Turkey Dinner
Roasting a Turkey
How to make a turkey that is
moist and delicious, every time

First posted 2004; Revised November 2017

 

Thousands of people use this page each year. More technique than recipe, it tells you what you need to achieve a juicy, tender bird with golden skin and gravy that's as good as the meat. This is a loooong page but fear not: it's in order, with the most important tips at the top, winding its way into the depths of fanatic minutiae and food scientist fantasies.

Moe with turkey

Moe Rubenzahl, the Turkey Guy

Follow along: I rarely make my turkey the way the page directs! That's because I am usually experimenting. For the latest on this year's Thanksgiving preparations (and many other mostly-foodie articles), please see my FeedMe blog. This year: Roasting in a smoker.

It's all about the turkey

Over 90% of American households have turkey on Thanksgiving. Over the course of a year, each of us, on average, eats a whole turkey. (I must be eating a couple of vegetarians' share.)

Many of them are roasted badly, with squeaky, dry breast meat, and greasy, salty, gravy. It's not surprising. With its different types of meat, tacked on to an oddly shaped, heavy frame that's not much smaller than a home oven, a turkey is not an easy thing to roast well and so many recipes give poor, outmoded advice.

It does not have to be that way. Turkey heaven (by which I mean, heaven for you and your guests, and presumably, a month or so prior for the turkey) takes just a little knowledge and a few simple practices.

Here are the most important hints for roasting the perfect turkey.

If you are not as obsessed as I am, you don't need to follow every tip. The list is in order of importance. Just start with number 1 and continue as far as you can stand. But you must do number 1 and number 2 is very important, too. Ah, so is 3. After that, it's small stuff. Well, smallish ... mmm, told you I am obsessed!

Food Safety Note

Salmonella and campylobacter, the bacterial evildoers in raw poultry, pretty much ruin a dinner party. Happily, it's easy to prevent.

  • Treat anything that touches the raw bird or its juices (including your fingers) as contaminated and wash with hot soapy water. You can also followup with a disinfectant wipe or spray. (3/4 teaspoon of bleach per quart of water makes a great spray —  leave on five minutes.)

  • If you rinse the bird (which is necessary if you wet brine), do so gently. Studies show rinsing sprays microbes around the kitchen.

  • Make sure all bird components reach at least 150°F before they see the platter. It's easy — tip 1 below gives you the details).

  • Store food safely. Anything that can spoil should spend no more than two hours in the "danger zone" (40-140°F).

Contents

Timetable

calendar leading to turkey day

If today is Wednesday or (panic!) Thursday, run out and buy a pre-brined turkey (see Buying a Good Turkey). A thawed bird is best but if all you can find is a frozen bird, no worries. Quick-thaw in a water bath (see below). If there's time, place the prepared turkey in the refrigerator, uncovered, to air dry overnight.

If it's Monday or Tuesday, you can get any thawed turkey (and perhaps even a frozen bird, since you can thaw and brine at the same time). If it's unbrined, you can wet brine it (see Brine the Bird!) and still have a day to air dry it.

If it's Saturday or Sunday, you have time to dry-brine, then air-dry. You can even start with a partly frozen bird and thaw it while you brine.

Thawing

It takes several days to thaw a turkey the easiest and safest way, in the refrigerator, but you can thaw in a few hours in water. Immerse the still-wrapped turkey in a basin of cold water. Change at least half the water every 20-30 minutes to raise the bath to about 40 degrees, or use a trickle of running water. Watch the bath temperature to make sure the water is not too warm. Remember the basic food safety rule: No more than two hours above 40°F.

If you're brining, you don't need to pre-thaw. The bird can thaw while it wet brines. For a dry brine, you need to thaw just enough to get the contents out of the cavity.

Roast in under two hours!

Our memories of Thanksgiving include a bird roasting in the oven all day! Many recipes talk about three or four hours in the oven. Please don't.

A brined, spatchcocked turkey roasts in 50 minutes to two hours for a 10- to 14-pound bird, and a larger bird won't take much longer.

You read that right: Just an hour or two.

Roast then rest

On Turkey Day, plan on getting the bird into the oven 2 1/2 hours (2 hours if the bird is 10-12 pounds) before you plan to serve. That will give you an hour or two to roast and 30-60 minutes for the bird to rest. Resting is good for you and the bird: it finishes the cooking, helps to retain juices, and evens out the temperature and it gives you plenty of time to finish up your gravy and your sides, without stress. You can rest the bird for an hour (even longer if you gently reheat the meat before you serve).

   

Free Turkey Tech Support!

If you have questions or need a recipe, e-mail me: . Oddly, I enjoy the stream of emails throughout the day.

 

1. Use a thermometer, not a timer

With any roast, the internal temperature is the only reliable way to know it's ready. It's even more so for turkey, with its giant slabs of breast meat that go from delicious to painful in ten degrees. You need to know when it's done, and that means accurate temperature measurement.

Time is not on your side

All cooking time charts and instructions that suggest a certain number of minutes per pound are unreliable. Oven temperatures vary greatly but even if they were perfect, time is a function of surface area and depth, not of weight. So using time in any way means the recipe has to account for error, which means it's almost certain to tell you to overcook. Most time-based recipes will have you roasting for three hours or more. Guaranteed to ruin your turkey.

How about color?

"Cook until juices run clear."

No. Color of the meat or the juices is a poor indicator of doneness or of safety. In particular, expect some pink or red near the bone, especially in the leg. As long as the temperature reached target, the meat is safe.

 

Basic temperature rule

Start checking after 50 minutes in the oven for a small bird; an hour for a 14-pounder.

Probe several places. A single reading might be wildly off.

Remove from the oven when an instant-read thermometer reads 150-155°F in the thickest part of the breast. The thickest portion of the thigh should be 10-15 degrees higher. If the breast is ready but the legs have not reached temp, remove from the oven and cut the legs off, return them to the oven to bring them up to 160.

After a 30-60 minute rest, the temperatures will rise about ten degrees to 160-165°F for the breast, 170-175 for the dark meat.

For details, see: 150? Really?

Safety

Until 2006, the USDA recommended an internal temperature of 180°F — dry, dry, dry. They now recommend 165 (for both dark and white meat) but some sources still reflect the old advice. Salmonella, campylobacter, and other bird-borne nasties are history after less than a minute at 160 (and even at 150°F, you're safe after five minutes).

It's not necessary to take the bird to cardboard-land. Just make sure your thermometer is accurate (you can calibrate yours using boiling water, which is 212 degrees at sea level).

