The halloween festivities are but a not-so-distant memory and it’s too soon to break out the Christmas decor. So let’s talk turkey.
Several weeks prior to Thanksgiving I noted a lot of emphasis on the benefits of dry-brining as opposed to wet-brining your bird, so I started doing some research. I discovered the dry method delivers big flavor with less hassle—which excited me, and in turn, intrigued Russ. Suffice it to say, after our Thanksgiving feast, I think we will be converts.
A dry-brined turkey tastes like turkey that’s having a very good day, which means you will too! It is well-seasoned through and through, and has all the juiciness of your average wet-brined turkey, without its sometimes off-putting texture. Yes, a traditional wet-brine will plump up your turkey with moisture, but that moisture is mainly water, leading to a turkey that tastes watered down. A dry-brine, on the other hand, helps a turkey retain its natural moisture without adding any excess liquid, which results in more intense flavor and crispier skin. You with me?
The obvious advantage to dry-brining is that it doesn’t require the space that traditional wet-brining does. It’s a simpler process because you don’t have to contend with dissolving salt and sugar and measuring out enough water to completely submerge a turkey. Just add a salty rub and let it sit for a few days. Try to get the dry-brine under the skin where possible, but it isn’t necessary to pull away all the skin to get at the meat. As the dry-brine mixes with moisture from the turkey, it will work its way under the skin and throughout the bird.
When salting, it may look like a lot, but keep in mind that the salt won’t remain on the outside of the turkey and there needs to be enough salt to penetrate the entire thickness of the bird. Also keep in mind, that it’s best not to stuff a brined turkey, because the juices will concentrate in the cavity and over-season your stuffing. Instead, cook your stuffing in a baking dish alongside the turkey. Russ and I are big fans of a stuffed bird (although many chefs frown on the practice), so it’s hard for us to get on board with this rule.
Cooking a turkey with stuffing is just a bad idea. If you’re going to cook it inside a turkey, you’re basically creating an edible envelope for the stuffing. It’s now about the stuffing because you need to make sure that it gets above the instant-kill temperature for salmonella. Getting the stuffing to reach this 165 degree mark usually means overcooking the meat. ~Chef Alton Brown
BTW, the dry-brine method only works with a turkey that hasn’t been pre-seasoned—so avoid kosher birds, which are salted as part of the koshering process, or self-basting turkeys, which have been injected with a sodium-rich solution. Check the label if you’re not sure, and avoid anything that lists salt as an ingredient.
When is the turkey done, you ask? It’s time to get yourself a trusty instant-read thermometer and take the turkey’s temperature. Just insert a meat thermometer into the area where the thigh and breast meet — it should register 160 degrees F when it’s removed from the oven, and 165 degrees F after it has rested. You can also make an incision where the thigh and breast meet — if the juices run clear, not red, then the bird is done. Whatever you do, don’t rely on those plastic pop-up timers that are stuck in the bird.
OK, Thanksgiving is not that far away, and now that you are in the know, go ahead and give dry-brining a whirl…
The Basics of a Dry-Brine with Classic Herb Butter
- The amount of salt you’ll need depends on the brand and the bird. For each pound of turkey, figure 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 1/2 to 2/3 teaspoon of Morton kosher salt. Don’t use table salt, whose fine grains won’t work well for this purpose.
- Keep it simple with plain salt, or combine with your favorite seasoning. Dried sage, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram add classic Thanksgiving flavors. (See flavor variations below.)
- Plan for at least 1 hour per pound in the fridge, and up to three days. If you do the full three-day extravaganza, place the seasoned bird in a jumbo zipper-lock bag for the first two days.
- Pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels. Carefully loosen the skin on the breast and legs, and rub a generous tablespoon of the salt onto the flesh of each side—go heavier on the breast, where the meat is thickest. Sprinkle remaining salt liberally all over the body and inside cavities. Refrigerate 18 to 36 hours. Give the bird a nice massage once a day to ensure an even distribution of flavor.
- For the crispiest skin, 8-12 hours before you plan to roast it, remove the turkey from the bag, pat dry, and return to the fridge, uncovered. (Take care to clear enough space that your other foods don’t touch it.)
- Mix 2 sticks unsalted softened butter, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, 1 tablespoon dried sage, 1 tablespoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves until combined. Reserve 4 tablespoons of the butter, then rub the rest under the turkey skin on the breasts and legs. Rub 2 tablespoons of the reserved butter on the skin; chill and save the rest for your gravy.
- Roast using your favorite method. One option: a low oven, 325°F, for approximately 15 minutes per pound. Because a dry-brined turkey produces relatively paltry drippings, add 1 or 2 cups of turkey or chicken stock to the roasting pan before it goes into the oven.
Bon Appétit offers a quicker dry-brine method:
Rub dry brine all over 12-14 pound turkey; chill uncovered, 6–7 hours.
Preheat oven to 425°. Rinse turkey under cold water; pat dry and place, breast side up, on a rack set in a large roasting pan. Stuff turkey with 1 medium quartered onion, 1 halved head of garlic, and 1-2 bunches of fresh herbs.
Working from neck end of turkey, gently loosen skin from breasts and rub ¼ cup (½ stick) softened, unsalted butter under skin and all over outside of bird. Tie legs together with kitchen twine, pour 2 cups (or more) low-sodium chicken (or turkey) broth into pan, and roast turkey 30 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 325° and roast, basting with pan juices every 30–40 minutes, adding more broth as needed to maintain some liquid in pan, and tenting with foil if skin is browning too quickly, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 165°, 2½–3 hours.
Transfer turkey to a platter; tent with foil. Let rest at least 30 minutes before carving.
Dry-Brine Flavor Variations:
Moroccan: Mix kosher salt with 2 teaspoons ground cumin, 2 teaspoons ground ginger, 2 teaspoons paprika, 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander, 1 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon cloves, and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne.
Chili-lime: Mix kosher salt with 3 tablespoons chili powder, 1/2 tablespoon cumin, 1/2 tablespoon dark brown sugar, 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 3/4 teaspoon onion powder, 3/4 teaspoon coriander, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, the zest and juice of 1 lime, and 1 tablespoon olive oil.
Surround the bird with an assortment of fresh herbs and fruits for an attractive presentation.