Brined & Roasted Turkey
Over the years I've tried many different ways of roasting turkey. Marinades, glazes, brining solutions that contain weird ingredients like juniper berries -- I've done it all. And I've determined that my favorite turkey is a simple turkey. There are so many other elements to Thanksgiving dinner that I prefer the turkey to be itself, in all its turkey glory, without a lot of embellishment.
This is my simplest, easiest method for making tasty, moist turkey. I've adapted this technique from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle food section in 1999. Brine the turkey for 24 hours to ensure that the meat is seasoned and won't dry out, then roast it at 400 degrees for about 2 to 3 hours. No all-day cooking, no basting, just pop it in the oven and out comes golden, yummy turkey.
To brine the turkey, you need a lot of room in the refrigerator and a really big stockpot, or you need a cooler, some ice, and some big plastic bags. It may sound like a pain in the neck, but the brining process is worth the extra effort. The meat will be seasoned throughout, and brining also helps to ensure that the breast meat won't dry out.
I usually cook a turkey that's about 14 to 16 pounds, which will serve about 8 people and leave leftovers. Any bigger than 18 pounds, and the roasting time starts to get really long, plus the brining becomes a bit trickier, since you'll need a really big cooler. If you need a bigger turkey, you may want to stick to a more traditional method of roasting.
I highly recommend getting a fresh turkey. You may need to order one from a specialty market; in my area, Wild Oats markets sell antibiotic- and hormone-free turkeys that are very tasty. Even a fresh turkey will seem somewhat frozen when you first bring it home, so get your turkey on Monday or Tuesday of Thanksgiving week so that you have enough time to defrost and brine it.
A note about stuffing the turkey: I don't do it anymore. I've decided that it's not worth the extra effort, and the food safety issues mean that oftentimes, you've got to cook the hell out of a small turkey just to get the stuffing up to a safe 165 degrees. I don't recommend it, especially with a brined turkey, since the stuffing will get too salty. I cook the turkey by itself, and make dressing in a separate pan.
Prep Time: 15 minutes, plus 24 hours for brining
Cook Time: 2 to 3 hours
Yield: about 8 to 10 servings, plus some leftovers
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp butter, softened
1 1/2 tsp freshly-ground black pepper
1 to 2 cups chicken stock
Combine the water, salt, and sugar in a large pot. Stir to combine and dissolve the salt and sugar. If you're brining in a large stockpot, put the brining solution and the turkey into the pot and transfer it to the refrigerator. If you're brining in a cooler, pour the solution into a plastic bag or brining bag and add the turkey. Secure the neck of the bag with plastic ties, and put the bag into a large cooler. Pack ice around the turkey and keep the cooler in a cool place.
After 24 hours, remove the turkey from the brine, rinse under cold water, then drain and pat dry. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the turkey breast-side up in a V-shaped roasting rack that fits in a roasting pan. Rub the skin with 2 Tbsp of softened butter and sprinkle with about 1 1/2 tsp of freshly-ground black pepper. Tuck the wing tips under the turkey, tie the legs together, and cover the breast tightly with aluminum foil. Place the pan in the oven.
Roast the turkey for about 1 hour, then remove the foil from the breast. Pour about 1 cup of chicken stock over the breast. This helps to deglaze the drippings in the bottom of the pan. If the liquid in the bottom of the pan cooks off completely, add more chicken stock so that there are always some liquid drippings in the pan. Continue to cook until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 to 170 degrees. Start checking the temperature after about 1 1/2 hours of cooking time. A 14- to 16-pound turkey will cook in about 2 to 3 hours. If the legs begin to get too dark, tent them loosely with foil. When done, remove the V-rack from the roasting pan and let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes before carving.
Carve the turkey at the table, or in the kitchen. Put the meat on a platter and serve. Happy Thanksgiving!