Probe here

A turkey is not solid, homogeneous meat, so the temperature varies. Take multiple readings in the thickest parts that are not adjacent to bone, and wait for the reading to settle. Best way: Poke deeply into the meat, well past the center, and back it out slowly, watching the reading. The lowest temperature you see is the one you want to meet the target temperature.

And don't worry about the probe hole losing juices. That's a myth. Loss is neglible.

Thermogadgetry

pop-up-thermometerIf temperature in the breast is the gauge, how about those handy pop-up thermometers that come implanted in some turkeys?

No. They're disposable so let's dispose of them right away. Most trigger at something like 185°F, which is way too high.

Instead, get yourself a reliable, accurate thermometer.

The finest is the Thermoworks Thermapen (and no, they don't pay me to say this). While most so-called instant-read thermometers take nearly a minute to reach an accurate reading, the Thermapen is there in 3-4 seconds. But it's about $100 so I am not suggesting it. Unless you gotta have it. Then I recommend it, highly. I love mine. It will last a lifetime.

(The Thermapen uses a thermocouple rather than the slower but simpler thermistor technology. There are now thermocouple-based competitors. Probably just as good, though I have not tested them.)

Almost as good are Thermoworks' lower cost models which include fast models with a needle-like "reduced" tip. Some are even dishwasher safe and around $20.

There are numerous other models and brands available at supermarkets and kitchen stores. Get a good one; it will last years.

probe thermometerProbe thermometers: great guide, but not the final word

For roasting, a food thermometer with a remote probe at the end of a cable is handy. The probe goes into the meat and the read-out is outside the oven. An alarm sounds when target temp is reached. However: don't use this as your sole indicator because it watches just one spot. Instead, set it 20 degrees below the target temp. When the alarm sounds, use your instant-read thermometer to test many places.

I use the ChefAlarm from Thermoworks, the folks who make the Thermapen. I suggest their Dot or ChefAlarm models. In particular, their cables are much more durable than the cheaper ones — and they sell replacement probes.

There are handy wireless units so you can walk around the house and know what's going on inside your bird!

Temp tips

Worried about accuracy? Check your thermometer by measuring boiling water (which is 212°F at sea level; if you're at altitude, look up the boiling point at your altitude); or using an ice bath (ice in water, well stirred), which is 32°F.

Placement can result in incorrect readings. The probe tip should be in the thickest part, not touching bone. To be sure, set your probe thermometer's alarm to ten degrees below target, then follow up with multiple readings from an instant-read thermometer.

Rest. The bird, I mean.

Notice that my instructions always tell you to remove the bird before it reaches the target temperature. That's because the temperature will rise after it comes out of the oven (because all that heat is still moving inward, even after the oven's not adding to it).

Allow the bird to rest 30-60 minutes before carving. There's some debate about whether resting prevents the loss of juices but for roasts, I want to let the inside finish rising to the final temperature. But even if there were no good thermal reason, it helps with the meal timing. This is the time to complete the gravy and the rest of the meal.

Don't cover the turkey with foil — it softens the skin. The meat will stay hot for an hour, so you have plenty of time. If you need more than an hour, tent loosely with foil and it will stay hot longer. After carving, if the meat is not hot enough, or if there are parts that seem too pink for your guests' tastes, a minute or so in the microwave will fix it.

 

2. Brine the bird

"Brining" is treating the bird to a salty bath for hours or days. My preferred method is the "Judy Bird" — dry brining, without water. It's more convenient but takes 3-4 days. (Since brine is salt water, "dry brine" is a misnomer. Nonetheless, I use the term "brine" to refer to either method of salting the bird.)

Why brine?

Salt is magical. It flavors the meat, amping up the meaty flavor even at concentrations too low to taste salty. More important, it plumps up the meat and makes it hold water, for a moister bird. It gives you leeway on the temperature — brined breast meat is still quite palatable as high as 180 (don't ask me how I know). Which is good, since it is hard to get the thigh to 175 without taking the breast higher than 160. So you must, you must, you must brine (whether by wet or dry means), or buy a brined bird.

Tips

  • You can brine it yourself or buy a brined bird — see Buying a Good Turkey.

  • Wet brining is soaking in salt water and takes a day. Dry brining is more convenient but needs four days.

  • You can thaw and brine at the same time. I suggest doing a partial thaw first. Put the bird in a large pot, use slowly running water for a couple of hours or change the water every half hour. This should thaw the bird enough to remove the organs that are packed into the cavity.

  • Use just salt alone when wet brining: Some recipes recommend adding sugar, apple juice, and other flavorings. I've done experiments and they match what others report: Only salt (or technically, sodium and chlorine ions) penetrates the meat, so sugar and herbs are mostly wasted. Some briners disagree, and my buddy Butch and I love to argue about it (he's wrong). However: If you are dry-brining, go ahead add sugar and herbs since they will stay on the skin through roasting.

  • Avoid "turkey brining kits." For about $10, you get salt, sugar, herbs, and a plastic bag. As it says above, herbs and sugar don't help, so you're paying for salt and a bag.

  • After you wet brine, rinse the turkey. Many instructions omit this step but it's important to prevent salty gravy and salty skin. Rinse gently. Avoid splashing, as rinsing spreads microbes.

  • Before you brine, check the label. If the bird is kosher or "packed in a solution," then it's already brined. If you brine it again, it will be too salty.

  • A brined turkey cooks faster. Don't be surprised if it's ready an hour earlier than you would expect! Mine are done in 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, for a 12-14 pound bird. Schedule your guests and side dishes accordingly. Note that the resting time is flexible. You have a half hour resting time and if you go an extra 30 minutes, it will still be hot.

Step by Step: How to Dry Brine

I first learned about dry brining from an article by Russ Parsons, published in the Los Angeles Times. It's recommended by the the late Judy Rogers, founder Zuni Café. "You just salt the turkey a few days in advance, give it a brisk massage every so often to redistribute the salt, and then roast it."

The name is stupid but it worked well for me and is now my regular method. The results are better than wet brining. The meat has more flavor, not at all salty, and moist throughout. And it's much easier. Salt it, place it in a plastic bag, refrigerate for three days, then refrigerate another day, uncovered. The only disadvantage is that you have to plan 3-5 days ahead.

Want to learn more? See "More on Brining."

  • Prepare:

    • Large (3-1/2 gallon) stainless pot or very large bowl, lined with a plastic trash can bag (13 gallon).
    • Large (4-5-quart) saucepan, ready to receive giblets and gravy ingredients
    • Chef’s knife and paring knife
    • Poultry shears
    • Cleaver (if spatchcocking)
    • Paper towels
    • Trash can
    • Space in refrigerator, with towel on shelf, for turkey.
    • Small bowl with 2 tablespoons of kosher salt and 2 teaspoons of sugar for each 5-pounds of turkey, mixed with 2 tablespoons baking powder and any herbs you want to add (I like 2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary and 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest)
  • If the bird is frozen, do a partial thaw in running water, as described in the Tips section, above.

