The Judy Bird: Dry Brining Your Turkey. (PS You Should Start Today)

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turkey_drybrine

You may remember last Thanksgiving we ran a story by Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times about the Judy Bird — or the dry-brining technique that Judy Rodgers of The Zuni Cafe in San Fransisco.

Check out our Thanksgiving Guide by clicking here.

Zuni Cafe is known for its amazing roast chicken, and the technique that Rodgers uses (salting the birds a few days before roasting them) can be easily applied to turkey.

Basically instead of big bag of water (which can get messy), you brine your turkey with salt alone. You use 3/4 of a teaspoon per pound, and you start 2 to 3 days before you cook it. Slip some herbs under the skin if you like (I would), and then roast as usual.

Russ says:

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 Café 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.

He has more all about the technique in his article from this year. Click here to see his improvements and updates.

One major improvement he noticed: you can start with a frozen turkey:

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.

He also found that flavored salts work well. He tried sage and bay leaf; rosemary-lemon; and smoked paprika and orange.

Recipes are here:
Dry-brined turkey recipe.
Sage and bay salt.
Smoky spiced salt with orange.
Rosemary lemon salt.

And here’s a Q&A all about dry brining with the LA Times.

I’m telling you: This is the way to go with turkey. We did it last year and it was the most flavorful bird ever. I’ve done it with chicken ever since, and I adore it.

PS: Here’s a bonus. Click on this story and you’ll see links to all kinds of Thanksgiving recipes.

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About Author

Liz Johnson is the food editor of The Journal News and LoHud.com, for which she's won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.

4 Comments

  1. Couldn’t you just buy a kosher turkey or chicken and have the same results? A kosher turkey would already have been salted. Essentially, you are only adding a salty flavor. This practice was started centuries ago to eliminate the blood in animals to be consumed and as a preservative. Salt also cleanses. As for taste, salt fools the tongue, and mind, so the turkey doesn’t really taste better but your taste buds, so called, find the saltiness to be a pleasing flavor and fool you into believing the taste of the turkey is better. It’s all delusion anyway, so enjoy!

  2. Hey Phyllis! On the Q&A that I linked to above, Russ says that the kosher turkeys aren’t the same because there’s only a little salt … just enough to remove the blood, as you mention.

    Though I think salting does make food taste better, the chemistry of brining also makes the meat juicier.

    From the Q&A:

    How does brining work? Without getting all Mr. Science-y: During cooking, the protein strands in muscles tighten, squeezing out liquid. The salt in a brine solution changes the chemistry of the protein in a way that allows it to retain more moisture during cooking.

    But regardless … if I’m fooled or if it’s truly chemistry (and extra salt!), the Judy Bird is so delicious that I’m stickin’ to it!

  3. Hey Michele,
    I suppose that’s in the realm of possibility, but if you start early enough I don’t see it happening. Here’s a kind of similar question on the Q&A on the Times site:

    Does dry-brined turkey taste salty? No, it merely tastes well-seasoned. You only use a little more salt than you normally would, and because the salt is absorbed into the meat rather than sitting on the surface, the saltiness is mitigated.

    Makes me think that if you did start too late or use too much salt that if you just brushed off the extra you might be OK.

    I HAVE had pork and chicken that I’ve left in the brine too long and it became too salty, though. So hard to know. Maybe you could ask Russ?

    There’s also a Thanksgiving 101 on the NY Times’ Diner’s Journal Blog: http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/thanksgiving/?hp

    And on food52’s Web site: http://www.food52.com/blog/250_thanksgiving_911

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