No Thanksgiving is complete without the turkey. And if you’ve been on any kind of recipe site or food magazine in the past few weeks, you know that there’s 8,379,201 ways to cook a bird and all of them claim to solve the #1 problem with roast turkey: dryness.
The most popular answer? Brining. Salting your turkey breaks down certain proteins and science, science, blah blah blah … helps keep it juicy. The most common method of brining is a wet brine, ie. dissolving salt in water and then immersing the entire turkey in the solution for a few days.
But there are a few problems with wet brining. Number one: it requires space. The entire turkey must be submerged, so you’d need a large bucket or cooler for a large bird. It needs to stay cold, so you need enough space in the fridge to house the bucket, or you need to routinely refresh the ice in your cooler. Number two: soaking the turkey in salted water keeps it moist, but doesn’t add much flavor. And, because your turkey is wet, it won’t crisp up as well in the oven, so you won’t get that gorgeous bronzed crackly skin.
Last year, because of that space issue, I skipped the brine. And let me tell you, it was delicious. So a brine is not strictly necessary for juicy, flavorful turkey.
This year, I was still curious — after all, if thousands of blogs and recipe sites and magazines are touting the brine, there must be something to this, right? But in my research, I discovered the dry brine, a way to add moisture to your turkey without having to stick a bucket in the fridge, without watering down the flavor of your turkey, without creating insanely salty drippings that can’t be used for gravy.
It’s stupid-easy: rub salt all over your turkey, then let it sit for a day or two in the fridge. The salt draws out the turkey’s juices then dissolves in them and is reabsorbed by the meat (or something like that), creating a mess-free moist turkey.
The type of salt you use is essential: regular old table salt won’t work here. Kosher salt is a must, since its larger flakes are better for dissolving. There are different types of kosher salt, with different levels of salinity too (Diamond Crystal kosher salt is less salty than Morton’s kosher salt, etc. — here’s more than you ever needed to know about any of this.) If you’re in doubt, err on the side of caution: start with 1 tablespoon for every 4 pounds of bird.
Though I dry-brined for a day, to ensure maximum moistness I also buttered my bird. Since I was stuffing it with apples and onions, I rubbed the turkey inside and out with a sage-and-shallot butter, and followed last year’s method of flipping the turkey halfway through cooking. The end result was a real stunner, with its crispy golden skin and its perfectly juicy interior.
Now that I’m 2-for-2 with turkey cooking, next year, I’ll hopefully master the carving …
- 1 12-pound turkey (thawed, if frozen)
- 1/4-1/2 cup kosher salt, or more if needed (at least 1 tablespoon for every 4 pounds of bird)
- 1 bunch fresh sage, divided
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 small shallot, minced finely
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 4 small red onions, halved (divided)
- 4 small apples, cored and halved (divided)
- 1 bunch celery, trimmed
- 5-6 carrots, tops removed
- 2-3 red potatoes, halved
- At least 24 hours before (or up to two days before) serving, remove the turkey from its wrappings, take out the giblet and innards, and pat dry with paper towels. Rub all over with the kosher salt, slipping it under the skin where possible and salting the inner cavities.
- Place the turkey in a large pan or foil tray, then loosely cover with tin foil and refrigerate. A few hours before cooking, uncover and remove the turkey from the fridge so that it comes to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 325F. Make a "vegetable trivet" in your roasting pan: arrange half of the onions, half of the apples, the celery, carrots and potatoes in an even layer in the bottom of the pan.
- Make your sage butter: Tear 15-20 sage leaves from the bunch and chop finely. Combine the chopped sage with the butter, shallots and black pepper.
- Transfer the turkey to a large cutting board. Rub the sage butter all over the outside of the turkey, then slide your hand under the turkey skin and rub the butter on the breast, leg and thigh meat. Stuff the inner cavity with the rest of the onions and apples, then tie the legs together with kitchen twine.
- Place the turkey breast-side down (backbone facing up) in the roasting pan. Roast for 1 hour, then carefully flip the turkey so that the breast side faces up. Turn the oven up to 400F, then roast for an additional 75-80 minutes.* Check for doneness by inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh -- it should read 165F. (The juices should also run clear.)
- Remove the turkey from the oven and transfer it to a cutting board. Tent the bird with tin foil and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. Transfer the drippings to a measuring cup and use them to make gravy (if desired). Carve the turkey and serve.
- *My 12-pounder was done after 2.5 hours of total cooking time. If yours is larger, plan for 12-15 minutes per pound. (You should only cook the turkey upside down for 1 hour — any additional cooking time should happen after the flip, at 400F.)