  • Remove the neck and the bag with the internal organs from the bird's cavities. Check both the neck and tail cavities. (One year, I received an email from someone who found the neck in the tail cavity and was suprised that there were no innards. She found the bag when she was carving.). Discard the liver (or save for other uses) and save everything else for gravy.

  • Spatchcock the bird.

  • Rinse the turkey gently to avoid splashing. Pat dry with paper towels.

  • Hint: I do the next step, salting, with the bird already in the bag, to simplify cleanup. That's feasible if you use a large bag.

  • Sprinkle half the salt mixture inside the bird. Sprinkle it more heavily behind the breast meat area. Sprinkle the rest on the outside of the bird, sprinkling more heavily on thick parts, such as the breasts and thighs. Some sources suggest sprinkling salt under the skin, by wiggling your fingers under the skin to loosen it.

  • Don't brine the parts you removed from the cavity. You'll use them in the gravy and don't want them salty.

  • It may look like a lot of salt but remember it will be moving into the meat. It should look like a heavy sprinkling.

  • Place the turkey in the bag, twist shut, and refrigerate.

  • Once or twice a day, massage the turkey without opening the bag, to distribute the salty water which will form where the salt was.

  • After three days, set out your roasting pan and rack. Spray the rack with non-stick spray. Set aside. Remove the turkey from the bag. Do not rinse the turkey but if you must, do so gently, to avoid splashing, as rinsing spreads microbes. Pat dry with paper towels. Place it on the rack in the roasting pan and sprinkle the skin with 2 teaspoons of kosher salt mixed with 2 teaspoons of baking powder.

  • Clean up and spray the area with dilute bleach or disinfectant wipes.

  • Refrigerate uncovered for another day or two, to allow the skin to dry. The skin will become translucent, pink, and sometimes blotchy. Don't worry, that's normal.

  • The spare parts in the saucepan are for gravy. You can do step 1 for makeahead gravy now, or wait until Wednesday.

Step by Step: How to Wet Brine

I recommend a dry brine but if time is short, a wet brine takes just a day. (If you crave more detail, see "More on Brining.")

  • Follow the same steps as for dry brining, above. But once the bird is spatchcocked, and before rinsing, switch to the following procedure.

  • Prepare a brine. The amount will depend on the container you have. A close fit means you need less solution. Your aim is to have 1 cup of table salt (which is 1-1/2 to 2 cups kosher salt) per gallon of water, for eight hours. If you are short on time, you can double the concentration and brine for four hours. You do not need to be precise in these amounts or times.

  • I use a 3-1/2 gallon pot. A turkey in the 14-18 pound range displaces 1-1/2 gallons of water and I use about 1-1/2 gallons of water. I dissolve 1-1/2 cup table salt in 1 gallon of hot water and add 1/2 gallon of ice and water.

  • Some people brine in a bag. Advantage: A lot less brine (around a half gallon). But if you use a bag, place it inside a larbe pot or bowl, in case the bag leaks.

  • Some recipes recommend adding sugar and herbs to the salt. I've done experiments and they match what others report: Only salt penetrates the meat. Some briners disagree. I save the herbs for after the brining. But if you want to add other ingredients, it won't hurt anything.

  • You need to have a way to keep the turkey cold. If the brining container won't fit in the refrigerator, use a cooler and ice.

  • Place the bird in the brine. There is no need to rinse the bird first but if you do, rinse gently to avoid splashing. Add a little water if needed to cover, then place in refrigerator. Don't brine the parts you removed from the cavity. You'll use them in the gravy and don't want them salty.

  • Set your roasting pan out. Spray the rack with non-stick spray. Remove the turkey from the bag. Rinse the turkey gently. Avoid splashing, as rinsing spreads microbes. Pat dry with paper towels. Place it on the rack in the roasting pan and sprinkle the skin with 2 teaspoons of kosher salt mixed with 2 teaspoons of baking powder.

  • Refrigerate uncovered for another day or two, to allow the skin to dry. The skin will become translucent, pink, and sometimes blotchy. Don't worry, that's normal.

  • Clean up and spray the area with dilute bleach or disinfectant wipes.

 

3. Great gravy

Just as sauces are essential to fine cuisine, gravy is essential elixr. If great gravy has eluded you, worry not. I will instruct you in the ways of the Gravy Jedi. There is a simple, reliable route to excellent gravy: make-ahead pan gravy. Much of it is done before the bird is ready, even days in advance.

Make-ahead gravy

When: The following steps can be done days ahead, or when you put the bird in the oven. After the bird comes out of the oven, you can add pan drippings to the already-prepared gravy base. Easy!

Make ahead

  • Hold the salt until the end. Some gravy components are salty and you will want to avoid adding salt earlier.

  • When you buy the turkey, buy some spare parts — backs and necks. While not essential, the extra parts give you more gravy, with more flavor.

  • Optional: Brown the turkey parts (the neck, giblets, tail, and wing tips, plus any extras you bought). Include any trimmed turkey fat. Place a large dutch oven (6-8 quart) over medium-high heat, add a few tablespoons of oil and as many parts as fit without crowding. Brown well on all sides. Remove parts to a plate and continue with the next batch.

  • Pour off and save excess fat. Add a cup of white wine and, if you like, 1/4 cup of sherry, deglaze pan (with the pan on the heat, stir and scrape pot bottom with wooden spoon to free any browned bits stuck to pan).

  • Place turkey parts in a large pan (I use an 8-quart dutch oven, but then, I like to make several quarts of gravy), add water to cover. (Optional: include two cans of low-salt chicken broth (recommended: Swanson's lower-salt version).) Simmer for an hour with one onion (quartered, skin included) or so, some cerley and carrot — whatever you find in the vegetable drawer will work fine. (Leeks are especially good: Use the otherwise wasted green parts!) Remove turkey parts, set aside to cool. Strain the broth into a container.

  • Want more gravy power? Add a few tablespoons of umami-boosting ingredients like mashed anchovies, Better Than Bullion, miso paste, fish sauce, or soy sauce. Taste as you go, since most of these have a lot of salt.

  • Remove meat from the turkey parts and mince finely, including the giblets (or process using a food processor). Add to the broth and refrigerate.

