Stop Ruining Your Turkey (Dry-Brined Turkey and Herb Butter Recipe)

I know what you’re about to do. You’re going to scroll past the preamble down to the recipe, because every food blogger on the planet spends twenty pages telling you some pointless, rambling story before getting to the only reason you ever clicked on their link in the first place.

But I have valuable information for you before we get to the recipe.

Corn growing in a field, with decorative harvested corn in a basket in the foreground.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I’ve known a lot of people in my life who say they hate turkey, yet they still cook it every single Thanksgiving. Usually the main complaint is that it’s too dry. Many of these people are in my own family of origin and despite my interest in breaking the “traditional” way of cooking the turkey and do it right, that turkey still got basted, still had stuffing stuck inside of it, and still turned out dry.

Well, I’m married and cooking my own turkey these days and I can make turkey my own way. Now I can tell you everything you’re doing wrong and hopefully we can save these poor birds from desecration.

DO NOT open the oven. You won’t be able to tell how done the turkey is from a look. All you’re doing is letting heat and moisture escape, which will lengthen cooking time and further dry out the meat. A thermometer is your only way to check how done it is.

DO cover your turkey. If you have a small turkey or a very large dutch oven, this is a wonderful way to do it. Otherwise, creating a tin foil tent and keeping that sucker sealed up tight is the next best thing.

DO NOT stuff your turkey. No. NO. Get that stuffing away from that turkey right now or so help me… The stuffing will add extra cooking time to your turkey, wick moisture out of the meat, and increase the the chances of food poisoning by creating a nice, insulated, moist place for bacteria to survive. At best, you’ll end up with soggy stuffing. Yuck.

DO put aromatics inside your turkey. A handful of parsley or sprigs of rosemary are perfect. Maybe a few roughly chopped raw cranberries. You could also take half a lemon, squeeze some of the juice in, then quarter it and set those inside. Whatever you pick, it should have a strong flavor and scent and leave plenty of air space for cooking around it. Your stuffing can go in another pan, cooked with drippings from the turkey. (Also, this should go without saying but: don’t eat your aromatics.)

DO NOT start out with the heat high and then lower it later. I’ve seen a lot of recipes along those lines and it’s just a terrible way to cook a lean meat like turkey. The idea is that you’re searing the outside of the turkey to get a golden brown skin and to lock in moisture, but searing with hot air doesn’t work the same way as searing against a hot pan. Plus, the skin won’t be crispy if it gets roasted at the beginning instead of the end.

DO cook at a low temperature, slowly. You’ll remove the foil at about the halfway point in cooking and the skin will brown up just fine.

DO NOT baste. Most of those drippings at the bottom of the pan aren’t fats, so aren’t going to have the desired effect. You’re basically just washing down the skin, which is unlikely to penetrate the meat to add moisture back to it. Adding moisture during cooking is pretty difficult, so your goal instead should be to preserve moisture. The dry brine does the heavy lifting on that part.

DO butter your turkey. Yes, butter it. Before you cook it, dry the outside of the turkey and then cover it with herb butter (recipe below). At the halfway point when I uncover the turkey to let it start browning, I like to take some more melted butter and brush it on. Unlike basting or starting your turkey at a high temperature, this actually creates a moisture barrier to reduce the amount lost from the meat, while also browning up the skin and essentially frying it in place. Delicious.

A rolled up napkin awaits on an elegantly set dinner table.

Photo by Libby Penner on Unsplash

I have had people express concern to me over all the salt in the brine and adding butter to the turkey. “Isn’t that unhealthy?” Look. You’re celebrating the genocidal theft of a continent from Indigenous people by stuffing yourself with mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, mac and cheese, bread, wobbly jellied cranberries in the shape of a tin can, and then following it all with pie. Putting a little extra salt and butter on a lean meat is the least of your worries here.

And finally, if you genuinely dislike turkey? If it’s not a matter of it being dried out, but you simply dislike the flavor? If you do not ever seek out sliced turkey on a sandwich? If turkey gravy is in no way enticing to you over chicken? Don’t cook a turkey. Just don’t. There are other meats, there are vegan options, there are so many other things you could be eating instead. Only eat turkey if you want to eat turkey. Tradition should serve us, not the other way around.

Now onto the only reason you ever clicked on this link in the first place.


Dry-Brined Turkey and Herb Butter

A close up picture of a mouth-watering roasted chicken with golden brown skin.

Ingredients

  • 1 fresh or thawed turkey
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon dried sage
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon cloves

Directions

  • Unwrap the turkey and remove giblets. Rinse with cold water, then pat dry. Combine 1/3 cup salt, sugar and 1 teaspoon pepper in a bowl. Rub all over the turkey and inside the cavity. Wrap tightly in a bag (a garbage bag honestly works quite well) and put on a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight. Rinse well and pat dry.
  • The night before roasting, mix the butter, parsley, sage, thyme, 1 teaspoon pepper, the paprika and cloves until combined. Let this sit overnight for the flavors to fully blossom. Reserve 4 tablespoons of the butter, then rub the rest under the skin on the breasts and legs, inside the cavity, and finally on the outside of the skin. Save the rest of the butter for brushing on the turkey while it cooks and your gravy. Place your aromatics inside the turkey. Let the turkey sit at room temperature 30 minutes before you begin roasting.
  • Put the oven rack in the lowest position; preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Put the turkey breast-side up on a rack in your pan, tucking the wing tips under. Cover with lid or tin foil, tightly. Cooking time should be 15 minutes per pound. At your estimated halfway point in cooking, remove the lid or tin foil and brush on two tablespoons of your reserved butter.
  • Turkey is done when a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees F. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest at least 30 minutes before carving. Drippings from the pan can be used in gravy and dressing, which you’ll have plenty of time to prepare while the turkey rests. Whisk the remaining 2 tablespoons flavored butter in your gravy.

The actual spices you use in the brine can be mixed up, of course. I’m pretty fond of rosemary and citrus, but parsley, sage, and thyme are traditional. For a less traditional take, five-spice powder on turkey is amazing. Make sure whatever aromatics you put inside the turkey go with the other spices you’ve chosen.

Unless you or someone you’re cooking for has an actual aversion to flavor (some people do!), don’t cut back on the amount of spices. A turkey is a very large bird and requires a lot of seasoning, yet most people chronically under-season theirs.

There you have it. You have absolutely no excuse to cook another dry, bland bird this year unless that’s what you’re into.

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