I usually don’t care to write too much about my recipes. I like food blogs that are simple and to the point. I don’t really care to read posts from other bloggers that go on and on. I just want the recipe already! So, in my own blog I usually just write a few sentences and focus my energy on the recipe. In this case, I am writing about turkey. Hands-down the most iconic holiday food item. There is a lot that goes into a great turkey, and a lot that needs explaining. First off, let me tell you what I think is the number one mistake that cooks make when roasting and serving turkey: They care too much about what it looks like. There, I said it. Here is the deal: You can’t really carve a turkey at the table right? The juices run everywhere and let’s face it, none of us are really that good at it. Carving a turkey in front of a bunch of people on your best tablecloth? Not a great idea. That said, forget about perfectly bronzed skin and giant platters with Martha Stewart style gilded artichokes. Focus instead on the flavor, quality, and exceptional juiciness of the turkey you are going to serve. Bring it to the table carved. You’ll still get that “ooh and ahh” that you are hoping for, only it won’t be because of the beauty of the bird, but because of how delicious it tastes.
I first started to brine our Thanksgiving turkeys about four years ago. This was at a time when I was just starting to move toward a more natural, mindful way of shopping for food for my family. There is a huge difference between a certified humanely raised, free-range, fresh turkey, and a frozen “factory” turkey. It might surprise you that the free-range bird isn’t automatically better tasting. Most of us grew up eating a frozen Butterball so the taste and texture from our childhood memories are what we’re after when we start hosting our own Thanksgiving meals. The difference is this: A turkey from a huge producer like Butterball or Jennie-O has been living its whole life in a cage. Eating. It’s been fattened up on corn and has no musculature so it tastes juicy even if you cook the hell out of it. It tastes pretty good even if you do nothing but slap it into a roasting pan and throw it in the oven without doing a thing to it. It will even tell you when it’s done with that little weird red thing that pops up. A free-range bird has muscle. He’s leaner and often has thinner skin. He’s been living outdoors foraging and eating lots of different things so one turkey may taste slightly different than his neighbor. The dark meat is darker, the white meat, not always perfectly snowy. This is a real bird. New Season’s carries Diestel Ranch turkeys that are certified humane.
The purpose of brining is to impart flavor and juiciness to the turkey. The frozen Butterball probably doesn’t need to be brined, but I know from experience that it still adds a delicious, subtle flavor that’s worth the extra effort. So, you might be wondering, why bother with a free-range bird at all? The first reason would be your health. A free-range bird is healthier and more natural therefore it must follow that it is better for you. The second reason is because you are a humane person and you might sometimes feel guilty about eating meat. Assuage that guilt by buying a bird that has had a good life on a farm that didn’t need to use antibiotics because it was clean and well cared for. If you’re interested in educating yourself further and you have a strong stomach, I encourage you to google turkey factory farming. There, I’ve said my peace.
If your turkey is frozen, it will thaw at a rate of about 4 lbs. per day. So allow about three days of thawing time for a 12 pound turkey. If you forget to take it out ahead, you can thaw it in your sink in cold water in about 4-6 hours. Here is a helpful link to the USDA’s Food Safety page that goes into every detail of turkey safety.
Brine for a 12-16 lb. turkey (plan on buying about 1 lb. for every guest) :
- 7+ quarts of water, divided
- 1 C. Kosher salt
- 1/2 C. sugar
- 4 Bay leaves
- 2 t. whole mustard seeds
- 1/2 t. allspice berries
- 1 T. Herbes de Provence or a mixture of oregano, basil, and thyme
- 1/2 t. celery seeds
- 1 red onion
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 bottle white wine, I used Riesling
- 1 small head of garlic, smashed, no need to peel
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
A brine is basically a salt water solution. This recipe uses what I happened to have on hand. Could you substitute other herbs? Absolutely. Use what you like and make it yours. Try to stick to the water-salt-sugar ratio that I have used, but feel free to experiment with other flavors. First, heat a saucepan over medium heat with 1 quart of water, the salt, sugar and dry herbs until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Let the mixture cool. Line a large container, big enough to hold your turkey in with a plastic bag. This just makes the clean up easier. I used my canning pot and it held my 12 lb. turkey with room to spare.