  • Ahead of time or while the turkey is roasting, prepare a roux. A roux (pronounced "roo") is flour and fat cooked together. It prevents lumps because the flour granules are coated and can't clump together. Place 1/4 cup flour in a 5-quart or larger pot. Cook at medium heat, stirring pretty constantly, until it browns to a light tan. Add the reserved turkey fat and enough butter to add up to 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup). Continue to cook until it's medium tan and and smells nutty — your nose knows! Don't try to go past dark brown, as it will burn easily. You want it about the color of peanut butter, not as dark as milk chocolate. Set aside in a small bowl.

  • If you're preparing gravy ahead of time, save the roux and the broth with minced meat in the refrigerator.

Finishing the gravy

  • When the turkey comes out, it needs to rest for a good half hour. Move it to a platter (you can very loosely tent with foil if you will be resting it for an hour or more). While it rests, complete the gravy.

  • Pour off excess fat from the turkey roasting pan. If you have a fat separator, you can use that; otherwise, pour the juices into a glass measuring cup and let them settle.

  • Add the broth you made to the pan and heat over medium-low heat using two burners, to dissolve up all that good, browned stuff.

  • Strain into a large (at least 3-quart) saucepan. Add about a cup of the carrots, celery, and onion from the turkey's pan (see roasting instructions).

  • Remove most of the floating fat from the pan juices that you poured off earlier and add the juices back into pan. The fat has flavor so include some in the gravy, but not so much as to make it greasy.

  • Stir in half the roux and heat to a simmer. Add more if you want it thicker but note that it gets thicker as it cools, so leave it a bit less thick than you want.

  • If you want the gravy smoother, run the finished product through a sieve, blender, hand blender, or food processor.

  • Finally: Taste and adjust the salt. Some of the ingredients (including the pan drippings) had salt, so you may not need to add a lot. You want to taste salt but the gravy should not be very salty.

I make at least two quarts (yes, really) of gravy and freeze the rest in ziptop bags. Myum.

 

4. Spatchcock and Roast

Decision point here. Spatchcocked or whole?

Spatchcock is better...

To "spatchcock" (or"butterfly") a bird, you cut out the spine and flatten the bird. Spatchcock is a great old Irish word. After years of experiments, it's now my preferred method, for several reasons.

  • It makes it far easier to get the dark and white meat to the right doneness. The dark meat, which needs to get to a higher temperature, is more exposed.

  • It exposes all the skin, for a deeper, darker, crispier skin.

  • The spatchcocked bird is flatter, which means you can likely get something else into the oven while the bird cooks.

  • You get to say "spatchcock" all day. Spatchcock, spatchcocked, spatchcocking.

If you have a large turkey, spatchcocking takes some strength and just a little swearing but you'll get it. Use a hefty pair of scissors, a cleaver, or a good knife. A handy accessory is a teenager with surplus testosterone.

Use your shears and your cleaver (or heavy chef's knife) to remove the backbone by cutting along one side, then the other. Shears work for a chicken but once you get to the large bones toward the tail end of a turkey, you will need to hack and chop using the cleaver or heavy knife. Keep hacking -- the bones are big, but fragile and you will get through.

Add the backbone to the pot with the gravy parts.

Place the opened up bird in the bottom of the sink, and place both palms on the breastbone, as if you're a TV doctor about to administer CPR. Lean in with your full weight and smash the breastbone to flatten the bird. You should hear a pronounced craaaaack!

You can do this before or after the brine step but before means it will be an easier fit in the refrigerator.

ready to rast butterflied

roasted and butterflied

Or, don't spatchcock...

Then there's the picture-perfect Norman Rockwell bird. Pretty. To do that, spatchcocking is out. You need to turn the bird during roasting. The reason is that a breast-up bird exposes the breast to heat and shields the legs. Which is exactly the opposite of what you want. So the remedy is to start the bird upside down.

Turn, turn, turn

Cook's Illustrated's original method had you start it breast down, then on one side, then on second side, then breast up. I had mixed success with this and it's a lot of fuss, so I turn it just once. Cook's has evolved their instructions and they now do the same.

But unless you butterfly, you do need that one turn. Recall the basic temperature rule. The breast-down roasting period shields the breast so it can be ten degrees behind the legs.

Don't try shielding the breast with foil, because the skin won't crisp up. Alton Brown on Good Eats disagreed -- he started the bird at 500 degrees, then shielded the breast. It worked for me when I tried it but the skin on the breast didn't brown as well. Brown's current recipe omits the foil, so he must think I'm right. (But he agrees with Butch about the brine — he adds herbs and sugar.) And his recipe has 5000 5-star reviews on the Food Network website. Mine doesn't.

And yes, Brown brines his bird. All turkey-masters do.

Roasting Instructions

OK, you've come this far! We have our brined and ready bird, our gravy preparations, an accurate meat thermometer and we're about three and a half hours from dinner time (because we know that roasting will be under three hours including the rest).

Ready? Here we go.

  • You brined, right?

  • Preheat oven to 500°F and let it heat for a half hour if you can. If the oven smokes too much, lower it to 450.

  • If you just finished a wet brine, gently rinse off the brine and dry with paper towels. No need to rinse again if you dry brined or you brined and rinsed a day ago.

  • Prepare a roasting pan with a rack. The best setup is a rack several inches above the pan so heat can circulate all around the bird. But that's a mechanical engineering feat. A flat rack atop the roasting pan is fine. If you've spatchcocked the bird, it can go on a flat rack or a silicone grid; a whole bird should go on a v-rack (for stability) and if you have the oven height, the v-rack can go atop the flat rack, to get better heat circulation.

    Spray the racks with non-stick spray. Place the dried bird on the rack.

    Mix a tablespoon of baking powder into 1/2-3/4 cup of melted clarified butter or canola oil. Brush the skin with this.

  • You can put compound butter — that's just butter with a lot of herbs and garlic — under the thigh and breast skin. That's a bit beyond the basic recipe but it's a great enhancement.

  • If you've not spatchcocked, start with the bird breast down.

  • Chop 2-3 carrots, two onions, and 2-3 stalks of celery. Place 1/3 inside the bird if it's not butterflied, the rest in the pan under the bird, where they will flavor the drippings and help flavor your gravy. Add a cup of low-salt chicken broth or water.

  • Into the oven now. Lower the temperature to 325°F.

  • If not spatchcocked, then turn the bird after 30 minutes: Remove from oven and flip bird breast up, using a turkey lifter, heavy barbecue gloves, or a wad of paper towels and sturdy set of tongs to handle the hot bird. Baste with clarified butter. If pan is dry, add some water.

  • If you have a probe thermometer, insert the probe into the middle of the thickest portion of the breast. Return to oven, arranging the probe's cable so that it doesn't touch any hot metal. Plug it into the thermometer's base unit.

