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How we discovered the be-all, end-all turkey recipe

How we discovered the be-all, end-all turkey recipe
(Beatrice de Gea / Los Angeles Times)
Is there a bird that's better than brined?

For the last decade or so, many of us have adopted as part of our Thanksgiving ritual soaking our turkeys in salt water for several days before roasting them. This isn't weird; it really works. Birds that have been brined stay much moister than turkeys that have not.

Still, there's no arguing with the fact that there are drawbacks to the technique. You've got to find a bucket big enough to hold a turkey, to start with -- and a clean one. And then you've got to find room in your refrigerator to store it for the better part of a week.

Is there a better way?

Last Thanksgiving, we at the Food Section introduced readers to a steam-roasting technique. Turkey baked in a covered roaster pan -- you know, the kind your grandma used -- stays moist in a different way. During normal uncovered roasting, any juices that leak out of the bird are converted to steam by the hot pan and evaporate. Covering the pan reduces the amount of steam that gets away. A moist turkey with no advance preparation -- we really liked that idea.

And then there are those who swear by high-heat roasting for turkeys -- they claim quick cooking keeps the meat moist and improves the flavor because of the improved browning.

For the last year, I've been on a dry-salting craze. Almost every piece of protein that comes into my kitchen sits under a light sprinkling of salt for anywhere from an hour to several days before I cook it (as you can imagine, my wife and daughter have been hiding in other parts of the house). Meat that has been left to sit under salt has a deeper, more concentrated flavor and the texture is moist, but firm and more meaty.

This technique is something I learned from Judy Rodgers, chef at San Francisco's landmark Zuni Cafe. I've used it with fish fillets (which take only an hour or so of curing), chicken, both parts and whole (anywhere from eight hours to a couple of days), and even a beef tenderloin (several days).

I call it "Judy-ing," and it has worked wonders with everything I've tried it on. But how would it work with turkey, which is so much larger than any of the meats I cook during the rest of the year? Would the salt penetrate all the way to the center of the breast and thighs? I was a little skeptical (and so was Judy when I asked her), but it was worth a try.

Thus was born the Great Turkey Smackdown of 2006: Four turkeys, four ovens, four techniques tested side by side: one brined, one steam-roasted, one high-heat-roasted and one "Judy-ed." Once and for all, we'd find the best way to roast a turkey.

Fire up the ovens

IT'S no wonder so many Thanksgiving turkeys wind up so disappointing. Turkeys are notoriously difficult to get exactly right, even for experienced cooks. In the first place, they're composed of two contradictory meats -- white breast meat that dries out in a flash and dark leg meat that seems to take forever to get done. On top of that, they are huge, which magnifies any mistake in timing.

Most cooks know about brining, which not only adds moisture to the bird and seasons it throughout but also helps the muscles hold on to that moisture during cooking by altering the electrical charges of the protein strands.

Salting works similarly to brining, except it doesn't use any water. It's remarkably simple. You just sprinkle the turkey with salt, then set it aside for four days for a 12- to 16-pound bird. At first, the salt pulls moisture from the meat, but as time passes, almost all of those juices are reabsorbed, bringing the salt along with them.

But maybe I was over-thinking the whole thing; perhaps high-temperature roasting wasn't such a bad idea. If a 400-degree oven makes a chicken with crisp brown skin and moist flesh, why wouldn't it do the same thing for a turkey? Wouldn't it be great if the solution to all of our turkey woes could be so easy?

The Smackdown, we hoped, would answer these questions. We bought four fresh free-range turkeys as close to the same size as we could find -- about 15 pounds. We started the two that needed advance preparation, salting one, brining the other and storing them in 2 1/2 -gallon sealable plastic bags. The Times Test Kitchen's ovens had recently been calibrated, assuring accurate temperatures. We assembled four similar heavy-gauge, anodized aluminum roasting pans.

For the brining, we used a standard ratio of two-thirds cup salt to 1 gallon water. For the salting, we allowed 1 tablespoon of salt for every 4 pounds of turkey -- just short of one-fourth cup -- and concentrated the distribution on the thickest parts of the meat, the breast and the thigh.

After three days, we removed both from their bags and let all four turkeys air-dry in the refrigerator overnight -- the fan that circulates cold air also works very well at drying poultry skin.

On the big day, we salted the two that had not been seasoned. Then we put them all in the oven, without stuffing. We started the brined and salted birds at 375 degrees, breast-side down, and then after 30 minutes we flipped them and reduced the temperature to 325 degrees.

