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.