  • Watch the temperature starting at 45 minutes.

    Some notes:

    • Use the probe thermometer as a guide, not for final readings. As you approach the target temperature, measure multiple places using an instant-read thermometer.

    • Note that brining and spatchcocking both speed things up. Also note that once the temperature approaches 120 degrees, it begins to accelerate. Check more often than you think you need to.

    • A 10-pound bird will be ready in 50-90 minutes; a 12-14 pound bird will be 70-100 minutes. Larger turkeys take longer but not that much longer.

  • Roast to an internal temperature in the breast of 150-155°F, 50-90 minutes. At this point, the leg should be at 165°F but the breast temperature is what matters. Watch the temperature carefully, as it tends to rise quickly as it reaches 150.

  • Remove from oven. Rest for 30-60 minutes while you complete the side dishes and the gravy. If you plan to rest for longer than an hour, tent very loosely with foil (you don't want the skin to get soggy).

  • If the legs did not reach their target temperature and aren't done, remove them and return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes at a time.

  • If the skin is not browned well enough, turn on the broiler and let it heat at least 10 minutes. Return the bird to the oven to brown. This can be done at any time during the resting time. Watch carefully, as it will burn easily.

    You can also get extra browning with a propane torch. Unless you're patient, it doesn't work that well, but any time you can use a torch in the kitchen I say you should.

  • Save yourself some stress: Carve in the kitchen and deliver it on a platter.

 

5. Buying a good turkey

Size matters

A really big bird is hard to cook well. 10-12 pounds is easy to handle and cooks well. In any event, stay under 15 pounds. Cook's Illustrated developed a recipe for 20-pound birds that serves 20-24 people but I would rather do two smaller birds. For 18-22 pound birds, the basic method is:

  • Use a v-rack or a silicone grid in a roasting pan.

  • Cook breast-down at 425 degrees F for 1 hour 15 minutes.

  • Lower oven to 325 and turn bird breast up (using a turkey lifter, clean dishtowels, clean potholders, or silicone mitts). Roast until breast meat is 150-155°F in the deepest part (probe multiple times to see that the breast has reached at least 150 everywhere) and the thickest part of thigh registers 170 to 180 degrees — about 1 1/2 to 2 hours longer. Rest, uncovered, 40-75 minutes.

Brined or not?

You can buy pre-brined birds or brine them yourself (as explained in step 2). Birds that are labeled as kosher or "packed in a solution," or list sodium- or potassium-based ingredients, are brined.

The advantage of a brined turkey is that it saves you a step and if you're buying your bird the day before dinner, you won't have time to brine it. The disadvantage is that you have no control of how salty the bird is. In particular, I found kosher turkeys to be too salty.

The biggest advantage of doing it yourself is that you can dry brine. Commercially brined birds are wet brined, which adds water. Dry brining concentrates flavor and makes a tastier bird.

Frozen? Fresh? Heritage? Which brands?

Frozen turkeys do as well as fresh in tests and I have had success with average supermarket birds as well as fancy-name fresh ones, organic, and free-range birds. Frozen birds are more likely to be pre-brined (the label will say it's "packed in a solution," or will list sodium or potassium-based ingredients).

A top-rated turkey is the plain old Butterball. Most (but not all) Butterballs are brined. I have used them twice with great success.

Despite a lot of kudos in some magazine tests, I no longer use kosher birds. The main reason is that they are very salty — in at least one case, horribly so. A minor drawback is they are not cleanly plucked. (A spokesperson for Empire explained to me that this is because the Kosher laws do not allow the hot water dip used by most processors to loosen the feathers.) A Kosher bird will have small pieces of feathers. They are a bit off-putting but don't affect the flavor. I pull the larger ones. The second complaint is that Kosher birds don't have any giblets or wing tips, which are part of my gravy-making. All you get is the neck.

So far, I have to give the nod to good old Butterball, or whatever Costco or Trader Joe's has.

Spare Parts

While you're at the market, pick up some extra parts: A couple of necks, wings, or backs, for the make-ahead gravy. This is most important if you're cooking in a way that makes pan drippings unavailable, such as smoking or grilling.

Heritage Birds

A lot of gourmets are turning to "heritage" birds — the original breeds before the Dolly-Partonizing of modern breeding. I haven't tried them yet. Early reviews were mixed but recent reports sound enticing. The heritage suppliers have achieved better consistency. But they are pricey and need to be bought by mail. If you can suggest one that is available in the Bay Area, let me know:

 

MORE

  • Read my blog: http://feedme.typepad.com

  • For a more detailed, step-by-step approach, see Cook's Illustrated magazine's annual Thanksgiving guide* (may require registration or subscription — they keep changing it).

  • Another very popular turkey recipe is Alton Brown's Good Eats Roast Turkey. It's almost as good as mine!

  • Serious Eats has become more and more serious about turkey. Their annual guide, by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, one of my idols, is terrific. Biggest recommendation: Spatchcocking.

  • AmazingRibs.com is an amazing site by the amazing Meathead Goldwyn devoted to all things barbecue. It has an amazing turkey page. (Really, it is amazing.) Biggest recommendation: Spatchcocking. (I think the Interwebs are trying to tell us something.)

 

So, how did you do?

If you use these notes, I would love to hear from you! Contact me: .

 


FAQs

turkey flow chart

How to plan a meal! (Courtesy Sue Miller and Judy Rand)

Q: Should I brine? Wet brine? Dry brine? (Many readers)

I offer a lot of options but while dry-brining is best, in the end, any brining method will work wonderfully. You can buy a pre-brined bird and you're done! Or you can wet- or dry-brine.

I like to brine it myself because I never know how salty a pre-brined bird will be. Dry-brining is my standard method. It's easy and makes a more delicious result.

But if you just buy a bird that's already brined (it includes salt or a "solution" in the ingredients), then you will still be very happy.

Q: I want to brine. When should I start? (Many readers)

The timetable tells all!

Q: How big a turkey do I need? (Cousin Judy)

A pound or two per person, depending on how you feel about leftovers. (Each pound of bird will deliver about 1/2 pound of meat.) But don't go much above 14 pounds as it becomes harder to get the doneness right as the birds get bigger. If your oven can handle it, two 12-pounders are better than one 24. Or maybe you grill one and oven-roast the other?

Q: My family likes stuffing... (Bobbie)

Stuffing doesn't really pick up any flavor from the turkey, so you can bake it in a separate pan. But if you insist, put the dressing in a cheesecloth cloth bag, microwave it so it is quite hot, and then place inside the bird. More...

Q: Why do you discard the liver? (Adam)

Good question. I really meant not to include it in the gravy components. If you like liver, by all means use it for liver applications. Just don't use it for the gravy!

