TURKEY BUTTERMILK BRINING
In Two Parts
By Dan Gill and Gary Wiviott
"A Buttermilk Bird for Thanksgiving"
I have always thought that the use of buttermilk with meat was
somewhat aberrant - Something that Jeffy would do in the
privacy of his own kitchen - alone - with drawn shades. But
then, I keep seeing references to the wonders of soaking meat
in milk that is past its prime. The whole Middle East uses
yogurt on lamb and goat; hunters use buttermilk to improve
the flavor and texture of game; and Fine Cooking says it is the
only marinade that actually tenderizes and improves flavor
without turning protein to mush. OK, I'm a traditionalist and it
sounds like spoiled milk is a traditional adulterant for meat that
may actually have some flavor of it's own. So, I got a boneless
New Zealand leg of lamb from Sam's and determined to give it
a try. The cow went dry about 3 weeks ago, but I found a quart
or two of milk in the back of the fridge that smelled a little like
buttermilk: I skimmed off the more colorful life forms and
soaked the dry-rubbed lamb overnight in the curdled remainder
(see recipe below). The lamb was tender, flavorful and
Segue to Thanksgiving: (Did I really write that?) I had thawed a
20# sale bird and one of our guests brought over a 16 pounder
just in case. As luck would have it, I had just made the last
butter of the year.So I added a quart of 'real' (strong) buttermilk
to my standard overnight turkey brine (see recipe below).
Around here, my cooking is always an adventure. Every event is
an experiment (and some of you actually thought I knew what I
was doing!). The truth is, we do battle with the forces of
nature and try to outwit fire. There are umpteen variables to
consider, a few of which we can control with some regularity
but there always seems to be at least one that is beyond the
bounds of standard deviation. The whole idea is to minimize
the latter type so you know to what to attribute the results,
and what to do different next time.
We were supposed to eat at 5:30; that's when the rolls and
Barbara's German potato stuffing would be ready. I allowed my
usual 5 hours then started by washing out the dogs' water dish
that came with my Weber Smoky Mountain (WSM) and put it to
its intended use - catching drippings. The smaller bird went on
the bottom rack and the 20 pounder on the hotter top rack.
Since I was completely out of my homemade cherry lump
charcoal, I had to start the fire with some gawdawful Walmart
briquettes - the ones you need a blowtorch to light. They burn
a long time after you flare off the stinky stuff, but leave a pile
of clay in the bottom of the smoker. I kept a nice fire going
with cherry chunks and some Cowboy Brand I found in a corner
of the garage, but the variables were gaining on me. I had a
hard time getting the WSM up to 250 and did most of the
cooking around 235. About 4:30 I started a half chimney of
gawdawful briquettes to kick things up a tad. I knew we would
not eat at 5:30. Then Barb came out and asked me when the
turkey would be ready.
"Only 8 more degrees" I said with authority. Both birds were
hanging tough at 152 in the breast; I usually go to 165 - or
about two more hours.
"I don't understand what that means. How long do you think it
will take you to finish cooking the turkeys?"
"It'll be a little while yet, Sweetie" I replied. That she
understood and disappeared into the house to turn the gravy
down and put the candied sweet potatoes in the oven to stay
warm. The rolls went into the cooler to slow their rise.
Shortly, she came back out to check on me. I was sitting in a
plastic chair near the smoker enjoying my beer and cigar and
obviously making no visible effort to get the birds back on
schedule. "When should I put the rolls in?" I thought I
detected a note of exasperation: She was trying to pin me
"Sweetie, This is an art form, not a science! It'll be ready when
it is done. You can't rush genius" I mumbled while furtively
switching between three polder probes looking for a degree of
She asked again at 5:30. "Only 4 degrees to Go!" I had decided
to take them off at 160 - ready or not. I have heard that turkey
is cooked at 160, and this was an opportunity to find out.
We ate at 6:30. The turkey was cooked - barely. The rolls were
large. Nobody seemed to mind that the thigh joint was a little
red: They kept me busy carving second and third helpings.
Complements were profuse.
When we were cleaning up later, I said "Sweetie, I think I
outdid myself! That turkey was sure tender and good - Think it
was my best ever". She likes my cooking but often needs a
little prompting to tell me how good it really is.
"You always say it's your best ever and then wait for me to
"Well, it is true; I just keep getting better, Sweetie", I chortled.
"But I didn't say anything last time!"
She agreed remembering the high point of Oyster Festival
weekend: Me frantically trying to remove a huge (fully
engulfed) shoulder, a ham and 4 charred turkey breasts from a
flaming pit with a long handled shovel.
Back to the topic. I'm not sure what role the buttermilk played
in this masterpiece, but it certainly didn't hurt anything! I am
definitely adding fermented milk products to my arsenal of
TYPE OF BUTTERMILK THAT CAN BE USED
I think just about any milk product will do. The enzymes and
biochemistry do the trick - Acid in buttermilk and yogurt
intensifies the effect. Like salt, and unlike other acid and
enzymatic tenderizers, the improvement in flavor and
tenderness seems to penetrate deep into the meat. I agree
with many of you about store-bought cultured buttermilk, but
for this application it probably makes no difference.
