How to Dry-Brine and Roast a Whole Turkey

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.

Roast Turkey, a simple, basic recipe for roasting a whole turkey. The turkey is 'dry brined' overnight to produce dark, crispy skin and moist, flavorful meat. For Weight Watchers, #PP3. #KitchenParade

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.

ALANNA's TIPS It’s better to roast two smaller turkeys than one huge turkey. A 12-pound turkey will generously serve eight with leftovers for sandwiches and casseroles. I use this recipe with grocery-store turkeys, with farm-raised turkeys, even with pre-brined turkeys from Trader Joe's. It works with all of them! If oven space is an issue, cook one or both turkeys the day before. (See How to Cook a Turkey the Day Before.) Allow up to a week to thaw a frozen turkey, though thawing can be sped along, some, by placing the still-wrapped turkey in cold water to thaw. Just be sure to find a vessel large enough to hold a turkey that fits into a fridge. If the weather’s cold enough, 35F – 40F, say, place it outside away from direct sun and hungry critters. A V-shaped roasting rack isn’t necessary, just mound up the vegetables in the center and place the turkey on top. I've also used a small baking rack. A turkey baster isn't an absolute necessity but it does help spread water across the entire turkey without crawling inside the oven! One year, I accidentally skipped the basting step and while the turkey turned out great, the top of the breast did get a little singed. It was fine, I just topped it with foil while the bird finished cooking. Why do we let meat rest? Many recipes call for letting a piece of roasted meat rest for 15 – 30 minutes after it’s fully cooked. This lets the juices re-distribute themselves throughout the meat, making every bite moist and flavorful. The liquid that collects in the bottom of the roasting pan makes really good gravy.

ROAST TURKEY RECIPE

Hands-on time: 30 minutes plus occasional attention throughout
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
    ROASTING DAY
  • 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.

AFTER DINNER Pick the meat off the turkey and refrigerate for turkey leftovers. Get out the stockpot for it’s time to make turkey stock!

NUTRITION INFORMATION Per three ounces of cooked turkey: 128 Calories; 4g Tot Fat; 1g Sat Fat; 51mg Cholesterol; 44mg Sodium; 0g Carb; 0g Fiber; 0g Sugar; 20g Protein. WEIGHT WATCHERS POINTS WW Old Points 3 & WW PointsPlus 3
Adapted from Fine Cooking, Oct/Nov 2009 issue

Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. In 2009, Kitchen Parade celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special collection of my mother's recipes. Do you have a favorite recipe that other Kitchen Parade readers might like? Just send me a quick e-mail via recipes@kitchen-parade.com. How to print a Kitchen Parade recipe. If you like Kitchen Parade, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture.

More Tips for Cooking a Turkey

TURKEY: IT'S NOT JUST FOR THANKSGIVING ANYMORE I love to cook a turkey once or twice a year, aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas. The meat is just so useful for soups and sandwiches and stews. So consider buying an extra turkey for the freezer when they're on sale in the fall, maybe to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving?
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


Wild turkeys near a manmade lake in the northern reaches of the Missouri Ozarks.

See the wild turkeys? They're at the center right. And don't they look just like dinosaurs?!


Thanksgiving Essentials

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Slow Cooker Turkey Breast Perfect Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes (Party Potatoes) Make-Ahead Fresh Green Bean Casserole
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I couldn't figure out how to comment on your posts before! Now I'll go comment on that apple crisp recipe I used. PS-so cool that you are continuing a column your mother started years ago.
 
How do you do it? Every time I'm thinking about making something and decide that it's just too complicated, you make it seem easy! I think I'll get a turkey and give this a try.
 
You will love a heritage turkey! I've been getting them for the last five years or so from a local farmer. They're expensive, but the flavor is just incredible!
 
Except for rubbing the turkey with the herbs and salt the night before, this is the method I have successfully used to cook turkey for some time now. Rubbing the turkey with the herbs makes a lot of sense, and from now on, I will do this. However, I do want to comment on one piece of information you pass on -- washing the turkey. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has determined that it is unsafe to wash poultry, or any other meat, due to the danger of cross contamination. (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Factsheets/Does_Washing_Food_Promote_Food_Safety/index.asp). Rather, they recommend cooking the food to a safe internal temperature. I know that this habit is ingrained in many of us, and if we've never become sick before we figure we should keep doing what we're doing. So, I'm just passing this information along for folks to act on or not, as they wish.
 
Sassy ~ Thanks!

Ali ~ BIG thanks!!

Cynthia ~ Thanks for the confirmation! Unfortunately, there seem are no heritage turkeys available in St. Louis, at least this year. Our local Slow Food group gave two farms grants this year to start raising them, so maybe another year.

GreenGrannie ~ Thanks so much for adding this information, I didn't realize that the USDA had come out advising against it. (Of course, they're also the people who tell us to cook pork to a shoe-leather 160F.) For anyone who wants direct access, here's the USDA link. I'll also share my own tips for handling meat safely. I know after washing my most recent turkey, I did clean the sink. So apparently the idea of avoiding cross-contamination is in my own head, too.
 
I am just writing about the turkey I cooked last month before I got the flu. What makes me smile is that we both cooked them almost exactly the same, frozen turkeys, with pop-up dealies, at 400 degrees, etc. That's the first time I have cooked one that way in years and it was wonderful!
 
I grew up fighting my brothers and sister for the crispy roasted turkey skin, but my husband can't believe I would eat that. Your roast turkey is beautiful!
 
Can you explain your reasoning for cooking two smaller turkeys rather than one big turkey? I'm really curious. Thanks.
 
Lucinda ~ Sure! Two reasons.

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. Make sense?

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). So do two turkeys (in two ovens if you have them or one the day before (using the tips on how to do that and then reheat that are referenced in the column) and then one on the day of. Or really, I supposed, do both the day before!
 

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna