The Recipe: How to roast a turkey with the "dry brine" method. A dry-brined turkey is simple and uncomplicated – best of all, it turns out a whole turkey with a dark, crispy skin. The breast meat and the dark meat? Oh-so moist and flavorful! (And no grappling with a cooler full of brining liquid.) Occasionally I try another recipe but for so many years now, I always return to this one for simplicity and results.
The Conversation: Tracking turkeys here in St. Louis, wild turkeys and otherwise.
Wild turkeys bob through the woods in a wild country place in the Missouri Ozarks about an hour from home here in suburban St. Louis. They leave three-toed tracks and occasional feathers, too, in muddy spots along the dirt road that follows the ridge to the river. A group of turkeys is called a "rafter", a rafter of "poults" if they’re young. Some times I try to catch the turkeys mid-trot with a camera lens, mostly I’m happy to spot them at all, wily elusive creatures that they are.
For Thanksgiving, however, most of us "hunt" for turkey with our wallets by traipsing through not the woods but the grocery store.
In October, I roasted the first turkey of the season to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving, opting for a frozen turkey with one of those pop-up dealies to show when the turkey is done. Good thing: I love-love-love my instant-read meat thermometer but it failed me here. It’s just hard to "insert in the thickest part of the thigh until the temperature registers between 165F and 175F" in exactly the right spot.
For American Thanksgiving, I hope for a first taste of heritage turkey, or maybe, just maybe, wild turkey.
No matter, I love this simple recipe for cooking a turkey. The skin comes out dark and crispy (just try to stop tearing off pieces of skin while you’re carving, oh wait, don’t stop, it’s the kitchen treat), the white meat moist and flavorful, the dark meat to die for. It’s one of those recipes that proves that some times, perhaps many times, simplicity outshines complexity.
ROAST TURKEY RECIPE
Time to table: 24 hours, allow 3-1/2 – 5 hours to roast, rest and carve, depending on the turkey’s size and whether stuffed
DAY BEFORE ROASTING
- 1 whole turkey, thoroughly thawed (see TIPS)
- 1 tablespoon ground sage
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 large carrots, chopped in large chunks
- 2 ribs celery, chopped in large chunks
- 1 large onion, chopped in large chunks
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup water (apple cider
DAY BEFORE ROASTING Reach into the neck end and, er, the ‘other’ end to retrieve the neck and giblets; put aside to use, if you like, for making turkey gravy. Rinse the turkey inside and out, pat dry with paper towels. Stir together sage, salt and pepper, rub all over the bird. Place in a roasting pan and refrigerate uncovered overnight.
ROASTING DAY Preheat oven to 400F/200C. Drain off any liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan, rinse the pan well. (If you’re going to stuff the turkey, do it now.) Toss the vegetables with oil, arrange in the bottom of the pan. Place a V-shaped roasting rack in the pan (see TIPS) with the turkey, breast-side down on the rack. Roast for 1 hour.
Remove from the oven; baste the back and sides with some of the pan drippings. Turn the turkey over to put the breast side up; baste the breast and sides.
Return to the oven, continue to roast the turkey until done (allow 1-1/2 to 2 hours for an unstuffed turkey, another hour or so for a stuffed turkey) checking every 20 minutes or so to add 1/4 to 1/2 cup water whenever the vegetables in the bottom become dry. If using an instant-read thermometer, insert it so that it reaches into the deepest part of the breast, without touching any bone, until the thermometer reaches 165F to 175F (75C to 80C).
WHEN DONE Remove the turkey from the oven. To make gravy, strain out the vegetables and transfer the pan juices from the bottom of the roasting pan to a saucepan. (See my recipe for simple and delicious and never-lumpy Turkey Gravy.) If the turkey is stuffed, transfer the stuffing to a baking dish, cover and keep warm in a low oven, about 200F/100C. Cover the turkey with foil and let rest for about 30 minutes (why? see TIPS).
CARVE To carve the turkey, slice off the legs and wings, cut off the meat. Then slice into the breast meat in even layers, slicing with, not against, the direction of the meat fibers. If serving the turkey later in the day or another day, here’s how to reheat the turkey, retaining all the moisture and flavor.
More Tips for Cooking a Turkey
SIZE Cooking two smaller turkeys is better than cooking one huge turkey. First, even cooking. Huge turkeys have huge breasts, so by the time the interior is cooked, the outer areas are dry and stringy. Smaller turkeys have smaller breasts, so it doesn't take as long to get fully cooked in the interior, the outer meat is just fine. Second, even cooking again. One big turkey takes up so much space in the oven that there's little room for air movement (although convection would help). Third, a big turkey can also be really heavy, straining our backs to lift in and out of the oven.
ROASTING PAN My roasting pan is only big enough for a smaller turkey so when the turkey I'm cooking is bigger, I'll purchase one of those disposable roasting pans that sell for a couple of bucks around the holidays. One year, however, I "made do" by putting two cookie sheets in the bottom of the oven to catch the juices. What a mistake – even after lots of scrubbing, the juices had burned onto the cookie sheets, ruining them. Next time, if I don't have a large enough roasting pan, at minimum, I'll wrap the cookie sheets in foil.
SELECTING A TURKEY In 2014, I cooked two Trader Joe's pre-brined turkeys a couple of days apart. For the first one, I tried another really popular recipe that gets lots of thumbs up, it rubs the turkey with a stick of butter and cooks at 350F. This turkey created a huge volume of really good pan juices that ended up in extra-good gravy – but the turkey itself was disappointing, the skin was soft, the meat tasted flat. For the second turkey for Thanksgiving Day, I dry-brined the pre-brined turkey following the recipe above. Much to my surprise, the turkey produced a very small amount of pan juices but the turkey itself was excellent, including the crispy skin. I'm writing this as a note to myself as well as to readers. I'm getting the idea that a "lower cooking temperature" creates good pan juices and a "higher cooking temperature" creates good turkey. Stay tuned! I cook two or three turkeys a year, this will be interesting!
TIMING For a four o'clock Thanksgiving dinner, I put the turkey in at noon. (This is also my cue to get the already-made side dishes out of the fridge to bring to room temperature for warming in the oven once the turkey is done.) It's done by 2:30 or 3:00, leaving lots of time for resting and carving – and freeing up the oven with side dishes!
DISPOSAL DURING WARM WEATHER Once the carcass has been picked, throw the carcass and all the leftover bits into a heavy garbage and freeze the entire bag until garbage day. This can prevent a huge stink!
Tracking Wild Turkeys in the Missouri Countryside
See the wild turkeys? They're at the center right. And don't they look just like dinosaurs?!
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