I usually use salty dry rubs for meat and fish and brines for
poultry. They both do the same thing because the salt draws
extra-cellular fluids and makes its own brine, some of which is
re-absorbed. There is no dilution of flavor with water. I don't
use recipes per se - It is just not that critical. The following
BUTTERMILK BRINED LAMB
Recipe By Dan Gill
AMOUNT MEASURE INGREDIENT -- PREPARATION METHOD
-------- ------------ --------------------------------
1 leg lamb -- boned & butterflied
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 bunch rosemary
1 bunch mint
1/2 bunch thyme
3 tablespoons ground pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon coriander
1 pinch allspice
1 drizzle molasses
1 quart buttermilk
Using a mortar and pestle, thoroughly crush herb leaves with
salt. Mix in spices and rub all surfaces of meat with a light
coating. Drizzle some molasses on and put the prepared meat
in a plastic bag or non-reactive container and add buttermilk.
Allow to marinate in the refrigerator over night turning a couple
of times. About an hour before you are ready to cook, drain the
meat and allow it to sit at room temperature until the smoker
is ready. Smoke-cook at around 300 deg. F to an internal
temperature of 135-140. A butterflied leg should take about 3
hours to cook; a whole leg should marinate and cook longer.
Serve with mint sauce.
BUTTERMILK BRINED TURKEY
Recipe By Dan Gill
Estimate how much liquid will be required to completely cover
For each GALLON - Which should cover one 16# whole bird or
two 8# breasts:
1 cup fine salt or 1 1/2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup molasses or maple syrup
(I used some of each as I didn't have any maple flavoring)
1 T crushed or minced garlic (or garlic powder)
1 T onion powder
1/4 cup pepper
2 T Franks hot sauce
1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp coriander
1 Qt buttermilk
The turkey does not need to be completely thawed but should
be close. Mix ingredients with cold water until the salt and
molasses dissolve. Cover birds completely with brine and
refrigerate overnight. Choose a container that is just slightly
larger than the birds, or use a food grade plastic bag. I often
use an ice chest and just enough ice to keep it cold. In the
morning, remove from brine, rinse and drain while preparing
Smoke cook between 250 and 325 (measured at grate level-
large turkeys do better at the lower temps) to an internal temp
of 165 basting with butter every few hours to give you the
golden brown skin.
May your house be safe from tigers
Dan Gill - 1999
Barbecue, curing and smoking meat, Woodworking and more
"BUTTERMILK BRINED CHICKEN"
I am did a little smoked chicken experiment today: 4 chickens,
and 4 different brines. I will be using lump style charcoal with
hickory for smoke in my Weber Smoky Mountain cooker (WSM).
All the chickens were put in refrigerator the first day at 4pm in
individual 2-gallon plastic food bags, and I started the smoker
the next day about noon.
1 gallon of water (excluding buttermilk brine)
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
One half-gallon buttermilk added to the water to make up one
Juice of one lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit and a teaspoon of
grated peel of each. (Except the grapefruit) Chopped scallions,
crushed fresh ginger, crushed fresh garlic, soy sauce, hot sauce,
crushed red peppers, black and white pepper, chopped inside
stalks of fresh lemon grass, 1 teaspoon of sesame oil.
(toasted oriental style)
Crushed dried basil, oregano, hot peppers, hot sauce, soy
sauce, black and white pepper, garlic powder, onion powder
and a little EV olive oil.
This is pretty much my standard brine and is loosely adapted
from O'Reilly's brine in the BBQ FAQ.
Old Bay seasoning.
The results of my brining experiment are in and I have a
definite winner: Buttermilk ! I will follow my comments in order
of the brine recipes shown above.
BRINE 1 (BUTTERMILK)
The buttermilk brine lent the chicken a subtle undercurrent of
tang and was extremely tender and juicy. The brown sugar
tends to lend the birds a slight "ham" taste and this was quite
mild and nice in this bird.
The meat, most noticeable in the breast, had a slightly denser
texture then a standard brined bird. I would imagine this was
due to some type of chemical interaction between the meat
and the acid in the buttermilk.
BRINE 2 (CITRUS)
This one surprised me: The flavors of the citrus, ginger,
lemongrass and garlic did not come through as strongly as I
had thought they would. I may try this again with a lighter
wood for smoke. The breast meat, probably due to the acids in
the citrus, was very dense, almost as if it had tightened up.
The breast, while still somewhat juicy, was not as tender or
juicy as the rest of the bird.
Variation of O'Reilly's brine from the FAQ - See above)
This is a good all around brine that I have used for turkey and
chicken in the past. A slight "ham" flavor, barely discernible
heat and good all around flavor. This brine, as do all brines,
makes for a very tender and juicy bird.
BRINE 4 (OLD BAY)
This was a surprise: The flavor of the Old Bay really came
through and the bird was very flavorful. The brown sugar
combined well with the Old Bay and the bird was quite juicy.
I should note that I did not use standard Old Bay loose crab
boil. The Old Bay that I used was a, new to me, product called
Old Bay Seasoning and was ground to approximately the
consistency of garlic powder. I used a .4oz package.
I really liked what the buttermilk did for the chicken: Very
subtle flavor and quite juicy. I also liked the Old Bay. My
thought is to combine the Old Bay with a buttermilk brine and
smoke with a lighter wood like ash so the flavors are not
masked. I would not combine buttermilk with the citrus, though
I will try the buttermilk with my standard brine.
Next time out I will try straight buttermilk brine, the full one
gallon, and see if there is a difference. I recommend buying a
few chickens (or turkeys) and trying various combinations of
brines and woods, not expensive to do and you may find a
flavor combination that suits your taste to a tee.
I would highly recommend trying buttermilk in your next brine.
Learning to smoke in Chicago, Gary