I know you must be so tired by now of my obsession with a certain roast chicken recipe. What I learned from that recipe-which-shall-not-be-named is that the combination of "dry-brining" -- that is, generously salting the bird a few days prior to roasting rather than marinating it in a wet brine -- and high heat yields the juiciest, most delicious meat. Thus I said to myself, "Self, surely you must try this method on turkey? After all, nothing ruins Thanksgiving more than a cardboard-dry, pale-skinned turkey. And nothing ruins my pre-Thanksgiving week more than having to worry about where to store a vat containing a turkey in wet brine."
It turns out that I was not the first to think of applying the Zuni method to turkey. In fact, the LA Times swears by it as the definitive turkey roasting recipe. And you know what? They are right.
Starting with a 13-pound kosher turkey, the so-called "Judy bird" (named after Zuni cafe chef Judy Rodgers) came out of our oven golden brown, with gorgeous crisp skin and a juicy and savory interior. Other than the (optional) two tablespoons of butter (with herbs and orange zest) I schmeared on the skin before roasting, the Judy method requires no addition of fat. The salt that you "dry-brine" the turkey with keeps the meat juicy and self-basting (that's right -- no more having to stand in front of a hot oven, basting that damn bird every 20 minutes), and the pan drippings were rich with pure turkey flavor and perfect for gravy-making.
According to the Times' FAQ, dry-brining produces the best results because in "the salt pulls moisture from the bird, which is then reabsorbed, so you get the flavor and moistness without any added water, improving the texture." However it works, trust me when I say that the Judy Bird is the simplest, most worry-free way of roasting a turkey to perfection. This is a turkey that you'll eat because you want to, not because you feel obligated to.
Here is the recipe, courtesy of the LA Times. I made minor changes to the recipe to accommodate my kosher turkey (which is already somewhat pre-salted) and my use of the convection roast setting on my oven for the first 30 minutes of cooking. My changes are in italics.
- Wash the turkey inside and out, pat it dry and weigh it. Measure 1 tablespoon of salt into a bowl for every 5 pounds the turkey weighs (for a 15-pound turkey, you'd have 3 tablespoons).
- Sprinkle the inside of the turkey lightly with salt. Place the turkey on its back and salt the breasts, concentrating the salt in the center, where the meat is thickest. You'll probably use a little more than a tablespoon. It should look liberally seasoned, but not over-salted.
- Turn the turkey on one side and sprinkle the entire side with salt, concentrating on the thigh. You should use a little less than a tablespoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the opposite side.
- Take a few sprigs of fresh herbs -- rosemary, thyme, and sage, for ex. -- and place them in the cavity of the chicken. Gently lift up the skin above the breast and (if possible) around the thighs and slip a few herb leaves and a bit of salt and pepper under the skin.
- Place the turkey in a 2 1/2 -gallon sealable plastic bag, press out the air and seal tightly. Place the turkey breast-side up in the refrigerator. Chill for 3 days, turning it onto its breast for the last day. (Since my kosher bird had already gone through a process of salting, I dry-brined it only for 2 days.)
- Remove the turkey from the bag. There should be no salt visible on the surface and the skin should be moist but not wet. Place the turkey breast-side up on a plate and refrigerate uncovered for at least 8 hours.
- On the day it is to be cooked, remove the turkey from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature at least 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- Mix about two tablespoons of room-temperature butter with the zest of one orange and a handful of herbs, finely chopped.
- Place the turkey breast-side down on a roasting rack in a roasting pan; put it in the oven. After 30 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and carefully turn the turkey over so the breast is facing up (it's easiest to do this by hand, using kitchen towels or oven mitts). If you have a convection roast setting on your oven, you can use that setting for the first 30 minutes of cooking. This will help your turkey brown more evenly and will reduce your cooking time by about a quarter of an hour.
- Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, return the turkey to the oven and roast until a thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone, reads 165 degrees, about 2 3/4 hours total roasting. Note: There's no need to baste the turkey!
- Remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a warm platter or carving board; tent loosely with foil. Let stand at least 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute through the meat. Carve and serve.
- Preserve the drippings for a pan gravy.