A Thanksgiving turkey worth its salt
Is there a Thanksgiving bird that’s better than brined?For the last decade or so, many of us have soaked our turkeys in salt water for several days before roasting them. This isn’t weird; it really works. Birds that have been brined stay much moister than turkeys that have not.Still, there are drawbacks to the technique. You’ve got to find a bucket big enough to hold a turkey, and then you’ve got to find room in your refrigerator to store it.Is there a better way?Last Thanksgiving, we tried a steam-roasting technique in the Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen. Turkey baked in a covered roaster pan – the kind your grandma used – stays moist in a different way. During normal uncovered roasting, any juices that leak out of the bird are converted to steam by the hot pan and evaporate. Covering the pan reduces the amount of steam that gets away. A moist turkey with no advance preparation – we really liked that idea.And then there are those who swear by high-heat roasting for turkeys – they claim quick cooking keeps the meat moist and improves the flavor because of the improved browning.For the last year, I’ve been on a dry-salting craze. Almost every piece of protein that comes into my kitchen cures under a light sprinkling of salt for anywhere from an hour to several days before I cook it. Meat that is salted has a deeper, concentrated flavor. The texture is moist, but firm and more meaty.This technique is something I learned from Judy Rodgers, chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe. I’ve used it with fish fillets (an hour or so of curing), chicken, both parts and whole (eight hours to a couple of days), and even a beef tenderloin (several days). I call it “Judy-ing,” and it has worked wonders with everything I’ve tried. But how would it work with turkey, which is so much larger? Would the salt penetrate to the center of the breast and thighs? I was skeptical (and so was Judy when I asked her), but it was worth a try.
Thus was born the Great Turkey Smackdown of 2006: A contest with four turkeys, four ovens, four techniques: one brined, one steam-roasted, one high-heat-roasted and one “Judy-ed” with a salt cure.Turkeys are notoriously difficult to get right, even for experienced cooks.In the first place, they have two contradictory meats – white breast meat that dries out in a flash and dark leg meat that takes forever to get done. On top of that, they are huge, which magnifies any mistake in timing.Many cooks know about brining, which not only adds moisture to the bird and seasons it throughout but also helps the muscles hold on to that moisture during cooking.Salting works like brining, without the water. You just sprinkle the turkey with salt, then set it aside for four days for a 12- to 16-pound bird. At first, the salt pulls moisture from the meat, but as time passes, almost all of those juices are reabsorbed, bringing the salt along with them.For the Smackdown, we bought four fresh free-range turkeys about 15 pounds each. We started the two that needed advance preparation – salting one, brining the other – and stored them in 2 1/2-gallon sealable plastic bags.
For brining, we used a standard ratio of 2/3 cup salt to 1 gallon water. For the salting, we allowed 1 tablespoon of salt for every 4 pounds of turkey — just short of 1/4 cup – and concentrated the distribution on the thickest parts of the meat, the breast and the thigh.After three days, we removed both from their bags and let all four turkeys air-dry in the refrigerator overnight.On cooking day, we salted the two that had not been seasoned. We did not use stuffing.We started the brined and salted birds at 375 degrees, breast-side down. After 30 minutes, we flipped them and reduced the temperature to 325 degrees.Following the recipe, we started the covered-pan turkey at 425 degrees then turned it down to 325 degrees before removing the lid and browning the turkey at 350 degrees for the last half-hour.We simply roasted the high-heat turkey at 400 degrees, breast-side up, from beginning to end.None of the birds were basted. For all, we were aiming for a final temperature of 165 degrees measured in the deepest part of the thigh.The first surprise was an unpleasant one.
When we took the temperatures after two hours of cooking, the covered-pan turkey had already soared past 180 degrees – well past well-done. The other three turkeys finished cooking within a short time of each other – roughly three hours. The one roasted at high temperature ended up being done about 15 minutes faster than the birds roasted at the conventional temperature.We let the birds set for 30 minutes to finish cooking and enable the juices to redistribute evenly through the meat.
The best-browned bird was the one we had brined. It was very moist – both in the breast meat and in the thigh. And the flavor was good, not salty but well-seasoned throughout. However, it didn’t have the best texture – it was slightly spongy.The high-temperature experiment was not as successful. Far from solving the problem of doneness between dark and white meat, this magnified it. The flavor was fine, and the skin was brown and crisp. But the breast meat had started to dry out, while the dark meat was underdone – rubbery rare-poultry texture and pink juice in the hip joint.But the bird that was exciting was the one we had “Judy-ed.” This one had been cured in salt and was firm, meaty and smoothly dense. Though it was a bit too salty, the underlying flavor of the turkey was amazingly deep and full.Suddenly, my Thanksgiving menu plans took a turn. The “Judy-ed” bird, though it needed refinement to tone down the salt and crisp and brown the skin, was the clear Smackdown winner.To further refine the salt-cured turkey, we cooked it again, this time reducing the salt, allowing only 1 tablespoon for every 5 pounds of bird. To improve the browning, we started roasting the bird at 425 degrees for 30 minutes instead of 375 degrees. And we brushed half of the bird with melted butter before it went into the oven to see what effect that had on browning and flavor.It was right on the money.The salt-cured turkey was a gloriously brown all over – the side brushed with butter had a more golden color but there was no difference in flavor. The skin was crisp. The dark meat was firm and meaty and incredibly moist. After a half-hour’s sitting there was a flood of juice when I carved it. The white meat was only slightly less so.The problem with saltiness was solved. If anything, the breast meat could have used a little more for those of us with a salty palate. Next time, I might try upping the salt just a bit.This is a recipe that will evolve over time. Best of all, you don’t have to wrestle that brine-soaked bird out of the refrigerator. Vail Daily, Vail Colorado