Thanksgiving is a holiday built on tradition. And, much to my surprise, I seem to have found a new one of my own -- writing about dry-brined turkey.
After more than 20 years of Thanksgiving stories, I didn't think there was much left that could be said about turkey. But three years ago I wrote about a new technique I'd fallen in love with. And judging from the hundreds of happy e-mails I received, readers shared that affection.
I tweaked it a bit last year, to similar reaction, and now here I am writing about it again, with even more improvements.
At first glance, the recipe is so simple it's hard to believe there could be anything to add, but it's in the nature of cooking (or at least of recipe tinkering) to always move forward. We're like great white sharks that way -- that and the whole eating-just-for-recreation thing.
In its most basic form, dry-brining is nothing more than salting turkey and letting it sit for several days. I based it on the Zuni Cafe chicken my friend Judy Rodgers has made famous at her San Francisco restaurant.
Dry-brined turkey is, if anything, even more remarkable. While turkey sometimes can be dry and bland, after dry-brining, the meat is moist and flavorful. And in an improvement over wet-brining (which I enthusiastically practiced for several years), the texture of the meat stays firm and muscular, with none of the sponginess that can result from added moisture.
Brining the bird
It couldn't be simpler to do. Here's how it works: Sprinkle the bird with salt, allowing about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt for every 5 pounds of turkey. That's not a lot -- it won't look like much more than what you'd normally apply just before roasting. And contrary to some published reports (I'm looking at you, Cook's Illustrated!), you can sprinkle the salt right onto the skin; you don't need to lift the skin and salt the meat.
Then stick the turkey in a sealed plastic bag and refrigerate. After a day or so, you might see some liquid in the bag. Don't worry. Salt naturally pulls moisture from meat. Give the turkey a light massage through the bag to make sure the salt is distributed evenly and stick it back in the fridge.
After three days, you'll see that the moisture has been reabsorbed by the meat, pulling the salt with it. At this point, if you're a perfectionist, you can remove the turkey from the bag, put it on a plate and let it dry in the refrigerator for several hours (the fan in the refrigerator works very well as a skin-dryer). If you haven't yet reached that level of obsession, you can just pat the skin dry with a paper towel; the skin may not be quite as brown or crisp, but few will notice.
Then you roast it. Start at 450 degrees to get the browning going, then after a half-hour or so, reduce to 325 to cook through. In the past, I've called for rotating the turkey during cooking so it browns more evenly. No more, it's just too big a hassle considering the modest improvement in color.
So simple, how could you change it? Ha! You don't know the power of a motivated tinkerer . . . or of curious readers.
My first major discovery came after several e-mails asking whether it could be done with frozen turkeys too, rather than adding three days of defrosting time onto the three days of dry-brining. It seemed like a good idea, so we tried it in the test kitchen and it worked perfectly.
So no longer do you have to buy your turkey a week in advance. Just rinse the frozen turkey in cool water (to start the defrosting process), pat it dry and salt it. Then proceed just as you would with a fresh turkey. By the time it's defrosted, it'll be seasoned and ready to go.
That makes dry-brined turkey much more convenient. Other reader e-mails prompted an idea that made it even more delicious. As originally constructed, with just plain salt, this recipe delivers a really deep, pure turkey flavor. It's not overly salty, more like seasoned all the way to the bone.
But what about adding flavors? Especially for readers used to marinades and wet-brining, the whole "deep pure flavor" thing can seem a bit austere. What about adding different herbs or spices to the salt?
To find out, I rubbed a turkey breast with a mixture of salt ground with minced fresh rosemary and grated lemon zest. Yup again, great flavor, with just a hint of rosemary suffusing the breast meat. The lemon zest was barely detectable.
Just to be sure the flavor had really penetrated the meat and wasn't just coating the surface, I cut some very wide slices, getting as much of the center of the muscle as I could, then tasted that by itself. The rosemary flavor was definitely there.
I e-mailed Rodgers, to ask if she'd ever played with seasoning her salted meats. The answer was immediate and enthusiastic.