Classic Post: The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe
Note: Writing holiday posts has always been a challenge, because for a number of years, even before starting The Best Food Blog Ever, I have always stayed true to the same recipes. And while tradition once again trumps innovation for this holiday season, when I started to consider how many new followers on Twitter and new readers I’ve gained over three years, it just made sense to repost my entry for roast turkey because, hey, it’s going to be new for someone out there. First published here in 2008, and you’ll probably see it come around again at this time next year, and the year after that.
I promised to post the Thanksgiving recipes in time for Christmas, so here’s the final, and probably the most critical, one. As I’ve already mentioned, this roast turkey recipe is a blend of different preparations that I’ve used over the past few years. I’ve taken the best aspects of every preparation that I’ve used, and this is the result.
When I first decided on a recurring holiday turkey recipe, I started out by using a liberal application of herbed butter under the skin of the bird, which does a better job of flavoring the meat than basting or cavity aromatics would. If you think about it, basting merely flavors the skin, and no matter how often you ladle pan drippings over the roast, those drippings do nothing but run down the outside of the bird back into the pan. Psychologically, it’s satisfying, but technically basting accomplishes nothing since the skin acts as a barrier. The same is true for stuffing things into the turkey’s cavity – no matter what you put in there, the meat will still be shielded from the aromatics by the bone structure of the bird, so the effect is minimized.
Using an under-the-skin application of herbed butter achieves two goals – it flavors the skin from beneath, and it also imparts a wonderful flavor to the meat below. So, that’s the approach that I used for years, until I discovered brining, and now I use a brine-and-butter approach.
Brining takes the notion of flavoring the meat one step further, by immersing the bird in a salt and sugar solution for approximately 1 hour per pound. Take note, though, that you should never attempt to brine what is sold as a “self-basting” turkey – which has already been injected with a saline solution, and which will turn out inedibly salty if you elect to brine it further. Additional flavors are added to the brine according to the results that you’re seeking – the brine carries these flavors deep into the meat of the turkey. From a scientific standpoint, the brining solution breaks up the fibers of the meat, resulting in increased tenderness, and the retained moisture from a good, long brine will translate to juicier meat. I highly recommend using a brining bag, but you could use any food-safe heavy duty plastic bag if you need to.
So, here is the holiday roast turkey recipe. The butter mix comes from a past issue of one of my cooking magazines, which I can’t recall after so many years, and the brining solution is sourced from Saveur, with a few modifications. Remember that you need to begin brining the turkey the night before you plan on roasting it, so if you want to make this for Christmas, you need to start on Christmas Eve.
The Ultimate Roast Turkey Recipe by The Best Food Blog Ever
For the Brine
1 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup chili powder
2 cups apple cider
1 head garlic, separated into cloves, peeled
2 apples, cored and chopped
6 cups apple cider (separate step)
4 quarts cold water
For the Butter
1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature
Ground black pepper
Fresh thyme and sage, chopped
Start by making the brine. In a food processor or blender, puree the garlic, the apples, and the 2 cups of apple cider, and set aside. In the brining bag, set inside of a large stockpot, pour the salt, sugar, and chili powder, then add the 6 cups of apple cider and the 4 quarts of cold water, using your hand or a whisk to mix it all together so that the salt and sugar dissolve. Add the apple/garlic puree and stir to mix again.
Prepare the turkey by first pulling out the utterly useless self timer plastic dart and throwing it away, being careful not to tear the skin as you do so. Remove the giblet bag and reserve for stock (this can be frozen, whole, in a plastic bag in the freezer). Carefully lower the entire turkey, breast first, into the brining solution, making sure the brine fills the cavity, and submerge as much as possible. Seal the bag and place in a cold place – your refrigerator if you have room, or the garage or deck if the outside temperature is low enough. You should anticipate brining the turkey for 1 hour per pound, thereabouts.
The next day, take your butter out of the refrigerator and let it soften. Finely chop a few slices of bacon and fry them until crisp. In a small bowl, mash the butter with the salt, pepper, bacon, thyme, and sage and set aside. Set your oven to 350 degrees.
Pull the turkey out of the brine and set it in a roasting pan on a rack, making sure to drain the cavity. Using paper towels, pat the turkey dry, then use your fingers to loosen the skin from the meat of the breast. Take a spoon and spread the herbed butter under the skin of the turkey – you can use your fingers to push the butter off of the spoon through the skin, and smush it around until you’ve got an even coating of butter throughout. Apply salt and pepper liberally to the surface of the skin. If you’re using a probe thermometer, which I highly recommend, insert the probe now into the thickest part of the thigh without hitting bone.
Roast the turkey until the temperature of the dark meat reaches 165 degrees. You may want to check the bird after about an hour or so, because the residual brown sugar from the brine will caramelize, causing the skin to become brown more quickly than you are accustomed. If this happens, take the turkey out and tent it with foil before putting it back to finish cooking. When you take the final temperature of the roast using a probe thermometer, it’s best to poke it in various discreet locations – all parts of the bird should register at least 160 degrees, which is done but not dry.
Remove the turkey from the oven and set it aside, tented with foil, for at least 30 minutes. If you hazard cutting into any roast before it has had proper time to rest, you risk spilling valuable juices and ending up with dry meat. The resting period allows the juices, which are pushed to the surface during cooking, to recede back deeper into the flesh. Don’t worry about the turkey getting cold – depending on its size, the roast will retain heat for close to an hour or more, and your kitchen, if it’s anything like ours, will be plenty hot anyway from all of the other cooking that’s going on.