When I'm buried, I fear that my headstone will read: He Dry-Brined Turkeys. I started writing about this technique several years ago and every Thanksgiving it seems more cooks become converted. That's understandable — it's by far the easiest way to make a great turkey. If you have a refrigerator, a little salt and a couple of days, you're on your way to a moist, deeply flavored bird.
In fact, the kind folks at the Food52 website were gracious enough to include my effort in their upcoming "Food 52: Genius Recipes" collection coming out this spring.
If you're just getting started, it's important to understand the difference between traditional brining and what I call dry brining (linguists get livid about that phrase — insisting that brine by definition includes water; they may be right, but I have yet to hear a better description).
The main aim of brining is not just flavoring, but also keeping the turkey moist — not so much by the water that's added, but by the chemical reaction the salt creates in the protein of the meat. If you've tried it, you know that a brined turkey is far moister than one that has not been brined, even if it's been overcooked a little.
After years of traditionally brining my turkey — suspending the bird in my biggest stock pot or a painter's pail filled with water and salt, juggling it between sink and refrigerator — I switched to dry-brining, inspired by the late Judy Rodgers from Zuni Café and her legendary roast chicken. At the time, she said she'd never tried doing that with a turkey before, but even she became converted.
In dry brining, you sprinkle the bird with salt (about 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt for every 5 pounds of turkey), put it in a tightly sealed plastic bag, and let it sit for several days.
It's a lot easier than traditional brining, and I think the turkey tastes better too. The problem with traditional brining is that the bird does end up absorbing some water, and the meat after cooking has a somewhat spongy texture.
With dry-brining, there's no extra moisture absorbed (though while the turkey is under brine, you will notice that the salt pulls some moisture from the bird, most of which gets reabsorbed). The meat, though perfectly moist, has a firmer, more muscular texture, which I prefer.
Dry-brining is not quite as flexible as traditional brining when it comes to adding additional flavors, but it can be done. The most effective are dried spices and herbs and citrus zests. Simply grind the flavorings with the salt (figure 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons per 1/4 cup of salt) and apply.
Roast as you normally would. If you're going to stuff the turkey, underseason a little bit to offset the additional salt from the drippings (the flavor is all through the bird, not just on the outside, as it normally would be). For the same reason, make the gravy separately and add pan-drippings to taste.