In the past when I have done larger birds I have used a large bucket lined with plastic or even a clean cooler. Whatever you use needs to be kept cold, so it either has to fit in the fridge (we have a beer fridge in the garage that is perfect for this) or you need to keep it cold in a cooler with ice. It’s only 24 hrs, so just rig up a system that works for you for one day. In the pot throw in the sliced onions, the whole bottle of wine, the garlic, fresh thyme, and your turkey which you have rinsed with cold water and removed the giblets from the cavity. Pour the cooled salt water solution over the bird. Now continue to fill the pot with the rest of the water- about 6 more quarts, or until the bird is covered. If your bird is a lot bigger than 12 pounds, double this recipe and make sure the bird is submerged in the brine. Let the bird sit in the brine for about 24 hours. If some of it is poking out, turn the whole bird over once halfway through. This isn’t necessary if the bird is completely submerged. The next day, remove the bird from the brine about one hour before you want to get it into the oven. Use a clean dishtowel to wipe the brining herbs off of the bird and pat it thoroughly dry. Set it into a roasting pan and let it come up to room temperature for about an hour.
To Roast Your Turkey:
I like to take the onions and fresh herbs out of the brine and put them into the cavity of the bird for roasting. Skip this if you plan to stuff your bird. Discard the brine liquid. Place the bird on a roasting rack breast side up. Cross the legs over each other and secure them with kitchen twine.
This helps the bird to roast evenly. Do you have to do this? No. The legs could dry out if they have a lot of air circulating around them. Just do it because it will impress your mother-in-law. Tuck the wings under the bird- picture the turkey spreading it’s wings out and then putting them behind the back of his neck like he’s about to stretch out on the beach. This is the position that the wings should be in.
The weight of the bird will keep them in place. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Rub the turkey all over with 1/2 stick of softened butter – really softened butter. Sprinkle it with pepper- but no salt. The brine will provide all the salt you need.
Place the turkey in the oven for 30 minutes. The high heat will help to sear the skin and hold the juices in. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Roast for 30 minutes more. Take the turkey out of the oven and carefully turn the whole bird over, breast side down. This helps to self-baste and keep the breast meat juicy. It may mar the perfection of your bird’s appearance, but that bird is going to be so moist (I hate that word) you will not regret it. And besides, no one will see it but you because you are NOT going to present it whole at the table like some Hallmark TV movie. Continue to roast for another hour, basting halfway through. If the drippings are evaporating, add a little water to the bottom of the pan. At this point, check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. The turkey is done when it reads 165 degrees. If your turkey needs more time and it’s getting too brown, cover it with some loose foil. Continue to roast and baste checking the temperature every 30 minutes. Turn the turkey back over for the final 20-30 minutes so that the skin on the breast can crisp up. The turkey’s internal temperature will continue to rise after it comes out of the oven, so don’t over cook it. A 12-14 lb turkey should take about 3 hours to roast. See the USDA’s page to check roasting times for all bird sizes. When you take the turkey out of the oven, tent it with foil and leave it alone for at least 30-40 minutes. It will stay hot for at least an hour if it’s covered. Let all the juices set up and redistribute themselves. Don’t even think about carving it until it’s rested at least 40 minutes. It will be better, I promise! Place the turkey on a carving board and remove the legs. To carve the breast cut straight down, parallel to the breastbone, and remove the entire breast on each side. Slice the breast across its width for maximum juiciness. Here is a great Alton Brown how-to-carve video that makes it very easy. Brined turkeys make for salty drippings, so don’t add salt to your gravy unless you taste it first!
Enjoy your turkey, and Happy Thanksgiving!