Google “How to cook a turkey,” and you’ll find some 563,000,000 answers.
Some cooks swear by a wet brine; many love a dry rub. Some spatchcock, some glaze with honey, some eschew the oven for the grill. Some roast high, around 500 degrees, while others vouch for lower, steadier heat, closer to 350 degrees.
After more than 20 years of writing about Thanksgiving turkey recipes, I figured I had seen everything. And then, food writers everywhere started talking about the “Judy Bird.”
I can’t claim the namesake recipe — it was inspired by the cult-popular chicken-cooking technique of Judy Rodgers, the late chef and owner of San Francisco’s Zuni Café. While many roasted turkey recipes contain loads of ingredients, this one couldn’t be simpler. Salt the turkey a few days in advance while it’s still frozen, give it a massage every so often to redistribute the salt, and then roast it.
“The results are phenomenal,” writes Russ Parsons, the former food writer of the Los Angeles Times, who first wrote about the recipe. “Without the fuss and mess of wet-brining, you still get the deep, well-seasoned flavor. And while wet-brining can sometimes lead to a slightly spongy texture, with dry-brining, the bird stays firm and meaty.”
The results speak for themselves, for the first week the recipe ran, Parsons received more than 200 e-mails about it, many of them saying it was the best bird they’d ever cooked. And it has become my go-to turkey recipe every Thanksgiving.
Dry-Brined Roast Turkey
Serves 11 to 15
This turkey has concentrated flavor and is delicious as it is, but feel free to add other herbs and spices if you like. Try a pinch of smoked paprika and orange zest, bay leaf and thyme, or rosemary and lemon zest. Mince them with the salt in a small food processor or finely chop them and combine them in a bowl with the salt before sprinkling over the turkey.
1 12- to 16-pound turkey (frozen is fine)
Herbs and spices, for flavoring the salt (optional)
Melted butter, for basting (optional)
1. Wash the turkey inside and out, pat it dry, and weigh it. Measure 1 tablespoon of kosher salt into a bowl for every 5 pounds the turkey weighs (for a 15-pound turkey, you’d have 3 tablespoons).
2. Sprinkle the inside of the turkey lightly with salt. If it is still frozen, sprinkle whatever you can into the cavity. Place the turkey on its back and salt the skin of the breasts, concentrating the salt in the center, where the meat is thickest. You’ll probably use a little more than a tablespoon.
3. Turn the turkey on one side and sprinkle the entire side with salt, concentrating on the thigh. You should use a little less than a tablespoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the opposite side.
4. Place the turkey in a 2½–gallon re-sealable plastic bag, press out the air and seal tightly. Place the turkey breast-side up in the refrigerator. Chill for three days, turning it onto its breast for the last day. Rub the salt around once a day if you remember. Liquid might collect in the bag as you go—this is normal.
5. For the crispiest skin, the night before, remove the turkey from the bag. There should be no salt visible on the surface, and the skin should be moist but not wet. Place the turkey breast-side up on a plate and refrigerate uncovered for at least 8 hours.
6. On the day it is to be cooked, remove the turkey from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature at least 1 hour (do not rinse—it’s not needed, and rinsing will make the skin less crispy). Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
7. Pat the turkey dry one last time and baste with melted butter if using. Place the turkey breast-side down on a roasting rack in a roasting pan; put it in the oven. After 30 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and carefully turn the turkey over so the breast is facing up (it’s easiest to do this by hand, using kitchen towels or oven mitts).
8. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, return the turkey to the oven and roast until a thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone, reads 165 degrees, about 2¾ hours total roasting. Note that because a dry-brined turkey cooks more quickly than one that hasn’t been brined, it’s best to check the temperature early with this recipe — it may be done faster than you think.
9. Remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a warm platter or carving board, and tent loosely with foil. Let stand at least 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute through the meat. Carve and serve.
— Adapted from the Los Angees Times and Food52.com
For a successful turkey, follow these top tips
1. Figure on 1 to 1½ pounds of turkey per person. Stay on the high side of the estimate if you are planning on leftovers. If you’re planning on a big crowd, roast two smaller turkeys (12 pounds or less) instead of one large one. Smaller turkeys fit better in the fridge and roasting pan, plus they cook more quickly and evenly.
2. Keep the stuffing on the side. Cooking the stuffing in the turkey can provide fertile ground for the growth of harmful bacteria. Also, a stuffed turkey will take longer to cook, which could result in drier white meat. Instead, loosely fill the turkey with aromatics such as onions, fruits and herbs, and cook the stuffing separately.
3. Tie the legs together. To help ensure that poultry cooks evenly, many professional cooks like to truss their birds, which is just a fancy term for tying them up. While it’s not a necessary step in cooking a terrific turkey, it keeps the legs from splaying. Tuck the wings of the turkey under the body and loosely tie the legs together with kitchen string. Tying them too tightly can prevent the thighs from cooking evenly, and puts the breast meat in jeopardy of overcooking while the legs take their time.
4. Rub the turkey with butter or oil. Before putting it in the oven, make sure the skin of the turkey is as dry as possible and then rub it all over with butter or oil. For even moister meat, place pats of butter under the skin.
5. Invest in a quality pan. The best pan for cooking a turkey is a heavy-duty roasting pan with about 2-inch high sides. Heavy-gauge metal helps keep the drippings from burning. Look for a stainless-steel finish on the pan’s interior: nonstick makes for easy cleanup, but the dark color does make drippings more prone to burn.
6. Skip the basting. Basting means repeatedly opening the oven door, which results in temperature fluctuations that can dry out the turkey. Instead, keep the turkey moist by brining it ahead of time or by rubbing it all over with butter or oil.
7. Avoid scorching. If the bird is browning quickly but not near its target doneness temperature of 165°F, tent it loosely with foil and continue roasting. If the drippings seem to be getting too dark, add a couple of tablespoons of water to keep them from burning.
8. Invest in a good meat thermometer. Check for doneness by inserting an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey around the thigh, avoiding the bone. When it registers 165° F, it is safely cooked. The turkey will continue to cook as it rests, so the temperature should rise another 10 degrees or so out of the oven.
9. Give it a rest. To lock in juices, tent your turkey with foil and let it rest for at least 15 to 20 minutes before carving. Be sure not to cover the turkey too tightly as the bird will steam under the foil.