Here’s the thing about the Thanksgiving turkey: There’s a lot of pressure for the person making it. You’ve got to time the cooking just right so it’s actually done by the allotted time everyone has agreed to eat. Then there’s the jostling of side dishes needing oven space at some point to warm up or cook.
You don’t want dry turkey, but that’s a heck of a lot better than undercooked turkey, which is everyone’s Thanksgiving nightmare. The turkey can be brined, smoked, fried or roasted. You can stuff it with dressing or not. You can buy fresh, frozen, organic, or the 19-cent special the day before Thanksgiving. There are a lot of do’s and don’ts, and it’s all a little stressful to figure out.
I remember the very first time I cooked a turkey. I was in my early 20s and decided to cook a pre-Thanksgiving dinner for my friends and roommates. I think I was on the phone with my mother every 15 minutes asking questions, trying to describe what I was seeing and smelling so she could help me with each step. This was long before FaceTime and Skype; her help was dependent on what I was able to describe. Thankfully, the turkey was edible. Nothing to write home about, but paired with mashed potatoes, no one complained.
I loved making the turkey, though, and it was a tiny bit of a competitive goal to come up with a recipe that would wow. A few years ago, I stumbled across a recipe in Bon Appetit magazine for a turkey dry brine. It was a total game changer. The dry brine, which is a simple mixture of salt, sugar, peppercorns and a few other flavors, gets liberally rubbed all over the turkey the night before. In the morning, you simply rinse the brine off the turkey before seasoning (which we will talk about) and roasting. It’s one small, easy step that adds big flavor and tenderness to the meat.
For the following recipe and steps, I used an 18-pound turkey. Adjust your proportions and cooking times based on the weight of your turkey. A quick Google search will show you exactly how long to cook your bird based on its weight, but as a rule of thumb you want about 20 minutes per pound.
• Andrea McCoy writes the column Kitchen Captivated for Yakima Magazine and at The Salt and Stone, a home cooking blog. The Salt and Stone is a nod not just to the essence of cooking, but also to the Yakima Valley. Read more at www.thesaltandstone.com.
Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
For the Peppercorn
and Citrus Dry Brine:
1/4 cup mixed peppercorns (black, pink, white)
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
6 bay leaves
1/2 cup coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Zest of 2 lemons
Zest of 1 orange
You can find mixed peppercorns at several grocery stores in town, the bulk bins are a good spot to check. But if for some reason you can’t find tri-colored peppercorns, just use black ones. It will still taste great.
In a small skillet combine peppercorns, coriander seeds and bay leaves. Heat skillet over medium heat, gently shaking the pan to move the ingredients around until fragrant (about 2-3 minutes). Turn heat off and allow to cool slightly. Pour mixture into a Ziplock bag and, using a rolling pin, crush the bag until the mixture is all about the same size as the coarse salt.
In a bowl, combine peppercorn mixture, salt, sugar, lemon and orange zest. Mix to combine.
For the turkey:
Peppercorn and citrus dry brine
1 cup softened butter
2 lemons quartered
1 sweet onion quartered
1/4 cup mixed fresh herbs such as rosemary, chives and thyme
2-3 teaspoons kosher salt divided
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
The night before you plan to cook your turkey, make sure it’s completely thawed. Remove innards and pat skin dry with paper towels. Place on a baking sheet or pan. Make your dry brine and liberally coat the entire bird with the brine. Make sure to do all sides of the bird, massaging the ingredients into the skin. Cover with foil and refrigerate over night.
In the morning, rinse dry brine from the turkey using cold water. Pat the turkey dry with paper towels and set it in a roasting pan.
In a small bowl, combine softened butter with about 1/4 cup fresh minced herbs. I used rosemary, chives and thyme but you could use sage, parsley or whatever other herb you prefer. I do, however, strongly recommend you use fresh herbs. Set aside a few stalks of each herb to stuff inside the bird. Sprinkle herb butter mixture with
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and a pinch of black pepper.
Using clean hands, massage butter into turkey. Make sure to separate the skin from the breast and rub butter between the skin and meat. Use all the butter mixture, coating the entire bird. Stuff the bird with one lemon, cut in half and the small bundle of fresh herbs you set aside.
In the bottom of the roasting pan, combine chicken stock and white wine. Quarter onion and lemon and spread in the bottom of the pan. Generously salt and pepper the turkey one last time. Cover the roasting pan in tinfoil creating a tent over the turkey so it can simultaneously steam and cook. Roast the bird in a 350 degree oven for about four hours.
Remove tin foil the last hour to allow the bird to get its beautiful golden brown and crispy skin. When you remove the foil, baste the bird with drippings from the pan. When the bird reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees it is finished cooking. Remove from oven and quickly cover in tin foil again. Allow to rest for 20 minutes before carving. Carve bird and serve. Save leftovers in airtight containers.