How to Make a Dry-Brined, Self-Basting, Hands-Off Turkey + Bonus Recipes
Nine years ago, I was doing my culinary training in Italy, and on the actual day of Thanksgiving that year I moved from my school in Parma to begin my stage at Ristorante l’Angolo d’Abruzzo in Carsoli, Italy. The restaurant owner, Lanfranco, asked if I wanted to cook a traditional Thanksgiving meal for the kitchen crew the following week, and I excitedly agreed! The chef, Valerio, asked what ingredients I would need – turkey, potatoes, chestnuts, fresh currents (as a substitute for cranberries), apples, and of course – pumpkin. A few days before I was to cook this feast, Lanfranco informed me that the only turkey they were able to find weighed 30 pounds! This was out of the question, so the whole dinner was in jeopardy of not happening. I stayed optimistic, and the day before started preparing some items – currant “cranberry” sauce with orange and spice, dough for my apple crostata, pumpkin pie, and pumpkin bread. All the cooks scrunched their noses at the idea of a dessert made of pumpkin. “How can this be? Pumpkin in a cake? It makes no sense! Surely this can’t taste good!” I just smiled and thought, “they’ll see!” The night before I was to cook the Thanksgiving meal, Lanfranco still didn’t know if the turkey was going to arrive. But early the next morning I awoke to him yelling, “Ashley, la tacchino e arrivata!” The turkey had arrived! I jumped out of bed, threw on my clothes, and ran down into the kitchen. I examined the turkey – it was about 15 pounds and a real looker. I made a stuffing with roasted chestnuts and apples and got it into the blast chiller so that I didn’t give us all food poisoning (never stuff a cold bird with hot stuffing!) I got the turkey stuffed and into the oven, then made an apple-mock mincemeat crostata with an almond crumble, buttery herb biscuits, and mashed potatoes. The sous chef, Manuel, was supposed to come in and help me, and when he finally strolled into the kitchen later that morning all he cared about was seeing where the turkey was stuffed…nel cullo! Lanfranco had invited a bunch of friends over, and I was now feeding a group of 20! He uncorked some wine as I brought out all the dishes, serving them family style, and then Valerio attempted to carve the turkey. He was looking at it like it was a foreign object, and before he butcher the poor bird, asked if I’d carve it instead. They all sat in amazement as I removed the legs and wings, carved the breast, and then the dark meat. The meal was a hit! When it came time for dessert, I whipped up some maple cream and served a small slice of each of the three tortas. This was a tough crowd, and lets just say that I don’t think America’s obsession with pumpkin sweets will ever catch on in Italy. But everyone cleaned their plates! That Thanksgiving is definitely one I’ll never forget.
For the past few years I’ve been dry-brining my turkey, as it is a much easier and a less messy way to impart a nice saltiness and ensure a juicy bird. I then employ a technique from Martha Stewart where I wrap the whole thing in cheese cloth that’s been soaked in an aromatic butter & stock mixture, and get this…you don’t need to baste the bird, and it comes out perfectly golden, crispy-skinned and succulent! Below you’ll find step-by-step instructions for the whole thing. Plus bonus recipes for a shallot & white wine gravy, and mashed potatoes. And for the fluffiest mash, cut, peel and soak your potatoes in water overnight…this draws out extra starch and makes for less work on the big day!
24-48 Hours Before Turkey Day – Dry-Brining
Dry Brine Mixture
1 cup medium/course grain sea salt
1/4 cup herbs de provence
24-48 hours before cooking, remove the giblets and anything else from the cavity, rinse your bird in cold water, and pat it dry with paper towels. generously rub the inside and outside of the bird with dry brine mixture. Place it in a large plastic baggie and refrigerate.
Turkey Day Prep & Cooking
Preparing the Turkey:
- Use a damp paper towel to wipe off any excess salt mixture from the skin of the turkey
- Let your turkey air-dry at room temperature for 1 hour before it goes into the oven (you’ll be preparing the bird during this time).
- Plan on a cooking time of 10-12 minutes per pound
1 stick unsalted butter
3 c turkey stock
Aromatics – herbs, onion, citrus zest, garlic etc.
Melt butter in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. To the butter, add 3 cups turkey stock and the aromatics. Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes to let the flavors develop. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
Trussing, tucking & stuffing the turkey:
Preheat oven to 425
Place the turkey, breast-side up, on a rack set in a large roasting pan. Fill the cavity with the aromatics – onion, celery, garlic & herbs. Using kitchen twine, tie the legs together. Tuck the tips of the wings under the breast.
