Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Perfect Sous Vide Turkey (and a brine to make your oven-baked turkey more succulent)

It's so unbelievably good, it's DEFINITELY not just for Christmas, or Easter, or Thanksgiving...

Aside from a turkey afficionado's dream for cooking the perfect turkey, this is also perfect for making the most extraordinary use of those frozen (single) turkey breasts marketed for family roast dinners, which come in 800g frozen packs in the supermarket - not my usual choice, but when you're initially experimenting, you don't want to be going out buying enormous, organic, rare-breed turkeys and butchering them into appropriate portions at great cost to yourself - so this is where I started off to perfect the brine and cooking.

And, with the brine and cooking time perfected, it was literally the best turkey breast I'd ever tasted in my life! So, you can stick with the frozen, more economical version, knowing it's going to turn out sublimely, or ramp it up to something more upmarket in the turkey arena, knowing you'll have a rapturous experience when you bite into that first mouthful of moist, tender, free-range, slow-growing, individually plucked and hung turkey, delicately flavoured with subtle herbs and spices, perfectly browned at the end, in a pan, to bring out those rich caramelised flavours... oh, sorry, did I make your mouth get a bit excited?!

The cooking method in itself is only going to be available to certain people, however I highly recommend using this brine overnight anyway, if you're cooking a turkey breast or crown - whichever way you cook it! You will definitely have more moist meat, infused with a subtle hint of flavour (the science-y bit in simples terms: brining means the bird absorbs moisture during the process, along with the flavours within the brine - topping up the water levels in the meat before cooking, means that you have more water levels left in the meat after cooking, hence more moist meat with additional flavour).

Instead of cooking in a water bath (if you don't own one), you could tuck at least double the herbs (you need less cooking in a vacuum) and sliced garlic under the skin of the breast, or put them on top of the breast and lay a few slices of bacon across in a lattice, dot with butter (or rub some in) and roast as you usually would.

Turkey Breast Brined with Festive Spices and cooked Sous Vide with Herbs

Festive turkey brine

This is not overpowering at all, but just adds a really subtle, tasty, rich overall flavour to the meat. This is for a 3% brine solution, used on an 800g turkey breast joint. This would serve four people a roast dinner with all the trimmings. You can easily squeeze two 800g turkey breasts in this solution in a re-sealable bag, or appropriately sized container, to serve eight people.

  • 1 litre hot water
  • ½ tsp whole cloves
  • ½ tsp peppercorns
  • ½ tsp coriander seeds
  • ½ tsp allspice berries
  • ½ tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 30g sea salt
  • 30g light brown sugar
  • Juice of one orange


Remove the skin, if cooking sous vide (if not, see above - you can tuck the herbs and butter under the skin) – the turkey doesn’t need it to stay moist being cooked sous-vide, and you will get more than enough flavour by browning the breast in a pan after removing it from the water bath. 

You can leave the skin on if you prefer, but the fat will not render down at this temperature, and trying to render down the fat for a crispy skin in a hot pan could potentially result in over-cooking the turkey meat*, although you could experiment with shallow-frying However, I found that the skin just would not crisp up satisfactorily after the brining and sous vide cooking. The best thing to do for crispy skin is to cook separately: place the skin on some greaseproof baking paper on a large flat baking tray, season generously, and put another sheet of baking paper on top, with another tray on top of the whole lot to weight it down, and then cook in a hot oven between the two trays for about 30-45 minutes until golden and completely crispy, and serve on the side, broken or cut into shards. This will keep in an airtight container for a couple of days, and you can always re-heat to re-crisp if necessary.

Combine all the ingredients for the brine (not including the turkey!) in a pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Take off the heat, leave to cool then place in the fridge until chilled. Once chilled, place in a suitable container with the turkey (I use a re-sealable sandwich bag, and squeeze the air out then place it in a dish/tub, seal side up to avoid spillages/leakages), and brine the turkey  for 8-10 hours in the fridge (N.B. If you have a smaller breast, or your breast is quite flat/thin e.g. 2 inches or less, you can reduce to 4 - 5 hours), then remove from the brine, rinse and pat dry. The turkey can remain chilled until required once removed from the brine and rinsed, but don’t leave any longer in the brine or it may become overly salty. Leaving the turkey breast after removing from the brine also allows the flavours to penetrate more evenly throughout the turkey so you can start this process a day or more in advance (according to your use by date etc.).

To cook sous vide (if roasting, see above the recipe re. herbs and butter etc.)

  • 5 sage leaves
  • 3-4 small sprigs of young thyme
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
  • 25g chilled, unsalted butter

Place the turkey in a vacuum bag, with the above ingredients placed on top of it, and seal using a vacuum sealer. Cook in a water bath at 60C / 140F for four hours (this amount of time ensures that the turkey is brought up to this temperature and remains there long enough for all pathogens to be destroyed, effectively pasteurising it, while remaining meltingly tender – you could get away with three and a half hours (no less), or five hours, possibly more if other things don’t go to plan. Bigger joints will need more time, but you can cook more than one at the simultaneously without increasing the timings, provided there is adequate water circulation - we cooked three.). Drain the juices into your gravy, if desired, season the turkey breast, get a good, heavy-weight pan nice and hot, add a small splash of sunflower or vegetable oil with a knob of butter (the oil stops the butter from burning), and sear the turkey breast all over, quickly, until lightly browned on the outside. Because the turkey is a constant 60C/140F all the way through, it doesn’t particularly need to rest, although it will be happy to do so covered in foil, while you serve up the rest of dinner if you wish.
Now sit back and enjoy possibly the most succulent, tasty turkey you’ve ever eaten!

If you're interested in cooking food sous vide, or in a water bath, it doesn't have to cost a fortune. I use a vacuum sealer similar to this one - and I also find it keeps food fresher for longer - especially in the freezer, where, in my experience, it prolongs food life for 4 times or more and prevents freezer burn - I also vacuum seal foods I have made such as smoked salmon, smoked cheeses etc., which also then last longer (or in the case of the salmon, freeze for a very long time too). I purchased a SousVide Supreme Demi Water Oven second hand from an auction site, a good while ago, which has served my family and I (and friends we've cooked for) perfectly, with sublime steaks, moist chicken, and everything else from eggs, to vegetables, to fish to yoghurt along the way. Although I started off cooking my steaks 'sous vide' in a stock pot with a sugar thermometer back in the day, before we invested in one.... more about that another time, but it was definitely worth the investment!!

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