Thanksgiving turkey, dry brined

This salting technique, from Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times, was used by the late Judy Rodgers of San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe to produce her legendary roast chickens. The only real ingredients here are salt and time, so I’m including a salt chart to help you figure out how much you need, plus a timeline to help you keep track of what to do when.

Ingredients

  • Whole turkey, fresh or frozen
  • Salt (preferably kosher)
  • Other seasonings, optional (eg smoked paprika and orange zest; bay leaf and thyme; rosemary and lemon zest)
  • Vegetables to roast under turkey (to flavor the pan drippings and keep them from burning), eg onion, carrot, celery

Equipment

  • Brining bag or extra-large Ziploc bag (in a pinch, you can use two new plastic garbage bags to double-bag the turkey)
  • Roasting pan or baking dish or rimmed baking tray
  • Rack to hold turkey in the pan

Turkey planning

Fresh vs frozen?: Equally good options; just keep in mind frozen turkeys take a long time to thaw – a full day in the fridge for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey, so a 20-pounder needs a good 5 days in the refrigerator. (You can defrost in a hurry by submerging the turkey in a cold water bath, but it still takes 30 minutes per pound, and you’ll have to change out the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold enough for food safety.)

Just don’t buy a kosher or brined bird for dry brining, because those have already been salted.

In any case, you prep the Sunday before Thanksgiving, so plan ahead to make sure your turkey is thawed and ready to go by then.

Thanksgiving week timeline

Sunday: Wash and dry the turkey inside and out, removing the neck and giblets from either the cavity of the turkey or under the flap of the neck (see note below for a quick stock you can save for gravy-making). Measure out salt for the weight of your bird, using the following guidelines:

  • Diamond Crystal kosher salt (280 mg sodium per 1/4-teaspoon serving): 1 tablespoon per 5 pounds of turkey
  • Morton kosher salt (480 mg sodium per 1/4-teaspoon serving): 2 teaspoons per 5 pounds of turkey
  • Table salt (556 mg sodium per 1/4-teaspoon serving): 1 1/2 teaspoons per 5 pounds of turkey

Grind salt with spices if you like (Parsons suggets smoked paprika and orange zest, bay leaf and thyme, or rosemary and lemon zest). Sprinkle salt lightly on all surfaces of the turkey, inside and out, rubbing under the skin as well if you like. Add extra salt to meatier areas, such as the thighs and breast, especially the center of the breast where meat is thickest.

Place the turkey in a sealable plastic brining bag. Press out air and seal tightly. Store the bagged turkey in the refrigerator breast-side up.

Tuesday: Turn the bagged turkey breast-side down in the refrigerator.

Wednesday: Take turkey out of brining bag and place it breast-side up on a plate or baking dish large enough to hold it. Refrigerate it uncovered, so that the skin will dry and become crisp during roasting.

Thanksgiving Thursday: Let turkey sit at room temperature an hour before cooking. Make sure oven rack is placed so that turkey will be in the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels, and baste it with oil or melted butter.

Cut vegetables in large chunks (onions, carrots, celery are good basics) and arrange them in the bottom of your baking dish or rimmed sheet pan. Position a rack over vegetables, then place turkey on the rack.

Place turkey in oven. After 30 minutes, reduce the heat to 325 degrees F. Roast until the thickest parts of the breast and the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone – check a couple places) reach 165 degrees F. Parsons estimates a 12-16 pound turkey will roast for a total of 2 3/4 hours. But a brined turkey cooks faster than an unbrined bird, so check early.

Notes

  • If you don’t start Sunday, you can still start your dry brined turkey on Monday or even Tuesday. You won’t get the full effect, but it will still do good.
  • Quick stock (using neck and giblets from turkey): heat a little oil in a pot, then add the neck and giblets (not the liver – the dark red, slimy one), along with rough chunks of onion, carrot, celery and a couple bay leaves. Cook until everything is nicely browned, then cover with water and simmer for 30 minutes to an hour. Strain out solids and save stock for gravy making.
  • If you split the turkey, the two halves of a small/medium bird (8-14 pounds) can cook at 425 degrees F the whole time. But for halves of a large turkey (16-22 pounds), it’s better to reduce the heat to 350 degrees F after a half hour. Roast until the thickest parts of the breast and the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone – check a couple places) reach 165 degrees F. A small turkey may be done in as little as 30-40 minutes, where a very large bird might take two hours.
  • After you carve the turkey, throw the bones in a bag. The next day, when all you want to do is sit around, just toss the bones in the largest pot you have, throw in a couple onion halves, some carrots, celery, peppercorns and bay leaves, and let it simmer forever while you laze around eating leftovers (just don’t let it boil – it’ll make the stock murky instead of clear). After a couple hours, the bones will collapse down. Keep it going for as long as you want – it will only get more flavorful and concentrated. Season with salt at the end. If I’m not making it into soup right away, I pour it into mason jars for storage.

Here’s a link back to the post and pictures.