An even better bird

Thanksgiving is a holiday built on tradition. And, much to my surprise, I seem to have found a new one of my own -- writing about dry-brined turkey.

After more than 20 years of Thanksgiving stories, I didn't think there was much left that could be said about turkey. But three years ago I wrote about a new technique I'd fallen in love with. And judging from the hundreds of happy e-mails I received, readers shared that affection.

I tweaked it a bit last year, to similar reaction, and now here I am writing about it again, with even more improvements.

At first glance, the recipe is so simple it's hard to believe there could be anything to add, but it's in the nature of cooking (or at least of recipe tinkering) to always move forward. We're like great white sharks that way -- that and the whole eating-just-for-recreation thing.

In its most basic form, dry-brining is nothing more than salting turkey and letting it sit for several days. I based it on the Zuni Cafe chicken my friend Judy Rodgers has made famous at her San Francisco restaurant.

Dry-brined turkey is, if anything, even more remarkable. While turkey sometimes can be dry and bland, after dry-brining, the meat is moist and flavorful. And in an improvement over wet-brining (which I enthusiastically practiced for several years), the texture of the meat stays firm and muscular, with none of the sponginess that can result from added moisture.

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Brining the bird

It couldn't be simpler to do. Here's how it works: Sprinkle the bird with salt, allowing about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt for every 5 pounds of turkey. That's not a lot -- it won't look like much more than what you'd normally apply just before roasting. And contrary to some published reports (I'm looking at you, Cook's Illustrated!), you can sprinkle the salt right onto the skin; you don't need to lift the skin and salt the meat.

Then stick the turkey in a sealed plastic bag and refrigerate. After a day or so, you might see some liquid in the bag. Don't worry. Salt naturally pulls moisture from meat. Give the turkey a light massage through the bag to make sure the salt is distributed evenly and stick it back in the fridge.

After three days, you'll see that the moisture has been reabsorbed by the meat, pulling the salt with it. At this point, if you're a perfectionist, you can remove the turkey from the bag, put it on a plate and let it dry in the refrigerator for several hours (the fan in the refrigerator works very well as a skin-dryer). If you haven't yet reached that level of obsession, you can just pat the skin dry with a paper towel; the skin may not be quite as brown or crisp, but few will notice.

Then you roast it. Start at 450 degrees to get the browning going, then after a half-hour or so, reduce to 325 to cook through. In the past, I've called for rotating the turkey during cooking so it browns more evenly. No more, it's just too big a hassle considering the modest improvement in color.

So simple, how could you change it? Ha! You don't know the power of a motivated tinkerer . . . or of curious readers.

My first major discovery came after several e-mails asking whether it could be done with frozen turkeys too, rather than adding three days of defrosting time onto the three days of dry-brining. It seemed like a good idea, so we tried it in the test kitchen and it worked perfectly.

So no longer do you have to buy your turkey a week in advance. Just rinse the frozen turkey in cool water (to start the defrosting process), pat it dry and salt it. Then proceed just as you would with a fresh turkey. By the time it's defrosted, it'll be seasoned and ready to go.

That makes dry-brined turkey much more convenient. Other reader e-mails prompted an idea that made it even more delicious. As originally constructed, with just plain salt, this recipe delivers a really deep, pure turkey flavor. It's not overly salty, more like seasoned all the way to the bone.

But what about adding flavors? Especially for readers used to marinades and wet-brining, the whole "deep pure flavor" thing can seem a bit austere. What about adding different herbs or spices to the salt?

To find out, I rubbed a turkey breast with a mixture of salt ground with minced fresh rosemary and grated lemon zest. Yup again, great flavor, with just a hint of rosemary suffusing the breast meat. The lemon zest was barely detectable.

Just to be sure the flavor had really penetrated the meat and wasn't just coating the surface, I cut some very wide slices, getting as much of the center of the muscle as I could, then tasted that by itself. The rosemary flavor was definitely there.

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Aromatic options

I e-mailed Rodgers, to ask if she'd ever played with seasoning her salted meats. The answer was immediate and enthusiastic.

"YES! Salting early is a great trick on its own," she wrote back, "but it has another virtue that should get more attention. Add aromatics to the salt. It's a very big deal. A killer combo is black pepper and thyme on chicken or rabbit. Black pepper on steak makes the best pepper steak.

"In my testing, the approach works best when whatever aromatics you're using are crushed just before combining with the salt and then rubbing on the meat."

You can use a mortar and pestle, particularly if you're using fresh herbs, or you can use a spice grinder, which is especially good for mixtures that include hard whole spices or dried herbs such as bay. I use one of those little electric "coffee grinders" from the grocery.

Then Rodgers added that the technique works even better if you let the meat warm nearly to room temperature before salting. "The flavor absorption goes faster, simply because the osmosis/reverse osmosis goes faster at warmer temps."

She also shared very strong feelings about other kinds of marinades. "I rant regularly about the ineffectiveness of (non-)marinades (a marinade without salt is a 'non-marinade' in my book)," she wrote.

"Fancy non-marinades, full of pricey, photogenic aromatics promise, visually, to deliver exotic flavors to a dish, when, at best, they only leave fragile aromatic oils on the surface of things -- where they are likely to burn!

