Before beginning my turkey-brining riff, I’d like to speak briefly about gratitude. Many Americans, given the results of the recent presidential election, in which ONCE?AGAIN the candidate receiving the most votes lost in the Electoral College, feel there is little to be thankful for this year. The death of Leonard Cohen, which followed on the heels of this rancorous event, has left me filled with gratitude for his songs, his life, his being. When we go around the table this year, each of us saying what we’re thankful for, he’s my man.

So, the turkey. This spring my partner shot a wild turkey and, as promised, I plucked it. This was an all-time first for me. I’d previously never plucked any kind of fowl, and I didn’t really have time to dwell on the intricacies of the process. I heard a shot and a short time later the hunter appeared at the woodshed door with a headless, eviscerated bird. I laid the still-warm body out on the cover of the wooden recycling box and just started pulling out handfuls of feathers. It took a while, and I soon learned that one needs to be very gentle in certain areas, such as under the wings, to avoid tearing the skin, but basically I got the job done with little fuss. I also got to see, for the first time, the stiff chunk of bristles that constitutes a turkey’s beard. These black fibrous hairs are found hanging down from the breast away from the feathers, and in an older male bird can be long enough to touch the ground, but this skinny little spring jake, only 13 pounds when dressed out, had but a tiny little whisk.

I originally thought I’d brine the gobbler and have him for Thanksgiving, but as we need a larger bird to accommodate our crowd and as he presently is resting in a Vermont freezer while we plan to dine in Maine, the wild offering will have to wait for another occasion. Meanwhile, I’ve decided I’ll never brine him or any other bird. After looking up a bazillion different brining recipes and techniques, I stumbled upon a scientific treatise written by J. Kenji López-Alt, author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab. López-Alt conducted tests brining assorted turkey and chicken breasts and — no surprise — meat that had sat in a six-percent salt solution overnight absorbed water and held on to it. But, as López-Alt points out, “that means that extra 30 to 40% savings in moisture loss is not really turkey juices — it’s plain old tap water. Many folks who eat brined birds have that very complaint: It’s juicy, but the juice is watery.” Plus, given all the other culinary tasks you must perform to put dinner on the table on the big day, do you really need to add the submerging and constant chilling of an enormous bird to the list? I think not.



There is an alternative to wet brining: plain old salting. When you salt a turkey, meat juices are initially drawn out through the process of osmosis. As the salt dissolves in these juices, it forms what amounts to a very concentrated brine, which then allows it to break down muscle proteins. The loosened muscle fibers then allow the juices to get reabsorbed. 

To dry brine, combine half a cup of kosher salt with two tablespoons of baking powder in a bowl. Pat your turkey dry with paper towels and then cover all surfaces with the salt mixture by sprinkling it with your thumb and fingers, letting the mixture shower down over the turkey for even coverage. Transfer the salted turkey to a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 12 to 24 hours. Without rinsing, roast it as you usually would.

Even this method of brining, which might provide a bit of a buffer to drying out your bird should you overcook it for 15 or 20 minutes, isn’t really necessary. If you want to ramp up the flavor and moisture, why not slather some herb butter on it? For a 14- to 16-pound turkey, mix 1/2 cup butter and 2 teaspoons each minced fresh thyme, tarragon, rosemary and sage in small bowl and season with salt and pepper. If you have extra herb sprigs, toss them inside the cavity along with an extra half-stick of butter and salt and pepper. Rub half the herb butter over the breast meat under the skin, place the turkey on a rack set in large roasting pan, tuck wing tips under and tie legs together loosely. Rub the remaining herb butter over the outside of turkey and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. 

Invite a few trusted sous chefs into the kitchen to help with the sides, which will allow you to concentrate on monitoring the turkey’s roasting so it comes out of the oven at the perfect moment. We generally roast a bird in a hot, 425- degree oven for a half hour or so, then lower the heat to 350 degrees and after it’s browned, tent it with foil, and baste every hour or so with some chicken stock. When a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 175 degrees, the deed is done. Don’t forget to allow the finished bird to rest for half an hour on the platter before carving. Then get it and its accompaniments to the table and let the good times roll.