Following the recipe, we started the covered-pan turkey at 425 degrees then immediately turned it down to 325 degrees before removing the lid and browning the turkey at 350 degrees for the last half-hour.

We simply roasted the high-heat turkey at 400 degrees, breast-side up, from beginning to end.

None of the birds were basted. For all, we were aiming for a final temperature of 165 degrees measured in the deepest part of the thigh.

The first surprise was an unpleasant one. When we took the temperatures after only a little more than two hours of cooking, the covered-pan turkey had already soared past 180 degrees -- well past well-done. We would have to try that one again. The other three finished cooking within a very short time of each other -- roughly three hours. The one roasted at high temperature ended up being done only about 15 minutes faster than the birds roasted at the conventional temperature.

We let the birds set for 30 minutes to finish cooking and enable the juices to re-distribute evenly through the meat.

The Times Tasting Panel waited eagerly as I carved the birds, both white meat and dark. Joining me on the panel were staff writers Charles Perry, Corie Brown and Amy Scattergood, test kitchen director Donna Deane, restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, assistant food editor Betty Hallock, food editor Leslie Brenner and deputy features editor Michalene Busico.

The best-browned bird was the one we had brined. It was very moist -- both in the breast meat and in the thigh. And the flavor was good, not salty at all but well-seasoned throughout. So we hadn't been crazy for all those years. However, as we'd learn after tasting all the birds, it didn't have the best texture -- it was slightly spongy.

The high-temperature experiment was not nearly as successful as the brined. Far from solving the problem of the difference in doneness between dark and white meat, this magnified it. The flavor was fine, and the skin was brown and crisp. But though the breast meat had already started to dry out, the dark meat was still a little underdone -- it had that slightly rubbery rare-poultry texture and there was a little pink juice in the hip joint.

But the bird that got people most excited was the one we had Judy-ed. Unlike the brined turkey, which had a slightly spongy texture, the one that had only been salted was firm, meaty and smoothly dense. And though it was a bit too salty as prepared this first go-round, the underlying flavor of the turkey was amazing -- deep and full.

Suddenly, my Thanksgiving menu plans took a turn. This was one serious bird. People sampled it, went thoughtfully quiet a minute and then grabbed for more. The opinion of the panel was unanimous -- the Judy-ed bird, though it needed a bit of refinement to tone down the salt and crisp and brown the skin, was the clear winner.

To be fair to the steam-roasted turkey, we retested that one, but that didn't change the results of the Smackdown. Though it was certainly moist, the flavor was pallid in comparison with the other birds; it tasted more steamed than roasted.

To further refine the pre-salted turkey, we tried it again, this time reducing the salt, allowing only a tablespoon for every 5 pounds of bird. To improve the browning, we started roasting the bird at 425 degrees for 30 minutes instead of 375 degrees.

And we threw in one further wrinkle -- we brushed half of the bird with melted butter before it went into the oven to see what effect that had on browning and on flavor.

This time we hit it right on the money.

The turkey was a glorious brown all over -- the side brushed with butter might have had a slightly more golden color but only ever so slightly (and there was no difference in flavor at all). The skin was nicely crisp. The dark meat was firm and meaty and still incredibly moist -- enough that even after a half-hour's sitting there was a flood of juice when I carved it. The white meat was only slightly less so.

The problem with saltiness was solved. If anything, the breast meat could have used just a little more passed at the table for those of us with a salty palate. So next time, I might try upping the salt just a bit -- this is a recipe that will evolve over time.

And, maybe best of all, you no longer have to wrestle that big bucket of brine-soaked bird out of the refrigerator.

russ.parsons@latimes.com

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Roast salted turkey

Total time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

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 is delicious as it is. But you can add other flavors as you wish. Minced rosemary would be a nice finishing addition. Or brush the bird lightly with butter before roasting.

1 (12- to 16-pound) turkey

Kosher salt

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

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 over-salted.

3. Turn the turkey on one side and sprinkle the entire side with salt, concentrating on the thigh. You should use a little less than a tablespoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the opposite 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, turning it onto its breast for the last 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. Place the turkey 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 breast-side down on a roasting rack in a roasting pan; put it in the oven. After 30 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and carefully turn the turkey over so the breast is facing up (it's easiest to do this by hand, using kitchen towels or oven mitts).

8. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, return the turkey to the oven 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.

9. 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: 564 calories; 77 grams protein; 0 carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 26 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 261 mg. cholesterol; 856 mg. sodium.
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