"But add salt to those aromatics and all those molecules of flavor piggy back on the salt and head right into cells of welcoming protein."

Welcoming protein, indeed. As much as I love turkey, even I have to admit that sometimes the flavor can seem, well, a little subtle. It's been accused of being non-vegetarian tofu, though I think that's both cruel and false.

But I will admit that turkey does adapt quite well to introduced flavors. I liked the rosemary-lemon combination so much I was tempted to stop after that. But you know how recipe tinkering goes.

The first thought that came to mind was a kind of barbecue dry rub based on the one I use for pork ribs. Based on smoked paprika, similar to Spanish pimenton de la Vera, it took a little adjusting to get the flavor just where I wanted it. The trick, it turned out, was a good amount of fresh orange zest and just a hint of brown sugar to smooth out the acridity of the spices.

That is good, especially if you like a little bit of smoke on your turkey. But it's far from traditional, so on this holiday above all others, that might not be appropriate.

So for my next seasoned salt, I used the most traditional Thanksgiving flavors I could think of -- sage and bay. And I learned that there is a very good reason these flavors are as widely used as they are: They add a really lovely undertone to the flavor of the turkey.

Once again, holiday tradition pays off. And I can't wait to find out what I learn for next year.

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russ.parsons@latimes.com

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Rosemary-lemon salt

This makes enough for a 20-pound turkey. Allow 2 tablespoons per 5 pounds of turkey weight.

1/4 cup kosher salt

4 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest

Pulse together the salt, rosemary and lemon zest in a spice grinder or mash them in a mortar and pestle. Makes 1/2 cup. The mixture can be stored in a tightly sealed jar for up to 2 weeks.

Each tablespoon: 1 calorie; 0 protein; 0 carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 0 sugar; 1,680 mg. sodium.

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Smoky spiced salt with orange

This makes enough for a 20-pound turkey. Allow 2 generous tablespoons per 5 pounds of turkey weight.

1/4 cup kosher salt

1 tablespoon smoked paprika or pimenton de la Vera

1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon brown sugar

2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest

Pulse together the salt, smoked paprika, onion and garlic powders, cumin, black pepper, brown sugar and orange zest in a spice grinder or mash them in a mortar and pestle. Makes a little more than 1/2 cup. The mixture can be stored in a tightly sealed jar for up to 2 weeks.

Each tablespoon: 7 calories; 0 protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram sugar; 1,681 mg. sodium.

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Sage and bay salt

This makes enough for a 20-pound turkey. Allow a scant 1 1/2 tablespoons per 5 pounds of turkey weight.

1/4 cup kosher salt

10 dried bay leaves, crumbled

3/4 teaspoon ground sage

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pulse together the salt, bay leaves, ground sage and black pepper in a spice grinder or mash them in a mortar and pestle to make a fine powder. Makes 1/3 cup. The mixture can be stored in a tightly sealed jar for up to 2 weeks.

Each tablespoon: 3 calories; 0 protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 mg. cholesterol; 0 grams sugar; 2,688 mg. sodium.

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Dry-brined turkey

Total time: 3 hours, plus 3 days brining

Servings: 11 to 15

Note: This is more a technique than a recipe. It makes a bird that has concentrated turkey flavor and fine, firm flesh and that's delicious as is. But you can add other flavors. Minced rosemary would be a nice finishing addition. Or brush the bird lightly with butter before roasting. Remember that you should salt the turkey by Monday night at the latest to have it at its best by Thursday, though briefer salting times will work too.

1 (12- to 16-pound) turkey

Kosher salt or any of the seasoned salts

1. Wash the turkey inside and out, pat it dry and weigh it. Measure 1 tablespoon of kosher salt or the appropriate amount of a seasoned salt into a bowl for every 5 pounds the turkey weighs (for a 15-pound turkey, you'd have 3 tablespoons kosher salt).

2. Sprinkle the inside of the turkey lightly with salt. Place the turkey on its back and salt the breasts, concentrating the salt in the center, where the meat is thickest. You'll probably use a little more than a tablespoon. It should look liberally seasoned but not oversalted.

3. Turn the turkey on one side and sprinkle the entire side with salt, concentrating on the thigh. Use a little less than a tablespoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the other side.

4. Place the turkey in a 2 1/2 -gallon sealable plastic bag, press out the air and seal tightly. Place the turkey breast-side up in the refrigerator. Chill for 3 days, leaving it in the bag but turning it and massaging the salt into the skin every day.

5. Remove the turkey from the bag. There should be no salt visible on the surface, and the skin should be moist but not wet. Wipe the turkey dry with a paper towel, place it breast-side up on a plate and refrigerate uncovered for at least 8 hours.

6. On the day it is to be cooked, remove the turkey from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature at least 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

7. Place the turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan; put it in the oven. After 30 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and roast until a thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone, reads 165 degrees, about 2 3/4 hours total roasting.

8. Remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a warm platter or carving board; tent loosely with foil. Let stand at least 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute through the meat. Carve and serve.

Each of 15 servings: 423 calories; 58 grams protein; 0 carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 20 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 196 mg. cholesterol; 0 sugar; 810 mg. sodium.

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