How to Dry-Brine and Roast a Whole Turkey

How to roast a turkey with the "dry brine" method that calls for no more than air, seasoning and time. A dry-brined turkey is simple and uncomplicated – best of all, it turns out a whole turkey with moist, succulent meat and a dark, crispy skin. (Did I mention that there's no grappling with a cooler full of brining liquid?) Occasionally I test out a different method for cooking a whole turkey and find myself, well, disappointed. And then I return to the dry-brine technique for simplicity and good results and find myself, well, re-impressed at just how easy it can be to cook a whole turkey.

Simple Technique, Superior Results. More Than a Recipe, Many Practical Tips for Cooking a Whole Turkey. Weight Watchers Friendly. Whole30 Friendly. Low Carb. High Protein. Great for Meal Prep.
How to Roast a Whole Turkey with the Dry Brine Method ♥ KitchenParade.com. Simple Technique, Superior Results. Many Practical Tips. Recipe, insider tips, nutrition & Weight Watchers points included.

On My Mind: Tracking Turkeys


Wild Turkeys ♥ KitchenParade.com

Wild turkeys bob and weave through the woods in a wild country place we love in the Missouri Ozarks. They leave three-toed tracks and occasional feathers in muddy spots along the dirt road that follows the ridge to the river. Some times I try to catch the turkeys mid-trot with a camera lens but mostly I’m happy to spot them at all, wily elusive creatures that they are.

Here at home in St. Louis, we see wild but suburban turkeys all year long. Our neighborhood rafter is usually four or five toms (we call them the "Amigos") but in the fall, a few dozen toms and hens will forage a nearby field, heads bobbing for bugs. When the Amigos spook and run, it's a scene out of Jurassic Park, miniature dinosaurs!

Word dancers, here's some turkey talk for you. A "hen" is a female turkey, a "tom" is a male turkey. A group of turkeys is called a "rafter", a rafter of "poults" if they’re young. Now you know!

For Thanksgiving, however, most of us "hunt" for turkey with our wallets by traipsing through the grocery store.

And oh boy, once you start to look at the endless plastic-wrapped turkeys, they all look the same and it gets confusing. Good questions to ask. Which turkey is best to buy? If it's two days before Thanksgiving, will a frozen turkey thaw in time? And then how in heavens do you actually cook a whole turkey?

And so you scour the internet for advice and everybody's auntie has a big idea and claims the "best recipe" for cooking a whole turkey. How do you sort out what's good advice vs good advice for you and your situation?


Why Trust Me?

I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner when I was just 16 years old. Did my mom hover and help? Probably. But the dinner was mine and decades later, I remember sitting down to dinner with my family of four plus an aunt and uncle en route to Florida, with this immense feeling of pride and satisfaction.

These days, my husband and I usually cook three or four or even five turkeys at Thanksgiving, a dry-brined whole turkey inside in the oven, the rest in an outdoor oven called a "China box" which holds up to four whole turkeys.

So for anyone who's feeling stressed about their first turkey or maybe about cooking a whole turkey for a big gathering, you can do this, you really can!

And I'm here to help you think it through, so that when it comes to cooking, you'll feel like you've been cooking turkeys since you, too, were 16.

Let me start by being very direct.

  • IT'S NOT HARD TO COOK A WHOLE TURKEY Cooking a whole turkey isn't hard at all but it does take thinking through, step-by-step, considering your own turkey, pan, oven, kitchen and serving situation. Figuring out the thawing, brining, roasting, carving and cleanup elements ahead of time means there will be fewer last-minute surprises.
  • WET BRINE = MESSY & DISAPPOINTING The usual water-salt brine is a huge pain and the results are disappointing.
  • DRY BRINE = EASY WITH EXCELLENT RESULTS A dry brine is easy and yields superior results. A dry brine happens overnight, no attention required.
  • TURKEY GRAVY & STOCK ARE RECOMMENDED! You don't have to make homemade turkey gravy and homemade turkey stock but are worth the effort.

Why I Love This Recipe & Dry Brine Technique for Cooking a Whole Turkey

I love this simple recipe for cooking a turkey. It proves, once again, that simplicity outshines complexity. The benefits are simple to explain.

  • TIMING Most of us cook turkeys on Thanksgiving and heaven knows, Thanksgiving Day is hectic enough without dealing with an unwieldy uncooked turkey too. With this dry-brine technique, you wrangle with the raw turkey the day before it gets cooked and the dry brine does its work overnight. On the cooking day, you literally just put the turkey in the oven. It's that simple.
  • SIMPLICITY No wet brine complications. Just air, a little seasoning and time.
  • MOST OF ALL, THE COOKED TURKEY The white meat is moist and flavorful, the dark meat to die for. 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! People love the crispy skin on a dry-brined turkey!



Why Brine a Turkey in the First Place?

Modern-day turkeys are especially bred for big breasts, not for good flavor. Brining a turkey is supposed to add flavor and moisture to the cooked meat. There are two ways to brine a whole turkey (or any other meat, for that matter).

