Traditionalists may be taken aback by the very notion of anything less than a beautifully stuffed turkey as the crowning centerpiece of their elaborate Thanksgiving dinner tables. But to brine or not to brine? Wet or dry brine? Free-range or Butterball? Deep-fried or oven-roasted? These are the questions that plague American households every year around this time.
This year, we asked self-proclaimed “culinary nerd-in-residence” J. Kenji López-Alt to share his expertise on the matter since his new tome, The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science, features entire sections on turkey and chicken. As former test cook/editor at Cook’s Illustrated magazine and the now-managing culinary director of The Food Lab at Serious Eats, Kenji swears by the spatchcocking method, as he attests to in his instructional video below.
Spatchcocking—or butterflying—your turkey has its benefits. If you can get past the presentation, you’ll find that this method allows for quicker, more even cooking, resulting in crispier skin and juicier meat. It’s also better for carving, and you’ll have the advantage of more bones to to flavor your gravy while your turkey is roasting.
Kenji suggests dry-brining and air-drying your turkey the night before. When you’re ready to cook it, first line your baking sheet with foil. Then, to prevent your turkey drippings from burning before your bird is done, he suggests spreading a layer of chopped vegetables in your roasting pan beneath the turkey. The vegetables will release their own juices as they cook, preventing the drippings from burning and creating a flavorful base for you to add to your gravy at the end.
Cooking your turkey this way solves pretty much every problem encountered when cooking a turkey whole. All you’ll need is a good pair of kitchen shears and an instant-read thermometer.
Roasted, Butterflied Turkey
Yield: Serves 10 to 12
1 whole turkey (12–14lbs), butterflied—backbone, neck and giblets reserved (see Kenji’s video below)
3 large onions, roughly chopped (about 6 cups)
3 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped (about 4 cups)
4 stalks celery, roughly chopped (about 4 cups)
6 cups homemade or low-sodium canned chicken or turkey stock
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
12 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
2 tbsps vegetable oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan with aluminum foil. Scatter two-thirds of the onions, carrots, celery and thyme sprigs across the bottom of the pan. Place a wire rack or slotted broiler rack on top of the vegetables.
Pat the turkey dry with paper towels. Loosen the turkey skin from the breasts (see page 586). Rub the turkey all over and under the skin with 1-tablespoon of oil. Season liberally all over with salt and black pepper (go easy on the salt if the bird was dry-brined). Tuck the wing tips under the bird. Place the turkey on the rack, arranging so that it doesn’t overhang the edges, and press down on the breastbone to flatten the breasts slightly.
Roast, rotating the pan occasionally, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the breast registers 150°F, and the thighs register at least 165°F, about 80 minutes. If the vegetables start to burn or smoke, add 1-cup of water to the roasting pan.
While the turkey roasts, make the gravy: Roughly chop the neck, backbone and giblets. Heat the remaining 1-tablespoon of oil in a 3-quart saucepan over high heat until shimmering. Add the chopped turkey parts and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining onions, carrots, celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to soften and brown in spots, another 5 minutes or so. Add the stock, the remaining thyme, the bay leaves and bring to a boil, then reduce to a bare simmer and cook for 45 minutes. Strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer into a 2-quart liquid measuring cup or a bowl; discard the solids. Skim off any fat from the surface of the stock.
Melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Whisking constantly, add the stock in a thin, steady stream until it is all incorporated. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until reduced to about 4 cups, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover and keep warm.
When the turkey is cooked, remove from the oven and transfer the rack to a rimmed baking sheet. Tent the turkey with aluminum foil and allow to rest at room temperature for 20 minutes before carving.
Carefully pour any collected juices from the roasting pan through a fine-mesh strainer into a liquid measuring cup or a bowl. Skim off the fat and discard. Whisk the juices into the gravy.
Carve the turkey and serve with the gravy.
How to Dry-Brine a Bird
Salting poultry under its skin and letting it stand for a period of 24 to 48 hours in the refrigerator has much the same effect as brining. At first, the salt draws liquid out of the meat (through osmosis), but then it dissolves in this extracted liquid, forming a concentrated bird-juice brine right on the surface of the bird that then goes to work at dissolving muscle fibers the same way as a regular brine would. Eventually, as the muscle fibers get more and more relaxed, the liquid is reabsorbed. Over the course of a night or two, the salty solution can work its way several millimeters into the bird’s flesh, helping it retain moisture and seasoning it more deeply. In some regards, its more of a pain than regular brining (you have to loosen the skin from the meat), but it doesn’t require the use of a massive cooler or ice-filled tub, and it doesn’t dilute favor in thew ay a regular brine does.
To dry-brine a bird, first carefully loosen the skin by running your hand or the handle of a wooden spoon between the skin and the breast meat, starting at the base of the breast. Then rub about 1-teaspoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per pound of meat all over the body, under its skin. Place the bird on a rack set over a large pan or rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered, overnight or up to 48 hours (for a turkey). The next day, cook as directed, either skipping or going light on the seasoning step.
Kenji says that you have a few options when treating the skin of your turkey.
Going naked is the easiest and will give you the crispest skin, particularly if you let the bird air-dry on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, uncovered, overnight in the fridge. Just don’t let it dry for more than a day, or it’ll turn papery and tough.
Dry rubs made from salt mixed with spices and dried herbs can add flavor to the skin. For best results, apply them the day before and let the bird air-dry overnight in the fridge.
Oil rubbed onto the skin will get you a more even golden brown color, as it helps distribute heat from the hot oven air more evenly. It’ll also help prevent the skin from drying out and turning leathery, though it will slightly decrease crispness.
Butter or an herb butter will add lots of flavor to the skin (don’t expect it to soak into the meat much, even if you spread it beneath the skin), but it’ll also greatly reduce its crispness. Butter is about 18% water, which will cool down the skin as it evaporates. And the milk proteins present in butter will brown on their own, so poultry skin rubbed with butter will have a spottier appearance than skin rubbed with oil.