The problem with cooking a whole turkey is that it’s nearly impossible to get the dark meat in the legs cooked to perfection without drying out the exposed breast meat.
There are various methods of combating that problem, from cooking the legs separately to flipping the bird upside down. For the past 20 years, food writers and chefs have also advocated brining the bird for 24 to 48 hours in liquid and salt to enhance the breasts’ moisture content.
Like the mass-produced turkeys the method was designed for, the wet brine method has gradually fallen out of favor. Time-consuming and overly ambitious, its appeal lost its luster when folks simply did not have room to submerge a large bird in a body of water while keeping it chilled. And many decided it was not worth the effort.
These days, you also could argue that when you spend the money to purchase a fresh, local turkey with natural flavor — such as a Willie Bird or Diestel turkey — you don’t need to inject extra salt and water to drown it out.
“I prefer a straight roast without brine,” said Matt Spector, chef of Zoftig in Santa Rosa, who comes from a family of butchers. “Sometimes people brine, and it just tastes like deli meat.”
Nowadays, a simpler approach has gained popularity: a dry brine similar to that used by the late chef Judy Rodgers on the Zuni Cafe Roasted Chicken. You simply salt the bird and let it sit in the fridge 24 hours in advance.
Pressed for time? You can skip that step altogether and simply rub the bird inside and out with an easy-to-make dry rub, which adds flavor to the exterior and dries out the skin while trapping the delicious juices inside the breast.
“When it comes to seasoning meat and developing an exceptionally-textured exterior, nothing beats a dry rub,” Alex Delany wrote in Bon Appetit magazine. “Unlike a dry brine, which stays on a piece of meat for a long period of time before being rinsed off, a dry rub is usually applied to meat shortly before it is cooked.”
Time is at a premium these days, and it only takes about 15 minutes to mix up a simple dry rub — a blend of up to a dozen herbs and spices that harmonize a blend of savory, spicy and sweet flavors. You just measure, mix and slap it on the bird, with or without butter to help with the basting process.
Happily, that leaves the harried host and hostess plenty of time to prepare some of the more interesting side dishes that, truth be told, are what make the meal truly memorable.
If you’ve already wet brined your turkey, no problem. You can still rinse it off and apply a dry rub before sliding it into the oven. Or, if you prefer to try the dry brine method, you’ve still got 24 hours for the salt to work its magic.
Sourcing recipes from a half dozen local chefs, we have assembled a range of dry rubs that draw on both regional American and global cuisines: Santa Fe, Cajun, Mexican, North African, Sephardic and Italian flavors.
At home, Dry Creek Kitchen Executive Chef Scott Romano starts his turkey dry rub with the Charlie Palmer Garlic & Onion Steak Seasoning sold by Williams Sonoma (sel gris, granulated onion and garlic, paprika, black pepper), then adds dehydrated rosemary, orange zest and cranberries.