultry to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before you carve it. This resting period retains the moisture in the meat.
If you will carve in the kitchen without any table side ceremony, butterflying nearly guarantees an evenly cooked bird. First, line a baking sheet with foil and add coarsely chopped vegetables like onions, celery and carrots with chopped fresh herbs, salt & pepper and some additional liquid if desired (cider, broth**, wine, water, etc.). Next, with kitchen shears, cut the backbone out and splay the bird with its legs out to the side. Now add a flat rack to the pan and lay the bird on it, skin side up. Season generously with salt and pepper roast in a 425 degree oven for half the time it would take to roast whole in the conventional manner described above. Here, the vegetables beneath the rack will steam the meat while the skin stays crispy. This method, called “spatchcocking” is my current favorite for it’s timely, consistent and delicious results.
For a simple and flavorful “gravy”, puree the roasted vegetables and juices in a blender while your bird rests, thinning with additional water or broth to your desired consistency and then reheating again in a saucepan on the stove.
Enjoy your brined, barded or basted birds best with side dishes featuring fruits and nuts and served up with a healthy dose of gratitude any day of the year.
*Kosher salt or sea salt is best, approximately 5% salt to water weight or 2 cups salt to 2 gallons water to make the brine. The bird must be completely submerged and stored in a cold place for 8 hours or more.
**To make broth to use for the gravy, cover giblets, neck (and backbone if bird is butterflied) with water and simmer with a few whole cloves and a bay leaf until liquid is reduced by one half. This can be done while the bird roasts. Strain, season with salt and pepper and use as needed.