Q: I brined my pre-brined turkey! Am I hosed? (Elizabeth, Stacy, Denise)

Probably not. A turkey can't be any saltier than the brine solution. A normal wet brine will likely not add a lot more salt. A dry-brine will, but probably not a lot. What I would do is rinse the bird thoroughly. If there is time, you can do a low-concentration wet brine (1/2 cup table salt per gallon of water) overnight. If the turkey is saltier than the brine, then some salt will leave the meat, because the brine is less salty than the meat.

And one important note: Brining is a very forgiving process. You can be off my quite a lot. So I think you will be OK.

I haven't tested these ideas so if it happens to you, let me know what happens.

Denise reported that the time she brined a pre-brined Butterball, she was worried that it would be too salty but it was not.

Q: "I've used your tips and instructions many Christmases and Thanksgivings now..." (Paul and many others)

Thank you, I love hearing that.

Q: My buddy thinks brining is only for frozen birds and not for the "choice" freshly processed heritage birds. Do you have an expert opinion? (Ken)

Brining makes sense for all turkeys (and, for that matter, other poultry and pork). Note that brining, when done right, does not make the bird very salty. That would indeed be a shameful way to treat that very expensive heritage bird.

I would not wet-brine a heritage bird because wet brining dilutes flavor by adding water. Dry brining, on the other hand, uses the meat’s own water and does not use a lot of salt.

Note that Cook's Illustrated developed a heritage recipe and did their usual exhaustive work. They recommended a dry brine.

Q: What do I do if my family has decided to get our thanksgiving , including the turkey, from Marie Callendar? (Daniel)

You need a new family.

Q: Most of the machinations here are to get around the fact that breasts and legs have different cooking requirements. What if I cooked the separately?

Yes, that's a great method. Julia Child did it that way.

Q: Can the roux be made a couple of days ahead like the broth? (Christine)

Yes.

Q: Can I deep fry a turkey in bacon fat? (Joe)

I hope so! Joe wasn't serious but it did get us thinking about doing it in lard (only because neither of us could think of a practical way to acquire a couple of gallons of bacon fat).

Q: Can you braise the turkey? (Léo)

Braising is great for tough cuts that are full of collagen — turkey legs would qualify and I have done this, though never for Thanksgiving. I would never braise the breast. But two others whom I trust have:

Mark Bittman's Braised Turkey, in the New York Times: Mark cuts up the bird, browns the pieces in a skillet, and braises in an uncovered pan. He puts the legs in first, adding the breasts later since they require less cooking.

Michael Ruhlman's Braised Turkey (derived from a method developed by chef Doug Katz) does the whole bird in a roast-braise. The whole turkey sits in liquid so the legs braise while the breasts roast.

I recall that one of the top chefs (Thomas Keller?) had a method in which the turkey was roasted with legs and breasts separate and since the legs take longer, they were finished in a braise.

Q: What bird should I buy? (Denise)

The only bird I would not buy is a kosher turkey, because they are so salty. (And I could be wrong: lots of sources love the kosher birds.) Beyond that, my experience is that the turkeys are all good. Some will be a bit better but you can't go very far wrong and the most popular bird out there — the plain old Butterball — is a great choice.

Q: "I am making Thanksgiving dinner this year and honestly feel a bit nervous." (Denise)

Yeah, I hear you. It's the big day and all eyes are on the cook! If you're really worried, go buy a pack of turkey thighs and a pack of breasts and brine and roast them. Get them to the right temperature and see what you get.

Or, just jump in. Take it a step at a time. If your relatives give you a hard time over the result, they need A reminder about why we have holidays.

Q: "I have been using Alton Brown's method. Your thoughts on it?" (Denise)

I love Alton Brown. He's one of the best recipe writers in the food world. His turkey recipe is 5 stars with nearly 5000 reviews for a reason: It’s a great method. A couple of differences I would suggest:

  • He uses a wet brine. Dry brine is easier and just as effective.

  • Don’t bother with anything other than salt in the brine. Salt is the only thing that penetrates the flesh (according to my own tests and those by Cook's Illustrated, Kenji of Serious Eats, and others).

  • He used to tent the breast with foil. Looks like he read my turkey page and changed that.

  • For whole birds, I prefer starting the bird breast down (to give the legs a head start) for 45 minutes, then turning it breast up.

  • He removes it from the oven at 161 degrees F; I pull it sooner, at 150-155. That works if you know your thermometer is very accurate. Test your thermometer so you don't have to overcook.

Q: When should I rinse the bird?

When you unwrap it, but rinse gently.

Q: Waitaminute. I read that we should not rinse poultry because it spreads bacteria.

A widely-reported study claimed that rinsing splashes bacteria around your kitchen. Makes some sense. Or would, if it were true.

Reporting in Lucky Peach, Harold McGee found the paper and said they had the flimsiest research. They rinsed dyed meat and noted splatters of color in the kitchen but only when they were sloppy. McGee did more thorough testing. His finding: if you rinse like an animal in a torrent of water, you may splash bacteria around. But who does that? 

Unfortunately, Lucky Peach never published online so the finding is not well known. 

Go ahead and rinse gently, with the food in the bottom of the sink, the way you normally would. Use antiseptic spray (1/2 tsp bleach in a quart of water) to clean up afterwards.

Or don't. It doesn't matter much.

Q: Wait a minute. How can dry brining make as moist a bird as wet brining, which is, duh, wet? (Brad)

Great question.

The simplified answer is that with wet brining, water is absorbed — but most of it is lost. In dry brining, no water is added but very little is lost. End result is about the same. Dry brining retains the water that is already there (and as you know, raw meat has plenty of water). But with wet brining you added tap water, diluting the meaty flavor, and when most of it was lost later, it took some flavor with it.

In either case, the magic is that salt (or more correctly, the sodium and chlorine ions that immediately declare themselves free agents once salt dissolves in water) are small and frisky. They move surprisingly quickly into the flesh, adding flavor and altering the protein to make it hold water.

Longer answer:

Dry brining (salting) and wet brining do the same thing. They bind water to proteins so that the meat holds all the water it can. You can soak meat in plain water and it will gain weight but as soon as you cook it, the added water is mostly lost. Salt (sodium ions) unravel proteins and help bind the water.

In wet brining, the meat gains water — but it is tap water, which dilutes the meaty flavors! In the case of dry brining, the water in the meat is held there. You might think wet brining will make a moister turkey (more water, more moistness, obviously!) but it turns out not to be so. Raw meat has plenty of moisture and if we can simply retain that, we have a very moist end result. Dry brining does that without adding water.

