TO BATHE, or not to bathe. That is the question I ponder. This question is directed at the bird that will sit in the center of the holiday table, not the guests who will sit around its rim.
I wonder about this because these days, giving the fresh bird - turkey, chicken or wild fowl - a leisurely soaking before cooking it seems is in vogue.
Technically the process is called brining, not bathing. But it seems to me the idea behind it is similar to what happens when a little kid visits the bathtub. Namely, the subject spends many hours sloshing around in liquid.
What is in the bird's bath varies from kitchen to kitchen. The simplest mixture is salt and water, about 1/2 cup kosher salt (or 1/4 cup table salt) to every 2 quarts of liquid. The more complex solutions have added ingredients - sugar, herbs, fruit juice, wine, water and, in one case, pine needles.
Proponents tell me that this overnight swim cleanses the tissues of the bird and imparts flavor.
It seems to me the main drawbacks of brining a bird are the demands it puts on the cook. For a big bird, you must start the process a day in advance; you must have a vessel big enough to submerge the bird, and you must keep the bird cold.
Moreover, once it emerges from the brine, the bird must be washed again inside and out with cold water, and patted dry. These can be tall orders to fill, especially around Thanksgiving when kitchens and refrigerators are crammed, and cooks already have a lengthy to-do list.
For example, since I am going to be traveling to Kansas City to spend Thanksgiving with relatives, I won't have enough time to brine a turkey for tomorrow's feast. Nonetheless, I am considering bathing a bird for the family Christmas feast in Baltimore.
Fans of the brined bird tell me that the taste is worth the hassle. The salt in the water draws out the blood and plumps the meat, and the extra ingredients add zest, they say.
"It gives turkey a nice flavor," Rudy Speckamp, chef and co-owner along with Rudi Paul of Rudys' 2900 restaurant in Finksburg, told me. Of the 30 turkeys he and his restaurant staff will cook on Thanksgiving Day, about 10 will have taken the plunge in brine.
Speckamp said he favored a traditional brine mixture of salt, brown sugar and water, with a sprinkling of herbs. He brings the mixture to a boil, lets it cool, then pours it over the birds, which sit overnight in vessels kept in the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator.
Because most home cooks don't have a walk-in fridge, or empty space in the family fridge, they have to be creative in finding a spot where the raw bird can spend the night soaking.
Some briners have told me they wash out their big portable beverage coolers, then fill them with the brine and plenty of ice. Still others have told me they toss their birds in a clean trash barrel that has been lined with a plastic bag and packed with brine and ice.
Keeping the raw poultry cold is important: The low temperature wards off nasty bacteria. In cold climes, cooks have put the brining vessel outdoors to sit overnight. But, they warn, that the vessel must have a tight-fitting lid.
Speckamp told me, for instance, about the time a few years ago when he left a goose soaking in a vessel in the back yard of his Carroll County home. The next morning, he awoke to discover that a local fox, not his family, would be dining on Christmas goose.
Chefs I have met in other parts of the country have also touted the benefits of giving the bird a dip. Out in Oregon, for instance, Molly Schaefer Priest told me she brines both the game birds she cooks at Genoa Restaurant in Portland, as well as the holiday turkey that her husband, Eric, cooks on the family's kettle barbecue grill.
Brining the bird also seems to shorten its cooking time on the grill, Priest said. "We have cooked a 20-pound turkey in 3 1/2 to four hours," she told me.
Another fan of giving the holiday bird a bath is Patrick O'Connell, chef and co-owner of the Inn at Little Washington, the retreat in Virginia mountains that various critics have dubbed the best restaurant in America.
The turkey served at the inn this Thanksgiving and Christmas will be immersed in a brine that contains a long list of exotic ingredients, including the needles from spruce trees.
O'Connell said the spruce needles give the bird a delicate, woody flavor. I could see another side benefit of using this pine-needle bath. When the cook is standing in the kitchen, rattling off the list of ingredients needed to prepare the holiday turkey, he could quote that famous line from Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail: "Bring me a shrubbery."