13 November, 2008

Please Mr. McGee, Don’t Drown my Turkey.

It’s getting to turkey time when the media outlets churn out the usual fodder regarding the best prep for your holiday bird. I try not to use this forum to throw stones at articles that promotes practices with which I don't agree; however I am temporarily suspending my editorial policy to comment on an unusual stinker.

I really enjoy the Curious Cook column penned by Harold McGee. His book, On food and Cooking, sits between my Larousse and my dictionary. It is an important reference book that is cited again and again in modern cookbooks when a writer wants to put science in the culinary arts. But this week…oh I can’t even…

In “Miracle Cure or Just Salt Water,” published in yesterday’s New York Times, McGee stakes out a position against brining. He balances this argument on a couple of wobbly points, but I think the true purpose these straw men is to prop up his notion of how turkey should be served: Swimming in sauce. Yeah, he says you shouldn’t brine because you can’t make a decent gravy, “its drippings become too salty to use.”

Is the holiday called Thanksgravy? Gravy Day?

No it’s about the bird, and the bird should come first. You can make gravy out of anything. How about some chicken stock, a thickening agent, and some of the pan drippings? Brining a turkey at home is a very rewarding process especially it you are going to be cooking your tom in a grill or a smoker. What are the benefits? McGee lists them in the article and also on page 155 of his book.

One of the benefits of brining is it provides some latitude in finishing temperature and meat texture. You can cook the breast to 165F and still have a wonderful white meat AND properly cooked dark meat. But McGee sticks to his gravy. In place of briny latitude he proposes that you slice the breast meat thinly and “coat the meat thoroughly” with sauce. Again, the bird plays second fiddle.

McGee writes that his saucy approach “takes its inspiration from the world of barbecue and its ways of dealing with well-cooked meat. In particular, pulled pork.” Oh no, please don’t tell me you bathe your pulled pork too. Not only is it wrong to hold BBQ in sauce but I found out it’s illegal. I contacted Jim Ellison, proprietor of the blog CMH Gourmand, and a producer of Columbus Foodcast. He also happens to be a Barbeque Judge certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Jim referred me to the KCBS rules which states pooled sauce is grounds for disqualification in competition.

My point here is that to cover something with sauce means that you are covering up something. Don’t get me wrong I am all for ketchup on my French fries, and I have over a kilo of German mustard (thanks Liisa and Karhu) on hand, but sauce is a supporting actor, its roll is to enhance the meal. At the end of the article McGee makes the same point, that his approach enhances the meat. I think there is a line (and not a really fine one) between enhancing and dominating, and saucing meat like this crosses the line.

Thanks Harold McGee for giving me a reason to rant, and by the way, I love your book.

Click Here for MAC’s tips for a Perfect Turkey .

And Click here for my article on Genuine Authentic Barbeque .



ntsc said...

Well, as with most years, this year we are doing two turkeys, one brined and roasted with cream gravy and the other Madeira Braised. Over the years we have also grilled, smoked and deep fried.

Much of the gravy will involve some of the 4 gallons of chicken stock in the basement.


I found the article interesting, but not one we are likely to follow.

Andrew said...

Amen to that! Last year my meat injector broke and I wasn't able to inject the brined turkey with my usual beer/stock/butter combination. Turns out it didn't matter one bit, the Turkey was great

I actually went with a 36 hour brine on a 12 lb. bird and it was fine (used Ruhlman's basic formula)