When the basting liquid has cooled, time to wrap up your turkey in cheesecloth.
Immerse a large double layer of cheesecloth into the cooled basting liquid. Drape the cheesecloth over the entire top and sides of the bird (make sure the entire breast and legs are covered). Press into crevices. Leave the ends of the cheesecloth hanging into the bottom of the pan. It will continue to soak up the pan juices and baste the bird. Pour the remaining liquid over the bird and arrange the vegetables and aromatics around the base of the roasting pan (this will flavor your drippings and give you amazing gravy).
Cooking the Turkey:
Put turkey in 425 degree oven for 30 minutes. Reduce temperature to 325 and set a timer for 2 hours. You should not need to do anything to the bird during this time, but I like to look at it through the oven window every once in a while to make sure everything is looking good and the turkey isn’t getting too brown (it shouldn’t but if this happens, loosely place aluminum foil over the top). Not needing to continually baste it will keep the oven hot and speed up cooking time. After hours, check the internal temperature of the turkey to gauge how much longer it will need.
Temperature for Doneness:
The ideal temperature is 160 when you stick a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, without touching the bone. Do not wait for the turkey timer that comes in the bird to pop up. Your turkey will be over-cooked at this point (but don’t worry, even if this happens, the dry-brine keeps the turkey moist even if it’s over cooked).
Your turkey should be beautifully browned, but if the skin is not quite browned and crispy enough, remove the cheesecloth and place the turkey back into the oven for 10-15 minutes.
Resting, Carving & Pan Drippings:
When the turkey is cooked, transfer to a large cutting board or platter. Gently peel off the cheesecloth. Loosely cover with turkey with aluminum foil and let it rest at least 30 minutes. If you’re still not ready to carve it and eat after 30 minutes, don’t worry. It will stay warm until you’re ready for it.
- Pour turkey drippings into a glass measuring cup or drippings separator
- Pull turkey legs away from the body until thighbones pop. Cut away the legs. Separate thighs and drumsticks at the joints. Place all parts on a cutting board and carve parallel to the bone.
- Remove the breast meat in two lobes and place skin side up on cutting board. Slice crosswise against the grain. (For longer, thinner slices, leave breast attached and carve parallel to the breastbone.)
- Pull wings away from the shoulders and cut wings at joints. Serve wings whole.
Shallot & White Wine Gravy:
1 c shallots, finely chopped
1/2 c white wine
5 c turkey stock
1/4 c -1/2 c cornstarch
optional – chopped herbs of your choice
In a large, low-sided pan, sauté shallots in some of the turkey fat that has come to the top of the reserved turkey drippings. Cook the shallots until they are soft and translucent, then deglaze with white wine. Cook at high heat until most of the wine has evaporated. Add 4 cups of the turkey stock, plus the turkey juices (discard as much of the fat as you do not want in your gravy, then add the remaining juices & drippings). Bring mixture to a boil. In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and 1/2 c turkey stock. When mixture has reached a boil, slowly wisk cornstarch mixture into your boiling gravy. Continue adding cornstarch until desired consistency is reached. If you’ve added all the cornstarch mixture and it still isn’t thick enough, take remaining 1/2 c of turkey stock, add another 1/4 c cornstarch to it, and repeat until desired consistency is reached. (It’s hard to give an exact measurement, as it all depends on the amount of pan drippings you have). Season to taste with salt, pepper, and herbs if using.
6-7 pounds potatoes (I prefer Yukon Gold), peeled & cut into 2” pieces
4 large garlic cloves (optional – adds roasted garlic flavor)
1 TBSP salt
1 1/2 -2 c milk
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1” pieces
1/2 c sour cream (optional – adds creaminess and a bit of tang)
*Cut & peel your potatoes the night before, cover with water and refrigerate.
When ready to cook, drain water from potatoes then place in a large pot with 1 TBSP salt and garlic if using, and cover with cold water. Bring to a low boil, then reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are very tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife but not falling apart, 20–25 minutes.
Heat milk in small saucepan or microwave until hot.
When potatoes are cooked, drain potatoes and then return to pot. Toss over low heat until moisture evaporates, 1–2 minutes. Begin mashing potatoes and add butter. Once the butter has melted into the potatoes, add 1 cup of the milk. Continue mashing, and if you want really creamy potatoes, whip with a hand-held electric mixer. Add remaining milk as needed until desired consistency is reached. Fold in sour cream if using. Do not over mix or potatoes will get gummy. Check for seasoning and add more salt as needed and pepper if desired. Cover until ready to serve. If they get cold, re-heat over low heat and add more milk if necessary.