Global dry rubs add flavor to Thanksgiving turkeys

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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.

“I rub it on the skin on the outside and fold it into softened butter and put it under the skin,” he said. “It’s like basting something internally.”

To get under the skin, he said, use the back side of a spoon on the back side of the turkey, sliding it up to the tip of the breast to release the skin.

Romano suggests submerging the turkey in a wet brine for 24 to 48 hours ahead of time, as does chef/owner Brandon Guenther of Rocker Oysterfeller’s who likes to spatchcock (removing the backbone from) the bird before soaking it. Guenther takes it out of the wet brine the day before Thanksgiving, blots it dry and allows the turkey to air dry in the fridge for 24 hours before roasting.

“It’s best to pull it out of the refrigerator a few hours before it goes into the oven to allow it to come to temperature,” he said. “Rub the skin with some melted ghee and season liberally with the spice blend of choice.”

Guenther shared a Cajun Blend dry rub spiked with smoked paprika and cayenne that is a go-to at Rocker Oysterfeller’s as well as a Mexican spice blend with cumin and chili powder from his other restaurant, Tortilla Flats, in Placerville.

Chef/owner Bruce Riezenman of Park Avenue Catering in Cotati favors a Southwestern dry rub for his turkey that he uses straight and blends into a compound butter.

“I place the compound butter under and on top of the skin and season the cavity with the spice rub,” he said. “During cooking, I baste it every 20 to 30 minutes.”

Spector from Zoftig makes a Sephardic-inspired rub from smoked paprika, cumin and cardamom and sprinkles it on the bird with a good dash of kosher salt, then slides some butter under the skin and stuffs the cavity with oranges and various aromatics.

During cooking, he also bastes the bird with a glaze made from saffron, honey, butter, orange juice and roasted garlic.

“When I cook chicken at home I brush on a similar concoction,” he said. “A sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds would be a nice touch at the end.”

Although it’s best to make your own dry rub, because you can control the amount of salt, a store-bought blend can be a time-saver in a pinch. Josef Keller of Council on Aging’s Meals on Wheels produces his own line of spice blends that he uses in both the turkey dry rub and the dressing.

For his turkey dry rub, he simply adds sage to the Chef Josef Original Seasoning Blend, then he uses the Chef Josef Tarragon Citrus or Lemon Dill blend in the stuffing.

The Chef Josef seasonings can be found at Oliver’s Markets. For more information, go to


The following two rubs are from Brandon Guenther of Rocker Oysterfeller’s in Valley Ford.

Cajun Rub

1/2 cup salt

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

11/2 tablespoons onion powder

11/2 tablespoons garlic powder

11/2 teaspoons cayenne

21/2 tablespoons paprika

2 teaspoons dry mustard

2 teaspoons dry thyme

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1 tablespoon celery seed

1 teaspoon rubbed sage

1/2 tablespoon black pepper

Pull the turkey out of the refrigerator a few hours before it goes in the oven. Before cooking, rub the skin with melted ghee and season liberally with the spice blend of choice. Roast the turkey as you would normally.

Mexican Spice blend

1/4 cup salt

3/4 cup dark chile powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon garlic poweder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

2 teaspoons dry Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon dry thyme

Pull the turkey out of the refrigerator a few hours before it goes in the oven. Before cooking, rub the skin with melted ghee and season liberally with the spice blend of choice. Roast the turkey as you would normally


The following recipe is from Matt Spector of Zoftig Eatery in Santa Rosa.

Sephardic Turkey

For the rub:

2 tablespoons smoked paprika or sweet paprika, depending on preference

2 tablespoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground cardamom

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

— Dash kosher salt

1/2 pound butter, room temperature

For the cavity:

4 cinnamon sticks

6 bay leaves

— Fresh thyme

2 oranges, cut into quarters

1 cup garlic cloves

For the glaze:

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup orange juice

— Pinch saffron

— Roasted garlic cloves (from inside the bird)

— Toasted sesame seeds (optional garnish)

The rub: Mix all dry ingredients together. Rub the spices all over turkey, inside and out, along with a good dash of kosher salt as well. Rub the butter under the skin of the turkey.

For cavity: Stuff the cavity with the aromatics and roast turkey as you would normally, adding the garlic last.

For the glaze: About halfway through roasting, the garlic should be tender inside the turkey so do your best to remove what you can.

For glaze: Heat the honey, butter and orange juice together, crush the saffron and add, then smash in the roasted garlic. Paint the glaze over the turkey every 15 to 20 minutes during the last half of cooking. After the turkey is done, let it rest, then garnish with sesame seeds.