Serious Eats and Cook's Illustrated have both tested this and their results were the same. Check out the Serious Eats article, especially this graph:

Source: SeriousEats.com

 


Additional notes

Carving

Carving the turkey is scary to many people. Understandable, especially if it's done in a grand display in front of all your guests. Instead, do it in the kitchen and arrange everything symetrically on a platter where it can come to the table in a celebratory moment. Plus, you, the chef, get to nibble on the tail and other tasty bits -- what Thomas Keller calls the "cook's rewards."

Hints:

  • Gear: I put a plastic, flexible cutting board in a rimmed sheet pan to catch the drippings. Best is a knife with a thin, flexible blade. And this is the one time of the year when that old electric carving knife is a suitable weapon.

  • The most important carving tip is to take each breast off in one piece which you can then slice. Trying to get thin slices off the breast while it is on the bird looks like a commercial but gives you whacky-shaped slices that are too thin and after the first two, you're battling 3D geometry.

    Instead: With the turkey breast up,notice the keel bone that neatly divides the two breast halves. Slice along each side of this bone, following the bone closely. Turn the knife to follow the ribs a bit. Then stop and go to the bottom of the breast, where the wing was attached. Make a sideways cut to follow the ribs up toward where you ended the keel bone cut.

  • Other than that, the basic idea is this: Use light strokes to follow along bones and find the major leg and wing joints by feeling for them. Don't be fooled by show-offs who seem to know where to cut — you can feel where the big joints are, rather than hacking around the region. Feel it, cut around to free it, then bend the joint.

  • Details: Google "carving a turkey."

High-Heat Roasting

Imagine roasting at 550 degrees instead of the usual 325! That's the idea behind high-heat roasting or "high-roast." I have tried it three times, twice following Chef Marc's instructions, once more following a Cook's Illustrated article. I have also done other meats at high temperatures.

High-roast delivers some great browning and speeds things up but is hard to control with turkey's large mass of heat-sensitive breast. It works much better for chicken.

If you try this, rely on the Cook's Illustrated article rather than Chef Marc. He is sloppy. There are several inconsistencies on his site and if you hear him on the radio, you hear still more inconsistencies, all belted out with the emphatic certainty normally reserved for political talk show hosts. A lot of what he says is either wrong or dubious. The videos on his site are especially odd. He drinks wine the whole time and by the end, he is getting sloppier and sloppier. in more ways than one.

I love high-roast chicken but for turkey, stick with the standard 325 degrees.

Grilling

Of course you can grill turkey! It turns out well but you miss the pan drippings, so the gravy suffers a little. You can put a drip pan under the grate (in the middle, where you have no coals) if you are doing indirect grilling.

For grilling, I hand you over to the Authority, Meathead.

Smoking

Turkey takes smoke beautifully. I've never done genuine smoking of a whole turkey (which is an all-day, low-temperature affair) but I have added smoke during a normal two-hour grilling and it works very well. It's not really Thanksgiviing tradition though. And do you really want ten pounds of smoked turkey? I like to smoke turkey parts other times of the year.

Note that it's hard (or impossible) to get the skin crisp — in fact, it comes out rubbery and barely edible.

One friend, Dave, hot smokes a turkey and says that if you use a pan to catch the drippings, you get a wonderfully smoky gravy.

Frying

In 2006, I finally fried a turkey and did it again a few years later. It's very fast and works really well. The method has potential but I had a few issues.

  • First, I have to say it: Be safe. Turkey fryer accidents are common. If you don't believe me, believe Shatner. Or the geeky engineers at UL.

  • The dry rub blackened (even though I was careful to avoid spices that contain sugar). I would omit the dry rub.

  • It was overcooked. Research led me to expect a cooking time of 49 minutes for a 14-pound bird but after 43 minutes, it was already overdone. It was still good, but not the optimum.

  • I am not fond of using $25 worth of oil on one turkey. You can reuse the oil, but that means frying something else big in the following month or so. (A reader, David Johnson, e-mailed me to say they deep-fry spareribs! I love that idea. Cut them apart, dust with a rub and fry for five minutes.)

  • You need the gear. Not an issue for me since I already use a turkey fryer to brew beer.

  • Then there is the matter of 3-1/2 gallons of boiling oil. Key: Test to make sure you have the right amount of oil. You need to be sure because once the bird goes in, the oil level rises. Water in the turkey boils like mad and the oil rises some more. If evel a little oil boils over and dribbles over into the fire, the flames climb up into the pot and you have a 911 Thanksgiving.

    Also key: Lower the turkey slowly. Alton Brown used a pulley and rope suspended from a step ladder. I used a 2x2 with a hook in the middle and two people, one on each end of the stick.

  • And as with smoking and some grilling setups, there are no drippings, so the gravy suffers a little.

  • And did I mention to be careful? Please be careful.

Vertical roasting

There are various vertical roasting products on the markets and my friend Linda swears by (actually, raves about!) a clay upright, the Cocorico. I have not tried it and wonder if my oven would accommodate a turkey in the upright position. She says it's tight — she has the rack at the bottom, sticks with an under-14-pound bird, and it means the oven is not available for anything else.

I saw George Duran do beer-can-chicken with a turkey (using a Foster's Lager's 24-oz can). I like beer-can chicken but I'll not be trying this one. I don't like Foster's that much.

Dressing (stuffing)

Stuffing the bird is a food safety no-no because the stuffing won't reach a safe temperature (unless you badly overcook the breast meat). Tests show that the stuffing doesn't really pick up any flavor from the turkey. So make your stuffing but bake it in a separate pan (where, technically, it's called "dressing"). If you want turkey-flavored stuffing, cook it with some extra turkey parts or mix in some turkey broth or pan drippings).

But if you really want to stuff the bird, pre-heat the stuffing. Put the dressing in a cheesecloth cloth bag, microwave it to 160°F, and then place it inside the bird.

If you want, cook half the dressing inside the bird and half outside and do your own taste test!

Serious Eats and Alton Brown offer recipes of turkey with stuffing.

Spatchcocking

Now part of my recommended method. Serious Eats is a huge fan of this. Check out their method.

150? Really?

It is curious that many authoritative sources differ on what is probably the most important factor, the internal temperature of the meat at the end of the roast. Folks I follow and respect, and who test like crazy, like Cook's Illustrated / America's Test Kitchen, have said to remove it at 165°F in the breast. Alton Brown says 161. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats, Harold McGee, and I say 150.

Be careful what you read. I had a big argument with Cuisine At Home, a fairly high-end magazine which recommended cooking by time and weight — at 20 minutes per pound. They want you to roast a 12-pound bird for 4 hours. I wrote them and they insisted they had tested this. I don't think so.

