Genius Dry-Brined Turkey

Every week, Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: The simplest possible technique for a succulent turkey. It will forgive you if you overcook it. You can do it while you're defrosting the bird, if you so choose. And best of all, it tastes like turkey.

turkey

Six years ago, the L.A. Times Food Section held a turkey taste test that changed the way they (a lot of others) talk about Thanksgiving.

Under the vigilant eye of Russ Parsons -- longtime Food Editor at the paper and author of How to Read a French Fry -- four birds came to the table, and a simple new technique had the panel smitten.

The bird had been dry-brined (though the term "dry-brining" wasn't being tossed around much yet). In less-fancy words, a few tablespoons of salt had been sprinkled on it a few days ahead.

Because of this, the turkey was well-seasoned through and through, and had all the juiciness of your average wet-brined turkey, without its sometimes off-putting texture (we'll come back to that later). It tasted like turkey, but turkey having a very good day.

Parsons has written about the salting technique every Thanksgiving since, testing new variations each year and slashing steps he decides aren't important. The response has been glowing. By his count, he's received over 1,000 emails from happy cooks, and some of the most genius hacks have come from their suggestions.

So where had this turkey been all our lives? To find out, I had to get the story from the two clever cooks we have to thank for the recipe: one an editor, the other a chef. Without both parties, the world might never have known the wonder that is the Judy Bird.

Russ Parsons Judy Rodgers

Here's how it all went down:

Since the late 1980s, Judy Rodgers has dry-brined the famous roast chicken -- and just about everything else -- at Zuni Café in San Francisco. She learned the technique while cooking in Southwestern France and perfected it back in the States, meticulously trying it on everything from fish fillets to hamburgers to roasts, even some vegetables -- but never a turkey.

dry-brined turkey

Salting early doesn't dry these things out -- if timed and measured right, moisture is pulled out and back in again, and the process magically realigns the proteins so that they'll hold on tighter next time. I can tell you what this means to your mouth: juicy, tender food. As a bonus, it's salted all the way to its middle, not just on the surface.

This juice-retaining action is the same as with a wet brine, with one big difference: the wet version also draws in some of the surrounding water and makes everything vaguely ham-like. Juicy yes, and flavorful, but springy and tight in a way that doesn't smack of fresh meat. Not to mention the space concerns: wet brines are greedy things. Not only are you storing something in your fridge for several days, you're storing it in a vat of liquid.

Enter Parsons, circa 2006, who had quizzed Rodgers on her relationship with salt for various stories over the years. "I was casting about for Thanksgiving ideas and I wondered if something that worked for chicken might work for turkey." Parsons wrote to me in an email, "I called her and asked if she's ever tried it and she said no."

In fact, Rodgers had recommended a wet brine for turkey in the Zuni Café Cookbook in 2002, a recipe she's been using on pork chops since her days at Chez Panisse in the 1980s and had scaled up successfully for the big unwieldy bird. Though she has dry-brined plenty of geese and ducks (and more chickens than probably anyone on earth), the reason she never pursued turkey is simple.

"I'm just not a big turkey, Thanksgiving girl," Rodgers says. "A lot of chefs feel this way. At Zuni we still change the menu every day, and sometimes I taste 75 things in the course of a day, from oysters to desserts. So for me, Thanksgiving is a holiday from cooking and eating. If I don't have to plan a menu, I think, 'It would be really nice to just scramble some eggs'."

roasting turkey

So Rodgers consulted and Parsons got testing. "I tried it first with a 12-pounder and it worked great. Then I worked my way up," Parsons wrote. "When I talked to Judy, I think she was a little surprised … and maybe a little amused that I was so excited about it. I can get a little geeky."

Geeky like a fox. Since then, he's figured out, among other things, that you can brine a frozen bird as it defrosts in your refrigerator. And why wouldn't you?

Once you taste your very own Judy Bird, you can thank them both: the chef who'd rather not think about Thanksgiving at all, and the food editor whose job depends on it.

roasted dry-brined turkey

Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird)

Adapted slightly from The L.A. Times Food Section

Serves 11 to 15

One 12- to 16-pound turkey (frozen is fine)
Kosher salt
Herbs and/or spices to flavor the salt (optional -- see suggestions in step 1)
Melted butter for basting (optional)

1. Wash the turkey inside and out, pat it dry and weigh it. Measure 1 tablespoon of salt -- we used Diamond Crystal -- into a bowl for every 5 pounds the turkey weighs (for a 15-pound turkey, you'd have 3 tablespoons). You can flavor the salt with herbs and spices if you like -- try smoked paprika and orange zest, bay leaf and thyme, or rosemary and lemon zest. Grind together with the salt in a spice grinder, small food processor, or mortar and pestle.

2. Sprinkle the inside of the turkey lightly with salt. Place the turkey on its back and salt the breasts, concentrating the salt in the center, where the meat is thickest. You'll probably use a little more than a tablespoon.

3. Turn the turkey on one side and sprinkle the entire side with salt, concentrating on the thigh. You should use a little less than a tablespoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the opposite side.

4. Place the turkey in a 2 1/2-gallon sealable plastic bag, press out the air and seal tightly. (If you can't find a resealable bag this big, you can use a turkey oven bag, but be prepared for it to leak.) Place the turkey breast-side up in the refrigerator. Chill for 3 days, turning it onto its breast for the last day. Rub the salt around once a day if you remember.

5. Remove the turkey from the bag. There should be no salt visible on the surface and the skin should be moist but not wet. Place the turkey breast-side up on a plate and refrigerate uncovered for at least 8 hours.

6. On the day it is to be cooked, remove the turkey from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature at least 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

7. Pat it dry one last time and baste with melted butter, if using. Place the turkey breast-side down on a roasting rack in a roasting pan; put it in the oven. After 30 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and carefully turn the turkey over so the breast is facing up (it's easiest to do this by hand, using kitchen towels or oven mitts).

8. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, return the turkey to the oven and roast until a thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone, reads 165 degrees, about 2 3/4 hours total roasting.

9. Remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a warm platter or carving board; tent loosely with foil. Let stand at least 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute through the meat. Carve and serve.

Save and print the recipe on Food52.

This article originally appeared on Food52.com: Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird)

Photos by Nicole Franzen