Call me Al Gore if you like, but I think it’s finally time for me to take a little credit for why half this country is eating a decent roast turkey this Thanksgiving.
Although I didn’t “invent” turkey brining, I certainly popularized it in an article I wrote in the November/December 1993 issue of Cook’s Illustrated. There may have been other obscure published recipes for brined roast turkeys back then, but the only one I found in my extensive research at that time was Maria Eugenia Cerqueirra Da Mota’s Roast Turkey in Jean Anderson’s Food of Portugal (William Morrow 1986). Although I found her brine strength and soaking time a little strong and long, I used her recipe as a guide in developing mine.
After that Cook’s Illustrated article, brining caught on. Since then versions of my recipe have been passed around, let’s just say a lot. In recent years, there’s even a bustling cottage industry selling all manner of brining paraphernalia.
Although not the first to attempt it, I also set out to solve the dry turkey breast problem in that same Cook’s Illustrated article. I found that some cooks foil-tented their turkey breasts (it helps, but not enough). Others roasted the turkey breast-down (it works if you like blond). For a moist, juicy turkey breast that was also attractively brown, I recommended three turkey turns during roasting—breast down, each wing up, and finally breast up.
But hey, I’m sixteen years older and wiser now, and I’ve refined my process over time. For one, I dry brine now. Compared with a wet one, it’s much less messy and cumbersome. Also mixing herbs, spices, and flavorings with the salt and rubbing it onto the bird is a much more direct and potent way to flavor it.
In addition to my herbaceous dry brine, I’ve also reduced the number of turkey rotations from the original pain-in-the-butt three to just one—breast down, breast up, that’s it. And I’ve eliminated the last minute chaos, confusion, and general stress at the table by roasting two small turkeys instead of one large one, butterflying the first one and carving it early. The second is for Norman Rockwellian ambiance and the coveted leftovers.
And that’s all I’ve got to say about Thanksgiving turkey… until next year.
I’ll back you up, mom. Though I was quite a bit younger, I was old enough to know how hard you worked that Summer of ’93. We had more turkeys in our house than we had counter, fridge and freezer space combined. Every person we vaguely knew or who lived within a few miles of our house had been given one of Pam Anderson’s turkeys. What was the total number of turkeys tested in the end, was it 50? Yes, mom, you worked tirelessly on making the perfect turkey. And thank goodness you did.
I too am committed to brining. Even in college I did. No, I couldn’t be bothered to buy a bucket so I used a trash can (of course, washed and line with a plastic bag!). I simply don’t know any other way to cook a turkey.
Funny story. So, the other day, I was reheating Thanksgiving leftovers for some friends. (We all got to have an early taste of T-giving because you and I were testing recipes for this week.) And someone asked me if I’d brined the turkey. 1. I admitted that we’d overcooked it a little bit since we’d be taking photos and generally not paying attention. And 2. That we had dry-brined it.
My friend looked at me with a mix of confusion and shock. “Dry brine?” he said, “what IS that?” I couldn’t really explain it…I needed you there mom to defend your new method. But even with my protestings that it really was good, he looked unconvinced.
Well, the turkey was OK (we’d overcooked it and THEN I reheated it), so I am not sure he really got a good show of what a Pam Anderson turkey is like. But, what I wanted to say to him (and didn’t) was that my mom pretty well re-invented brining and the fact that he was aware of it at ALL was probably thanks to you. And so, if you wanted to re-invent brining AGAIN (and this time cleaner, quicker, and with more flavor), he should probably sush up and like it 🙂
Of course I didn’t say any of those things. I never know how far to take bragging out my fab food mom. Most people are already so intimidated by you (no matter how much I tell them they shouldn’t be) that I don’t want to make it worse. But I am damn proud of what you learned–and what we all lived through–that hot, turkey-ful summer. So I am glad you’re finally telling people what’s what. Go mama!
Susan Hickok says
I always make your brined turkey every Thanksgiving, and last year I had a friend of mine join us and the oooing and aaaaahing over the turkey was getting ridiculous! You know I loved it! She just called me from AZ and asked if I was going to brine my turkey again this year. When I assured her that I always do she begged to join our table again this year. Now I’m going to have to try your new no-fuss method. Oh, btw, I misunderstood what you wrote about roasting the turkey breast-down — I thought you said “it works if you’re blond”!!! Glad I reread it 🙂
You’re right, Susan. It works if you don’t mind a blond turkey breast–not if you’re blond!
BTW guys, how do I get one of those real smiley faces to show up. I’m tired of the sideways ones.
mom. the smiley is not rocket science. it’s : and this )…put it together and you get… 🙂
Mike V says
Thank you, Pam!
I’m part of the group that’s made good Thanksgiving turkeys for years, due to your brining technique. And, what a surprise…I had just decided to dry brine my turkey this year.
It’s worked well on chicken, so I tried a dry run (pun, sorry) on a turkey breast about a month ago, which came out great.
I see that you work the salt under the skin on the breast. This is how I’ve been doing it. Russ Parsons at the LA times says that isn’t necessary in an article he published last week. He says you should just salt the outside of the turkey.
Since you usually test your recipes in lots of combinations, I was curious if you tried it that way as well?
I developed the dry-brine method for turkey in Fine Cooking Magazine 5 or 6 Thanksgivings ago. In that recipe, I just sprinkled the salt right on the skin, but If you’re doing herbs and spices, they’re better off under the skin. I think they flavor the meat better and since my roasting temp is relatively high (another good reason to go with smaller turkeys) the herbs/spices/zests are protected.