The truth is that oven temperature and procedures can vary quite a bit and still deliver great results. Watch internal temperatures rather than oven temperature and time.

Source
Oven start
Oven
Breast
Thigh
Method
Cook's Illustrated 400, 45 min breast down 350 165 170-175 Start breast down, turn once
Alton Brown 500, 30 min 350 161
Amazing Ribs: Meathead Goldwyn 325 160 Spatchcocked
Serious Eats:
J. Keni Lopez-Alt
450 450 150 165 Spatchcocked
Martha Stewart 450, 30 minutes 350   180  
Harold McGee 150-155 165 Ice packs on breasts for one hour. Or: roast breats and legs separately
Moe Rubenzahl 500, 30 minutes breast down 325 150-155 165 Start breast down, turn once

 

More on Brining

How long do you brine?

The dry brine process takes 3-4 days plus a day or so to dry. A wet brine can be short or long. Short brines use a higher concentration brining solution, with more salt. Both work well but I prefer the longer brine because with more time, the salt penetrates deeper and since the water has less salt, you are less likely to wind up with overly salty meat near the surface.

Cook's Illustrated has a detailed brining formula with variations for longer and shorter brines (or at least, they had one — they keep moving their links around). I use 2 cups of kosher salt or 1 cup table salt per gallon of water for 8-12 hours; or twice the concentration for 4-6 hours. You must keep this at under 40 degrees.

You might also wonder what vessel to brine in! If you don't have a pot big enough for a turkey (3 gallons), an ice chest is a good choice because you can add ice daily, to keep the food safety police at bay. (Remember: no more than two hours in the 40-140 danger zone).

When you're finished, rinse the turkey well, to remove surface salt. Then — important tip — dry the bird very thoroughly and , if you have time, leave the turkey unwrapped in the refrigerator for a day or two. Drying means crispier skin.

Benefits of brining

  • It provides a safety margin for the breast meat. Even if it overcooks by 10 degrees or more, it remains moist.

  • The brine seasons the meat, giving it a mild salting that penetrates the meat.

  • A brined bird cooks faster than an unbrined one.

Dry brine

Dry brining worked at least as well as wet brining, with less fuss. The methods in the main article detail it.

Wet brining adds water, which dilutes the flavor. With dry brining, salt draws moisture from the meat and it is then reabsorbed with the sodium ions that will make the meat retain moisture through cooking. In side by side tests at the Los Angeles Times, Russ Parsons reports that the panel preferred dry brined turkey by a landslide.

The only disadvantage is that it takes three days; wet brining can be done in a day.

Science lesson: How does brining work?

Inquiring minds want to know: How does brining work? Geek alert: This is hugely nerdy.

Does it work?

First question: Does it really work? Does water really go deeply into the meat and does it stay there through roasting?

Cook's Illustrated did tests, comparing brining to a water soak and an unsoaked control. Plain water hydrated the meat just as well but brining made it stay there. Brining and soaking both added 6% to the weight. After cooking, a pound of untreated meat weighed 0.82 lb., water-soaked meat ended up at 0.88 lb, and brined meat was 0.93 lb. Kenji of Serious Eats reported very similar results in their brining tests.

What that means is that brining works. Not only does it add moisture, the extra moisture stays through cooking.

How does it work?

I did a lot of research and no one really knows how brining works other than the agreement that it's not osmosis. It's believed that salt interacts with the structure (probably by denaturing proteins) in a way that helps retain water. What's especially unclear is whether the water plumps up the cells or the water is held between cells, like a loosely coiled towel.

Best explanation I found was from Modernist Cuisine: "Brining technically does not work via osmosis, as popular opinion suggests. If osmosis alone were at play, water would be drawn out of the meat, but brining works by pulling water into muscles. Chloride ions from dissolved salt diffuse into muscle fibers and accumulate along the surfaces of protein filaments. As these ions increase in number, they generate a negative charge that loosens and pushes neighboring filaments apart. This newly created channel provides enough space for water to enter the muscle, causing it to swell from the influx of ambient water. Ions further modify muscle proteins by causing them to bind tightly to water and resist shrinking as the meat cooks. Muscle will continue to swell until the salinity reaches 6%—after that, it shrinks and begins to lose water."

How much sodium?

How much salt does brining add to the food? The amount is significant but not massive.

Geeky details first: I have seen some discussions guessing at mechanisms and amounts, nothing iron-clad. If the added water is similar in concentration to the brine, then an 8 oz serving of meat, which normally contains 120 mg of sodium, has an additional 0.09 tsp of salt, or 225 mg added by brining.

That's 350 mg for a half-pound of turkey meat. A slice of bread, an English muffin, or a pretzel rod has around 200 mg. The USDA recommended daily intake is 2400 mg and for low-sodium folks, 1500.

So it's significant but not greatly so, especially given that it's one of the two great eating holidays.

Flavoring the brine

What about recipes that add sugar, herbs, cider, and juice to the brine?

Go ahead, if you want, but it doesn't work in wet brines.

I had this argument with a friend. Using flavors in the curry family of spices, he reported the brine flavors carried through to the finished product, but then we did a bit of surgery. The flavors were indeed present — but only at the surface. Sections of deeper meat had only salt. It makes sense — sodium and chlorine ions are tiny and as ions, have a transport mechanism. Herbs, sugar, and apple cider are much larger and lack the ionic action.

If you don't believe me, believe Serious Eats, Amazing Ribs, and Cook's Illustrated. Their results agree.

For those who disagree, there is no harm in it. If it makes you happy, flavor your brine. But you will get more oomph if you save the herbs for after the brine. Or, inject them if you want penetrating flavor.

Dry briners, go ahead and add herbs and sugars. It all sits on the meat until roasting so you can add them at any time.

Ways to Cook Turkey

Someday I'll have tried them all:

  • Roasting

  • High Roast

  • Grilling

  • Hot Smoking

  • Cold Smoking
  • Braising

  • Rotisserie: This is a great method for any meat. Just haven't done a turkey this way. Yet. I think my rotisserie spit will need a gas powered engine.

  • Deep Frying

  • Confit: New one I just found, from Mark Bittman, New York Times. He cooks turkey parts as one would duck legs for confit, poaching them slowly in oil. Then he browns them in a skillet and says the results are juicy and tender and the skin cracklin' crisp.

  • Spatchcocking, or butterflying. Sources I trust (Serious Eats and Amazing Ribs) swear by it and after multiple tests, it's now part of the standard procedure.

FeedMe

My food blog, FeedMe, carries a blow-by-blow description of my turkeyheaded adventures.

 

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