Talking turkey

How to brine and roast a turkey

November 10, 2008

Whether your turkey this Thanksgiving season is small (8 pounds) or enormous (20 pounds), there are plenty of ways to take it from raw to succulent.

Gearheads, you have plenty of options, ranging from the deep fryer to the smoky grill to the infrared cooker. And if Jeffrey Steingarten (in It Must’ve Been Something I Ate) could have his druthers, we’d all be cooking our birds the medieval way, turned slowly and cooked evenly on a spit.

But most of us will stick to ye olde kitchen oven, propping the bird on a rack in a roasting pan and cooking it for a few hours till done.

Confronted with the heavy duty of roasting an entire bird to feed a crowd, newbie turkey chefs often dig out lots of cookbooks and magazines, trying to suss out the best roasting recipe. But of course, no two publications ever offer the same roasting advice.

The Joy of Cooking and The New Basics Cookbook, for example, will tell you to roast at 325 degrees. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition), on the other hand, likes to roast at 350 degrees, while Cook’s Illustrated magazine wants you to roast that baby at 400 degrees.

Bittman, along with such magazines as Gourmet and Food & Wine, likes to pour water or stock into the roasting pan, beneath the V-rack holding up the bird, to produce steam and make sure the bird stays moist. Some authorities suggest lining the rack with foil; others suggest using that foil to tent the top of the bird instead. Some tell you to rub the bird with butter, some say to skip the butter and just baste as you go, and some endorse buttering and basting. Some want you to flip the bird partway through, to ensure the breast meat doesn’t get overcooked; others rely on the foil tent to keep the bird from drying out.

That whole dry-bird thing gets people in a dither every year. Basting? Tenting? Brining beforehand? Mitchell Davis, in Kitchen Sense, dismisses brining as a fad, saying that so long as you don’t cook your bird too long, dryness shouldn’t be a problem:

Everyone is so paranoid about salmonella and other bacteria and food-borne illnesses associated with poultry that we overcook all of our birds just to be safe. The truth is that these bacteria are killed at 160 degrees, so as long as you cook your meat to that temperature, and you clean your work area and utensils after handling raw poultry to avoid cross-contamination, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

The other food-safety worry at Thanksgiving, of course, comes up over stuffing, which if left unattended and warm (instead of hot or cold) for too long can become a bacterial festival. Bake your stuffing in a casserole dish instead of inside the bird and just use extra stock if you like your stuffing moist.

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If you insist on an authentically stuffed bird, though, just remember that the bird will finish cooking before the stuffing does, so you’ll probably need to scoop the stuffing out (use a big silicone glove to protect your hand from the hot insides of the bird) and finish baking it separately.

Gravy fans should also keep in mind the fact that stuffing inside a bird will soak up the meaty juices that usually drip into the roasting pan — a problem if you like to make your gravy with pan drippings while the cooked bird is resting and cooling before getting carved. Solve this problem (and avoid last-minute stovetop stress) by making your gravy ahead of time and simply reheating it when you’re ready to serve the turkey.

And for those of you who attend the Church of Brining — because it sure makes for a tender, tasty bird — here’s a quick photo essay on turkey-brining basics. For proportions and specific instructions, see the recipe for Brined and Roasted Turkey.

turkey for brining
If you have a small turkey, you can brine it in a large stockpot. Otherwise, thoroughly clean a cooler (you know, the kind you use for camping) and brine the bird in it; bleach out the cooler afterwards.

salt and herbs for brining
Salt is a must in brining; fresh herbs are optional.

salting the water
Cover the bird with water, then add salt.

herbs in brine
Add herbs, then use your hands to turn the bird over several times and distribute the herbs and dissolve the salt.

buttering the turkey
Rinse the bird off when the brining is done and pat it dry; let it air-dry, uncovered, in the fridge if you want a crispier skin. Then rub butter all over the bird, making sure to get under the skin.

roasted turkey
The finished product.

Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor.

There are 11 comments on this item
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1. by Susy on Nov 10, 2008 at 1:06 PM PST

I usually add some cider to my brine and I add a few chopped apples inside the bird - yum yum. I bought a pastured organic turkey this year from a local farm, can’t wait to try it!

2. by Hank Sawtelle on Nov 10, 2008 at 7:34 PM PST

I’ve always liked this method from the NY Times: High-Heat Roasting Makes Tom Turkey A Bird of Paradise

3. by Fasenfest on Nov 11, 2008 at 7:00 PM PST

Mom used to melt shortening in a pan and then soak cheesecloth in it. Once the cheesecloth and shortening (lard or butter would be fine) was cool enough to handle she would drape it over the turkey at the beginning of roasting. The infused cheesecloth would distribute the fat slowly and keep the turkey shielded a bit from the heat.
She would take it off for the last hour of roasting and let the baby brown. And she would baste through the cheesecloth for the entire roasting time. Seems to work. Her turkeys where always moist. I skipped the process a few years but think I’m going back to it this year.

4. by GraceAnn Walden on Nov 12, 2008 at 11:40 AM PST

There are so many misstatements about roasting a turkey, it’s hard to know where to begin.

I have been roasting delicious, moist turkeys for 50 years.

Brining just makes it salty. I have never had the stuffing NOT cook thoroughly inside the turkey. I baste the last 1/2 hour, because I stuff butter and herbs under the skin, so it self-bastes. Tented until then.

I do make extra stuffing and sprinkle it with stock and cook it separately. Not as good as the stuffing that comes from inside.

Gravy is easy and only good made from the pan drippings, which should have onion, celery, 1 cloves garlic, 1 bay and a couple of carrots in it.

Separate fat, puree vegies, make gravy.

5. by Molly Rush on Nov 2, 2009 at 6:10 AM PST

I have never brined a turkey because i have heard that you cant stuff there anyway that i can brine and still stuff?

6. by Caroline Cummins on Nov 5, 2009 at 11:18 AM PST

So far as I know, there’s no reason why you can’t stuff a brined turkey. Once you rinse off the brine and pat it dry, your bird will look and feel just like any other raw turkey, so go ahead and stuff it if you feel like it.

7. by Chef Basket on Nov 17, 2010 at 5:19 PM PST

Thanks for the post explaining how to brine and roast a turkey. I’m intrigued by the brining process and may try it on this year’s turkey.

8. by anonymous on Dec 19, 2011 at 9:15 AM PST

We started brining our turkeys about 15 years ago ... we could never, ever go back to a regular turkey now. We have tried it with fresh, organic and frozen ... brined and not brined. Brining wins hands down. Even our sons ask us every year “dad’s brining the turkey, right?”. It just tastes so amazing. If worried about salt ... just use less, we use quite a combo brine which includes maple syrup, soy, herbs, garlic, etc. Amazing! I still do not know if you can stuff a brined turkey or not, and if not - why not. Can’t seem to find the answer to this anywhere.

9. by GraceAnn Walden on Dec 19, 2011 at 10:43 AM PST

Read food expert Harold McGee on brining:

And you cannot use the pan juices for gravy.GraceAnn Walden

10. by Redbud9 on Nov 22, 2012 at 6:33 AM PST

I could not disagree more about brining. I thought the difference with a brined bird was remarkable. I will never served an “UNbrined” turkey again!

11. by Angela on Nov 22, 2012 at 9:45 PM PST

I’m surprised at the negative comments about brining. Especially from Mr. McGee. Obviously he has never had one done properly. I HATE salty tastes, and have never had the bird or gravy turn out “salty” after brining. We started brining for Thanksgiving 5 years ago, and the kids insist on it now.

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