May your turkey be the best (and easiest) ever! BTW if you dry-brine, how are you going to get the apple flavor in the bird?
I have got to try this! I have family who have all gone de-bunk on turkey and are making prime-rib for Thanksgiving, OF ALL THINGS! I need something to make them all fall in love with turkey again. Thanks, Pam!
Erik Wallace says
I started brining our turkey for thanksgiving a few years ago when a friend of mine recommended it and have had good results. Is there more information you can direct me to about dry brining? I’m curious.
Mike V says
Pam, you caught me. I’m an indecisive cook. When I posted that comment, I wasn’t sure which way I was going to go. I was leaning towards the apple brine, since it’s what I usually use. I loved the taste of the (plan salt) dry brined turkey breast I made about a month ago, but it seemed kind of plain compared to my usual bird.
Then I tried a rotisserie chicken with the sage/bay combination Russ Parsons recommended last weekend, and loved it. That’s when I decided to go with the dry brine.
Now my problem is: I love your herbes de provence/orange zest idea. And Russ’s smoked paprika/orange zest. Though I was leaning towards my own barbecue rub with some orage zest, too. Too many choices!
Mike V says
PS: Thanks for the follow up on the “on the skin/under the skin” question!
Pam, it took me three years to master your brining method. I am too old to learn new tricks – what should I do with my ten year supply of brining bags? Skip
I guess those brining bags are a little too expensive to use as trash can liners, eh Skip?
To respond to your question as well as Erik Wallace’s, whether you dry brine or wet brine you’ll get the same wonderfully seasoned turkey. It’s just that dry brining is simpler and less messy. And because the turkey is sitting uncovered in the fridge overnight (rather than a bucket of water) its skin is crisper.
Because the bird takes on water, you might argue that a wet-brined turkey might be juicier, but as long as you don’t overcook a dry-brined bird, it’s not a problem.
BTW, I just mixed my dry brine ingredients and got my broth made tonight. Let Thanksgiving begin!
Erik Wallace says
Thanks for the follow-up.
Hey, Pam, extremely cool to be a trend-setter. I wasn’t aware of that. Congratulations, Pam.
Pioneer Woman says
As I brine my turkey tonight in about 800 pounds of brining liquid—it’s always so much fun to transport the brining bag or pot from the sink to my fridge—I feel like a total rookie that I haven’t tried dry brining yet.
Next year you need to come live with me in November, Pam. Okay? It’s a date.
Just as you’ve helped this web rookie launch threemanycooks, I’m there for you whenever you need me, Ree. Whether you dry or wet brine your turkey, I’m happy you’re home from The Pioneer Woman Cooks! book tour in time for Thanksgiving.
Toni Marsden says
I am so hoping that someone has opinions and will share their methods of cooking the turkey by convection. Last year I remember Pam was going to be trying out a new convection oven and was interested in cooking the turkey with that method. Please, anyone, what do you think of cooking the turkey by convection? How big a turkey, how hot the convection oven, etc. I have an 18 pounder and will cook by convection, but I do want to know what the experts think of this method compared with conventional cooking of the turkey. Thank you so much.
We have a convection option on one of our ovens at our house in PA and we’re actually celebrating Thanksgiving here this year. I have dry-brined and am roasting two 12-pound turkeys, just as I have recommended to you in this story. Using the 25 degrees lower and 25% less time rule of thumb, I will roast the butterflied turkey in the convection today and see what happens.
I’d roast an 18-pound turkey, however, at a lower oven temperature than the suggested temperature for the 12-pound ones in this recipe. For convection, I’d go with 250 degrees breast down for 3 hours, then turn the bird breast up and roast at 375 degrees. Starting taking its temperature after 45 minutes. You’ll want the leg/thigh area at 170 degrees and the breast as close to 160 degrees as possible. Hope this helps.
Toni Marsden says
Your advice for cooking my 18 lb. turkey on convection was great. I cooked it at 250* after preheating and cooking the turkey at 325* for 5-10 mins. After cooking about 2 1/2 hours, I turned it breast up and switched the temp. to 350*. It was done in just under 4 hours and it was moist and beautiful. The brown meat was done and the breast was so moist and flavorful. The skin was crisp and golden! Thank you so much for helping me to have more confidence.
I would love to hear more about anything you cooked with convection, both turkey or anything else. I would love to know how you rate cooking turkey or other foods with convection compared with conventional method.
I appreciate your helpfulness, Pam, and thank you so much for getting back to me in time to make a fabulous Thanksgiving turkey!
I’m a little late to this party as I don’t cook for Thanksgiving but I did buy a nice little turkey while they were on sale. Can’t wait to try the brining method. I’m leaning toward going the wet route because I don’t want to worry about overcooking.
p.s. you mention turning the bird breast up/down during cooking. What is the best way to do this? With a large set of tongs? Two people to help?
p.p.s. Ree sent me!
I use 2 wads of paper towels to turn my turkey, but as you can see from the recipe, I don’t call for large ones.
Toni Marsden says
Type your comment here…
Yes, like Pam said, I used a wad of paper towels in each hand and turned the turkey breast up. My turkey was 18# and it wasn’t hard. I thought that dry-brining also helped keep the turkey from drying out and I didn’t worry much about over-cooking. But Pam understands that concept better. I wet-brined for a few years and last year was the first time that I dry-brined, and it is wonderful.