The following recipe is from Bruce Riezenman of Park Avenue Catering in Cotati.

Santa Fe Spice Mix

Makes 1 1/4 ounce

2 teaspoons marjoram

3/4 teaspoons black pepper, ground

3/4 teaspoons dried chiles, crushed

1/2 bay leaf, crushed

11/4 teaspoons cumin, ground

3/4 teaspoon coriander, ground

1/3 cup butter (approx.) at room temperature

Mix dry spices together. Season the cavity of the turkey.

Blend the rest of the spice rub into the soft butter with a wooden spoon to make a compound butter. Place the compound butter under and on top of the skin. Roast as you would normally, basting it every 20 to 30 minutes.


The following recipe is from Chef Bryan Oliver from SHED Cafe in Healdsburg, which carries the SHED Pantry harissa powder.

North African-Inspired Dry Rub

For dry rub:

2 tablespoons SHED Pantry harissa powder

10 tablespoons softened butter

— Kosher salt and pepper

For the cavity:

1 bunch oregano

1 bunch thyme

1 bunch rosemary

2 heads garlic, stem end cut off

2 whole preserved lemons, quartered

— Olive oil

Combine harissa powder, butter, salt and pepper to taste. Rub harissa butter all over the outside of the turkey.

Combine the herb bundles (stems included), garlic and and preserved lemons with the olive oil and salt to taste. Stuff turkey with the mixture.

Roast turkey as you would normally.


The following recipe is from Scott Romano of the Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg. You will need a dehydrator or set your oven to warm.

Romano-Palmer Turkey Spice Rub

1 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1 navel orange

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

1/2 cup granulated garlic

1/2 cup granulated onion

1/4 cup black pepper, fresh ground

1/2 tablespoons paprika

1/2 tablespoon celery seed

— Butter, softened

Preheat the dehydrator to 170 degrees. Using a peeler, remove the zest from the oranges.

Place the dried cranberries, rosemary and orange zest into the dehydrator.

Dry orange zest and rosemary for 12 hours and the cranberries for 48 hours. Let the cranberries cool down until they are room temperature.

Using a spice grinder, separately puree the orange zest, rosemary and cranberries into a powder.

In a medium mixing bowl place 2 tablespoons cranberry powder, 2 tablespoons rosemary powder and 1 tablespoon orange zest powder.

Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.

Rub a good amount of spice rub on the outside of the turkey, then fold some into softened butter and slide the compound butter under the skin with a spoon.


The following recipe is from Josef Keller, whose seasoning blends are available at Oliver’s markets, Pacific markets and other local markets.

Josef Keller’s Roasted Turkey

Makes 1 10- to 15-pound turkey

For stuffing:

1 medium onion, diced

1 chicken sausage, sliced

1/2 leek, chopped

2 tablespoons butter plus 3 tablespoons olive oil

4 ribs celery, chopped

1/3 loaf French bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1/2 pound chestnuts, peeled

2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons Chef Josef’s Tarragon Citrus or Lemon Dill seasoning blend

For turkey:

1 10- to 15-pound turkey

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons butter, melted

3 tablespoons Chef Josef Original Seasoning blend

1 tablespoons sage

2 cups chicken stock

For gravy:

2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 cups chicken stock

For stuffing: Saute onion, sausages and leeks in butter and olive oil. Add celery, bread, chestnuts, chicken stock and Tarragon Citrus or Lemon Dill seasoning. Mix well, set aside.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Remove gizzard from turkey and place in roasting pan. Stuff the turkey and place extra stuffing in a buttered baking dish.

Rub turkey with the olive oil and melted butter. Blend the sage into the Original Seasoning and rub into the turkey.

Place the turkey in the roasting pan and cook for about 30 minutes. As soon as a brown crust is formed, turn the oven down to 350 degrees. Cover the turkey with aluminum foil and baste turkey every 20 minutes with pan drippings.

After one hour of baking, add two cups of chicken stock to the roasting pan. Keep roasting until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. (total cooking time should be between 2 and 21/2 hours.)

Remove turkey from oven when done. Put separate baking dish of stuffing into the oven and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes.

For gravy: Take turkey out of the roasting pan. Remove the gizzards from the pan.

Add 2 teaspoons cornstarch into the 2 cups of chicken stock. Mix to dissolve cornstarch and add into roasting pan set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Stir and loosen pan drippings with a spoon or wire whisk. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Add more liquid or cornstarch if necessary to create the consistency you desire.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or Twitter @dianepete56.

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