It’s over. Our Thanksgiving #2, created so I could experiment with a new turkey recipe, ended on a high note: all present said this was the best turkey they have ever had.
After months of research, I decided to go with Russ Parson’s dry-brining technique, discussed here ad-nauseam. When even Alton Brown, whose wet-brined turkey recipe had pleased many, decided to dry-brine his turkey this year, it seemed inevitable that this is the method that, for now at least, will rule them all.
And I could see why. I have never been a fan of white turkey meat. It was all I ate last night.
This was the second time I cooked turkey. A couple of years ago, I was inspired by Elise’s breast-side down recipe. The result back then was pretty good, the turkey was super moist, however it felt a bit under-seasoned. No amount of herb butter placed under and on the skin could change the default bland taste of turkey.
I was prepared to wet-brine for this year’s experiment, until I happened to watch an episode of America’s Test Kitchen. The ATK chef salted the turkey, covered it in plastic wrap, placed it in the fridge for 24 hours and then roasted it breast-side down for a couple of hours, stuffing included (placed in a cheese cloth). This seemed a lot simpler than preparing wet-brine and then worrying about where to store the bird. I also liked how they they used the breast-side down technique, which I was determined to use regardless of how I ended up brining. (Find the recipe here).
A little bit of research led me to the Chowhound discussions on this topic, and that led to the person who first popularized dry-brinining (on a turkey at least), the LA Times’s Russ Parsons. While the ATK folks salted over and under the skin and refrigerated for 24 hours, Russ Parsons only salted the surface and refrigerated it for 4 days.
But I didn’t want to just use salt. I was looking for flavor. And I was not convinced that herbs applied on the day of the roasting can impart flavor that reaches deep down the breast meat. Luckily, Parsons had experimented with different salt mixtures.
I went into this worrying about salty drippings, salty bird, and the worst: dry bird. But I ended up producing a phenomenal roasted turkey. The combination of dry-brining and initial breast-side down roasting sealed the juices and imparted flavor deep down to the bone, and the herb butter I rubbed over the bird and under the skin produced great drippings and surface flavor.
Here’s what I did.
1. For this to work, I needed a fresh Turkey that is not injected with brining solutions. Not easy to find in your grocery store, unless you pre-order it. A Kosher bird doesn’t work, as it’s already salted. Luckily, Whole Foods carried a fresh, “all natural”, pastured turkey, with “absolutely nothing injected” in it. Naturally, I bought it. A 13.3 lb bird, even though our Thanksgiving #2 feast was for 4, potentially 6 (ended up 4). I just couldn’t imagine cooking a smaller bird.
2. I decided to go with a Sage and Bay salt mixture. Parsons recommends 1 tablespoon of Kosher salt per five pounds of turkey. I added to that 5 dried bay leaves, about 1/2 teaspoon of ground sage, 1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon of fresh lemon zest and 1/4 teaspoon of seven spices (you didn’t think I would leave this out did you?).
I pulsed all this together to make a powder.
3. I rinsed the bird inside and out, removed giblets, etc and patted it dry with paper towels. I then started rubbing it with the salt mixture: lightly in the cavity, and more liberally on the breast and the thighs. Food 52 has a detailed recipe based on this technique if you want full instructions.
4. I then placed the turkey in an oven bag and hauled it to the fridge to sit for 3 days, breast-side up. You are supposed to “massage it” once a day, and flip it on the third. I didn’t make it to 4 whole days, and I didn’t think I needed to. On Friday night, I took it out of the bag to air dry in the fridge.
This is what the bird looked like when I took it out of the fridge:
5. Time to bring it to room temperature while I prepare the herb butter. I had the herbs ready:
My herb butter consisted of:
1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme (chopped)
1 teaspoon of fresh sage (chopped)
1 tablespoon of fresh parsley
1 teaspoon of seven spices
1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper
Zest of 1/2 lemon
2 mashed garlic cloves
I softened the butter and mixed it with the ingredients above. It tasted great on a piece of bread, by the way.
6. The herb butter went on the turkey, inside (as in under the skin, breast and thighs), and on the surface.
After trussing the turkey, it went into the 425-degree oven, breast-side down for 30 minutes. Did I mention I placed a few sprigs of herbs, an onion cut in half, a few garlic cloves, 2 lemon quarters, and a few carrot pieces in the cavity? I also poured some chicken broth and white wine in the pan (make sure the liquid level stays low, as you don’t want it touching the turkey breast).
7. An hour before I started this process, I had my turkey stock simmering on the stove. It’s super easy. You melt 2 tablespoons of butter into a saucepan, add the giblets (minus the liver) and sliced onions.
After about 15 minutes, I deglazed with some dry white wine, and then added low-sodium chicken broth (about 8 cups) and a few sprigs of herbs (I added Thyme, Parsley and Sage).
This is easy. You let it simmer for two hours or so, then you strain the broth. Either reserve the giblets if you like to add them to your stuffing, or feed them to your pets (which is what we did).
8. The 30 minutes of high heat/breast-side down have passed. Time to take the turkey out of the oven and flip it so it’s sitting breast-side up for the remainder of the cooking (at 325 degrees).
That was the only time I used the oven timer. The instant-read meat thermometer will now take over. I inserted the probe into the thickest part of the breast (why not the thigh? I wanted an early warning in case the breast meat reached the desired temperature first).
I set the thermometer to 155. It took under 2 hours to reach that temperature, which was pretty fast (and a result of dry-brining). When the alarm went off, I checked the thigh area, and it gave me 160 in the thickest part. I made a small incision between the thigh and the breast, and juices ran clear. This bird is ready for resting.
I let it rest for a about an hour under foil. It stayed pretty hot, and the breast temperature was around 165 when I started carving it (the FDA recommends 165 for safe eating). This gave us time to prepare the sides and the gravy.
The drippings were very flavorful and not salty at all. In fact, we ended up adding salt when we made the gravy.
To make the gravy, after deglazing the pan and pouring the drippings into a pitcher, we used the top fat layer to make the roux (I say “we” because my mother-in-law handled this while I was making the mashed potatoes). She added the broth to the roux, and added the juices from the Turkey. The gravy we got was just heaven.
One thing about this technique: you don’t get a lot of drippings. But the little you get is very concentrated. Where does it all go? It stays in your turkey! That’s why I added some broth to the pan while roasting it, and why I had 8 cups of stock ready.
9. I wish you could see how juicy the breast meat was. And how delicious and perfectly seasoned the turkey was.
This is definitely the way I will cook my next turkey. I might experiment with the seasoning next time, maybe something with a more smokey flavor.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!