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The be-all, end-all turkey

Four birds, four different ways to roast: With that, the Great Turkey Smackdown began. The winner? A new method that's rocked our world.

November 15, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

IS there a bird that's better than brined?

For the last decade or so, many of us have adopted as part of our Thanksgiving ritual soaking our turkeys in salt water for several days before roasting them. This isn't weird; it really works. Birds that have been brined stay much moister than turkeys that have not.

Still, there's no arguing with the fact that there are drawbacks to the technique. You've got to find a bucket big enough to hold a turkey, to start with -- and a clean one. And then you've got to find room in your refrigerator to store it for the better part of a week.

Is there a better way?

Last Thanksgiving, we at the Food Section introduced readers to a steam-roasting technique. Turkey baked in a covered roaster pan -- you know, the kind your grandma used -- stays moist in a different way. During normal uncovered roasting, any juices that leak out of the bird are converted to steam by the hot pan and evaporate. Covering the pan reduces the amount of steam that gets away. A moist turkey with no advance preparation -- we really liked that idea.

And then there are those who swear by high-heat roasting for turkeys -- they claim quick cooking keeps the meat moist and improves the flavor because of the improved browning.

For the last year, I've been on a dry-salting craze. Almost every piece of protein that comes into my kitchen sits under a light sprinkling of salt for anywhere from an hour to several days before I cook it (as you can imagine, my wife and daughter have been hiding in other parts of the house). Meat that has been left to sit under salt has a deeper, more concentrated flavor and the texture is moist, but firm and more meaty.

This technique is something I learned from Judy Rodgers, chef at San Francisco's landmark Zuni Cafe. I've used it with fish fillets (which take only an hour or so of curing), chicken, both parts and whole (anywhere from eight hours to a couple of days), and even a beef tenderloin (several days).

I call it "Judy-ing," and it has worked wonders with everything I've tried it on. But how would it work with turkey, which is so much larger than any of the meats I cook during the rest of the year? Would the salt penetrate all the way to the center of the breast and thighs? I was a little skeptical (and so was Judy when I asked her), but it was worth a try.

Thus was born the Great Turkey Smackdown of 2006: Four turkeys, four ovens, four techniques tested side by side: one brined, one steam-roasted, one high-heat-roasted and one "Judy-ed." Once and for all, we'd find the best way to roast a turkey.

Fire up the ovens

IT'S no wonder so many Thanksgiving turkeys wind up so disappointing. Turkeys are notoriously difficult to get exactly right, even for experienced cooks. In the first place, they're composed of two contradictory meats -- white breast meat that dries out in a flash and dark leg meat that seems to take forever to get done. On top of that, they are huge, which magnifies any mistake in timing.

Most cooks know about brining, which not only adds moisture to the bird and seasons it throughout but also helps the muscles hold on to that moisture during cooking by altering the electrical charges of the protein strands.

Salting works similarly to brining, except it doesn't use any water. It's remarkably simple. You just sprinkle the turkey with salt, then set it aside for four days for a 12- to 16-pound bird. At first, the salt pulls moisture from the meat, but as time passes, almost all of those juices are reabsorbed, bringing the salt along with them.

But maybe I was over-thinking the whole thing; perhaps high-temperature roasting wasn't such a bad idea. If a 400-degree oven makes a chicken with crisp brown skin and moist flesh, why wouldn't it do the same thing for a turkey? Wouldn't it be great if the solution to all of our turkey woes could be so easy?

The Smackdown, we hoped, would answer these questions. We bought four fresh free-range turkeys as close to the same size as we could find -- about 15 pounds. We started the two that needed advance preparation, salting one, brining the other and storing them in 2 1/2 -gallon sealable plastic bags. The Times Test Kitchen's ovens had recently been calibrated, assuring accurate temperatures. We assembled four similar heavy-gauge, anodized aluminum roasting pans.

For the brining, we used a standard ratio of two-thirds cup salt to 1 gallon water. For the salting, we allowed 1 tablespoon of salt for every 4 pounds of turkey -- just short of one-fourth cup -- and concentrated the distribution on the thickest parts of the meat, the breast and the thigh.

After three days, we removed both from their bags and let all four turkeys air-dry in the refrigerator overnight -- the fan that circulates cold air also works very well at drying poultry skin.

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