turkey time twenty-ten

Last year it was brined and high-temp-roasted.  The year before it was brined, air-dried, and spun around and around on the rotisserie.  The year before was my first year on the rotisserie; I burned the turkey because I hadn’t figured out how to configure the burners on my gas grill.  (Turns out when you have a front-to-back three-zone grill you leave the middle one off.)

This all goes to support the fact that, for a fairly traditional family, I’m given a lot of leeway with turkey techniques.  There are some guidelines, though — the turkey needs to be served whole, no off-the-wall flavors, no deep frying.  Even though I have a Sous Vide Supreme (and I love it), I can’t take apart the bird and cook it in parts (though I know how good this would come out, the family likes to see the bird presented whole on the table).

In the run-up to this Thanksgiving, there has been a lot of mumblings about dry-brining.  Dry-brining is really more akin to koshering than it is to traditional wet-brining.  Kosher salt (about 1 TB per 5 pounds of bird) is sprinkled all over the turkey. (Arguments abound over whether applying under skin is necessary; I don’t think it is.) The bird is bagged up (I used a Zip-Loc “big bag”) and refrigerated for a time.  Some people say a day is sufficient and others say less than three is actually detrimental.  I think the finding the sweet spot requires careful observation.  The salt initially draws water out of the turkey and you notice juices in the bag.  (If you were to cook the bird now it would turn out very dry.) Give the turkey a couple of turns and flips at this point to keep the salty juices basting the bird.  Eventually, the juices get drawn back into the turkey with the salt you applied.  The salt seasons the meat and denatures the proteins, allowing them to retain juices better without filling them up artificially with water like wet-brining does.  In reality, you haven’t used more salt than you normally would, so this method also allows you to use pan drippings for a gravy — something you can’t do with a brined turkey, whose pan juices tend to be overly salty.

It’s not all prep, though — the roasting technique is important, too.  Some good ideas are floating around in the blogosphere and mainstream food sections.  First, Harold McGee suggests in the NY Times to ice the turkey breasts as the dark meat comes to room temperature.  This produces a dark/white temperature differential which gives the dark meat a head start before it gets into the oven.  J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of The Food Lab (on Serious Eats) suggests preheating your roasting pan to conduct more heat to the dark meat, again with the purpose being to get the dark meat to 170F at the same time that the breasts reach 160.  I’ll be doing both of these things — we’ll see how they affect doneness, though they both sound as if they make sense thermodynamically.

Finally, I’ll be making an herb butter to run under the skin of the turkey.  Sage, thyme, butter, black pepper.  No salt required due to the dry-brine.

I’ll be reporting back on the success of these new-to-me techniques.  I hope Thanksgiving is full of good food, family, and fun for all!

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