You don't have to brine a turkey at all but it's a step that for this turkey cooker, is worthwhile. But if you run short on time? Or just don't have the energy? No problem. Just season the turkey and chuck it in the oven.


Dry Brine (Simple) vs Wet Brine (Complicated)

Yes, I have a strong viewpoint on dry brine vs wet brine. It comes from experience!


  • DRY BRINE A "dry brine" is super simple. Just pat a turkey dry and then apply salt, pepper and any other seasonings you might like. Put the turkey into a roasting pan or onto a baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours. Now put it in the oven. Yes, that's it.

  • WET BRINE A "wet brine" is usually just called a "brine". In contrast to a dry brine, it's super-complicated.
  • For a wet brine, a liquid (usually water but some times apple juice or something else) and seasoning (apples, fruit, molasses, whole spices, etc) and salt (salt is essential, especially the right kind and right amount of salt) are combined and often brought to a boil, then cooled completely. Then the turkey soaks in the brine for a day, even a couple of days.
  • If you've ever seen a recipe that calls for soaking chicken breasts or a whole chicken in a salty liquid, that's a wet brine. Brining something small is easy (and worthwhile), just a bowl, some salted water and some time and the brining is done.
  • But even a small turkey is much bigger than a chicken. A turkey demands a huge bowl (or equivalent) and a huge amount of brine. Do you even have a container big enough to hold a turkey and the brine and then move it around without sloshing liquid all over the floor? And even then, where does it go? How is that enormous container going to fit in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours, especially when the fridge is already packed with Thanksgiving groceries and dishes that you've made ahead?
  • As you can see, I'm no fan of brining but just word to the wise, we have figured out how to do this with a combination of a cooler and ice. First make sure the cooler is big enough to hold ice and a turkey. While the preparing the brine, fill the cooler with ice and let it begin to melt (a combination of ice and icy water is easier to put a turkey into than just ice). Line the cooler with a clean heavy-duty garbage bag, you don't want to spring a leak. (And yes, I know, lots of people object to garbage bags because they're not food grade. But what else is big enough?) Put the turkey into the garbage bag breast-side down, make sure the cooler's lid will close. Then cover the turkey with the brine. Brine for whatever period you choose, a day, two days, etc. Store the cooler in your coolest spot, perhaps a garage. If it's cold enough outside, you can leave the cooler outdoors, just be sure it's out of the sun. Check the ice every few hours, adding more if it's needed. When it comes time to roast the turkey, carefully lift the slippery turkey out of the brine and discard the brine, preferably down the drain since it's got raw meat juice in it and will attract flies if just poured into the ground. Now cook it. See??? This is what it takes to brine a turkey and why I'm no fan.



All My Best Advice 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?

  • A PRACTICE RUN WON'T HURT If there's time, consider cooking a turkey before the big day. You'll work out all the kinks related to your particular situation and go into the big day with a big boost of experience and confidence.

  • AND YOU'LL BE READY FOR MAKING GRAVY And besides, you can use that first turkey to make a big batch of turkey stock which makes the very, very best turkey gravy. Having the stock done ahead of time makes it so very much less fuss at the last minute, trying to make gravy with the juices from a turkey that just came out of the oven. If there's no time/motivation to cook a whole turkey ahead of time, then consider cooking just a breast in the slow cooker, Slow-Cooker Turkey Breast. Then make Turkey Stock and from there, you can make Turkey Gravy.

  • SIZE MATTERS 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; you will need a heavy baking sheet to rest that disposable pan on, otherwise, oops, hot turkey on the floor.
  • One year, however, I "just made do" by putting two cookie sheets in the bottom of the oven to catch the juices out of that too-small roasting pan. 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 One year, 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 my recipe here. 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!

  • FROZEN VS NEVER-FROZEN TURKEYS Given the choice, pick the never-frozen turkey. Freezing changes the nature of the meat for chicken and turkeys in a way that it doesn't for beef and pork. One year, I bought and cooked so many chickens to teach myself how to fry chicken (see Rock-Star Fried Chicken) and the one choice that made the most difference was frozen vs never-frozen.

  • HOW TO SAFELY THAW A FROZEN TURKEY But if your turkey is frozen, don't worry, it'll be fine. But do allow several days (and better yet, a week) to safely thaw a turkey. That's because the only safe place to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator! There's just no way to keep the outer meat at a safe temperature while the deep interior thaws without even temperature. I allow a whole week to thaw a turkey!

  • HERITAGE VS GROCERY STORE TURKEYS I'll never forget the year we paid $80 for a turkey, actually $240 for three turkeys, yikes. Now I'm not begrudging the local farmer who spent an entire year and time and money bringing that heritage turkey to market but for us, it was an expensive nothing special. Do what works for you!

  • TIMING aka WHAT TIME DO YOU PUT THE TURKEY IN THE OVEN? For a four o'clock Thanksgiving dinner, I put the turkey into the oven 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!

