Kitchen Shrink: Getting your bird grounded for Thanksgiving


The invasion is complete, and turkeys of all manners have landed. Growing up our moms pretty much had only one option – the iconic Butterball, gobbling up the turkey market and creating a monopoly of pre-basted-one-size-fits-all-bird factory-injected with a solution of water, salt, and assorted spices.

Catharine Kaufman
Catharine Kaufman

Now the breeds and types of fowls have swelled exponentially so that choosing the centerpiece for your holiday table is so mind boggling it’ll surely make feathers fly. The only thing both master chefs and rookie cooks can agree on (and pray for) is a tender, juicy, flavorful turkey — not the dreaded rubber ball that can be recycled for your next football toss.

Here are some sage tips for your holiday feast so that you don’t have to wing it.

For choosing the type of turkey, you better be an early bird and place your order pronto for a fresh turkey reserved for pick-up three days before Thanksgiving. Fresh beats frozen hands down as far as texture goes and ease of preparation, but if you do choose frozen then thaw with great care in the refrigerator in a shallow pan in its original wrapper, breast side up allowing 24 hours for every four pounds. (Double check your math calculations to ensure you won’t wake up to a partially frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning).

If you have a gender preference, keep in mind they both taste the same, but the female hens tend to be more delicate birds usually under 15 pounds, while Toms are big-boned boys with less meat to bone ratio. Now if you’re looking for an athletic type that embraces the great outdoors and munches on grubs and grass then choose free-range.

But if you want a bird that’s clean and sober then go for organic — free of hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, preservatives and additives, and fortified with a pristine, certified organic vegetarian diet. Tender, tasty kosher turkeys humanely slaughtered according to kashrut laws, and generously salted to extract excess blood have been gaining in popularly.

Just remember to go easy on the spices when preparing a kosher bird. If you really want to knock the socks off your dinner guests, spring for a heritage turkey like the Bourbon Red prized by the American Poultry Association for fine lineage, an elegant, elongated body, well-toned legs and wings, and a flavor nostalgic of its ancestral wild species.

Or for a hedge against inflation scope out a less-than-perfect utility bird that’s missing a leg or a wing, or prepare a bone-in breast or roasting chicken that won’t carve a big hole in your wallet.

Now with a bird in hand, what’s the next step? A couple of decades ago traditional wet turkey brining had become all the rage quickly evolving into a cottage industry of kits, coolers, cookbooks, heavy-duty leak-proof bags, and seasoning blends. Intrepid cooks across the land would drag out their beer coolers, and give the Thanksgiving turkey a three-day soak in a salty solution blended with an acidic liquid like vinegar or citrus juices, and load of seasonal herbs and spices.

By osmosis the magical brine would penetrate the fibers, breaking down tough proteins to create a tender, flavorful, moist bird, (like koshering). Today the dry brine method (sans the H2O) has gained much traction, proven to be just as effective as the wet one with less mess and stress. Simply concoct a salty, aromatic blend (recipe and method below), and generously rub into all nooks and crannies until well-coated.

You can also whip up a compound if you prefer a rich, melt-in-your mouth flavor by mixing softened butter with crushed garlic, cracked black pepper, Himalayan pink salt, and a handful of “Scarborough Fair’s” parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Then rub over the bird, even under the skin of the breast meat.

As for the roasting part — low, slow and steady is the new school of turkey thought. And please don’t stuff the cavity as this pulls juices from the meat, and ups the ante for foodborne illnesses. Instead toss an onion, quartered lemon, and bouquet of fresh herbs in the cavity before roasting.

Tent the bird with foil, (remove during last few minutes of roasting), crank up the heat to 425 degrees Fahrenheit to get things started, then down to 325 degrees for the duration until it reaches a safe internal temperature of 175 degrees Fahrenheit at the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone. Slathering vermouth on the skin toward the end of roasting will ensure a golden glaze thanks to the sugars in the fortified wine. When done, let the turkey nap for 20 minutes so the juices settle in nicely, making it easier to carve.

Happy brining!

Roast Turkey
Roast Turkey
(Courtesy of Chef Bernard Guillas)

Recipe: Aromatic Dry Brine for Roast Turkey


• 1/4-cup kosher salt

• 1-tablespoon raw sugar

• 1-teaspoon ground black pepper

• 1-tablespoon dried fennel seeds

• 1-tablespoon dried orange peel

• 1-tablespoon dried parsley

• 1-teaspoon dried sage

• 1-teaspoon dried thyme

• 1/2-teaspoon dried ginger powder

• 1/2-teaspoon smoked paprika

• 1 free-range or organic turkey, 18 pounds

• 2 to 3 sticks softened, unsalted butter

Method: Combine ingredients in large mixing bowl. Pat dry turkey inside out with paper towels. Generously sprinkle dry brine mixture over turkey skin and inside the cavity. Place turkey breast side up in roasting pan on rack. Refrigerate 24 to 36 hours uncovered. Pat dry to remove excess brine. Spread butter over skin before roasting.

— Recipe courtesy of Chef Bernard Guillas