  • CARVING THE TURKEY My best advice? Take charge of carving the turkey by putting somebody else in charge of carving the turkey. If you're the host, you have a thousand other details to worry about. That somebody might need to review YouTube videos, sharpen some knives, etc. Be sure to allow space allocate counter space for carving, the stovetop is likely busy, the island may well be set up for a buffet line. Have a big platter handy.
  • If you're going to make stock from the turkey carcass, have the stock pot right there while the turkey is carved. This gives the carver somewhere to put bones, skin, etc straight off. I usually prep the stockpot while the turkey's still in the oven. After dinner, once the carcass has been picked of all its meat for leftovers, here's how to make Turkey Stock.

  • THE TURKEY'S REST TIME IS YOUR FRIEND The turkey can/should rest for at least 30 minutes before carving and can rest for even longer, up to an hour, say. Just be sure to cover the turkey with foil, this helps retain the heat. During this time, the oven gets freed up for all the side dishes, the stove is free for

  • DISPOSAL DURING WARM WEATHER Everybody talks about cooking the turkey, never about what to do after dinner's over! My best advice? Make stock! Turkey stock is gold for soups and stews, later. And it freezes beautifully, see How to Freeze Stock in Canning Jars. But if you're not making stock, throw the carcass and all the leftover bits into a heavy garbage bag and freeze the entire bag until garbage day. This can prevent a huge stink!



How to Cook a Turkey the Day Before

For many reasons – convenience, timing, clean-up – some cooks prefer to cook the turkey the day before serving. Trouble is, turkey meat is just so moist and flavorful straight off the bird. My mother taught me this microwave trick, I remember it working like a charm.


THE DAY BEFORE, COOK THE TURKEY First, cook the turkey the day before, in the oven (recipe below), in the slow cooker, or however suits.


THE DAY BEFORE, SLICE & REFRIGERATE Now find a microwave-safe dish that’s small enough to fit into the microwave but large enough to hold as much turkey as will be needed for serving. Place a small microwave safe bowl or ramekin in the center of the dish but leave it empty for now. After the turkey has cooled a little, carve the turkey, slicing for servings. Arrange the meat in the dish around the bowl. Overlap the slices but don’t pile them higher than the rim. Cover with plastic wrap (not foil) and refrigerate.


SERVING DAY, REWARM THE SLICED TURKEY Before serving, fill the small bowl half full of water and reseal the plastic wrap on the microwave-safe dish (a tight seal is needed, you might need to replace the plastic wrap). Place in the microwave and heat on high until the meat is heated through, how long will vary depending on your microwave, how much meat there is, how cold the meat is before going in. Leave the plastic wrap over the turkey until just before serving, that way the meat stays hot. Then lift off and remove the water bowl to serve. That's it, so simple! The meat is moist and hot and perfect for serving.

Your Best Tips for Cooking a Turkey

What works for you? Experienced turkey cookers, what advice can you share with Kitchen Parade readers? Do you love the wet-brine process, that's okay, tell us why and how you do it? Do you use a special technique in the oven? Drop me an email or leave a comment, that way your experience can benefit others too!



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
  • 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 works too!)

DAY BEFORE ROASTING Cut off the plastic wrap and discard. 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 the sage, salt and pepper, then use your hands to rub the seasoning all over the bird. Place the bird in a roasting pan breast-side down and refrigerate uncovered overnight.

ROASTING DAY Heat 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 the turkey 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 the turkey 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 or apple cider 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!

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.
NUTRITION INFORMATION
BREAST MEAT Per 3oz (85g) cooked breast meat, no skin: 133 Calories; 2g Tot Fat; 1g Sat Fat; 58mg Cholesterol; 54mg Sodium; 0g Carb; 0g Fiber; 0g Sugar; 25g Protein. WEIGHT WATCHERS Old Points 3 & PointsPlus 3 & SmartPoints 3 & Freestyle 0

DARK MEAT Per 3oz (85g) cooked leg, thigh and other dark meat, no skin: 159 Calories; 5g Tot Fat; 2g Sat Fat; 72mg Cholesterol; 67mg Sodium; 0g Carb; 0g Fiber; 0g Sugar; 24g Protein. WEIGHT WATCHERS Old Points 4 & PointsPlus 4 & SmartPoints 3 & Freestyle 3
Adapted from Fine Cooking, Oct/Nov 2009 issue

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Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Quick Suppers are Kitchen Parade favorites and feature recipes easy on the budget, the clock, the waistline and the dishwasher. 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. Never miss a recipe! If you like this recipe, sign up for a free e-mail subscription. If you like Kitchen Parade, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture. If you make this recipe, I'd love to know your results! Just leave a comment below.

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Alanna Kellogg
Alanna Kellogg

A Veggie Venture is home of "veggie evangelist" Alanna Kellogg and the famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.

Comments

  1. 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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!

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  4. 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.

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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!

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  7. 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!

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  8. Can you explain your reasoning for cooking two smaller turkeys rather than one big turkey? I'm really curious. Thanks.

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  9. 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!

    ReplyDelete

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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