Dry-brined roast turkey with really good (Cognac!) sauce
The technique for this beautifully browned, crisp-skinned, succulent and flavorful roast turkey, inspired by the late Judy Rodger's Zuni Cafe roast chicken, was developed for the big bird by Russ Parsons at the Los Angeles Times in 2006, when I was Food Editor there.
If you like, you can make the bird without bothering with the Cognac sauce; the turkey technique is almost comically simple, and the recipe has but two ingredients (turkey and salt). What's brilliant about it is you don't have to wrestle the bird into a huge pot of brine. Just rub it with salt three days before you serve it and seal it in a 2 1/2-gallon zipper bag. Take it out of the bag Thanksgiving (or Christmas) morning (or the morning of whatever day you want to serve it), and let the skin dry in the fridge. Into a 425 degree oven it goes for a half hour, then turn down the heat and forget about it – no basting required. It's so much easier than wet-brining a bird – and so much better.
For the sauce, I like to make the turkey stock ahead of time – using turkey necks, if I can get them, or legs, or a combo, so I can focus on other dishes the day of the event. You could cheat and use chicken broth from a box or cans if you don't want to take the time to make the stock – it won't be as rich and luxurious, but it'll still be pretty good. Or if gravy is part of your DNA, you may want to do that instead. But to me there's nothing like a deep-flavored, flour-free (and therefore gluten-free) reduction sauce that starts with deglazing the roasting pan with Cognac.
The best time to get started – by salting the bird – is the morning three days before the event. So if we're talking about Thanksgiving, that means Monday morning.
Serves 8 to 12 or more. You will need a 2 1/2 gallon zipper bag, a roasting pan with rack and an instant-read thermometer.
For the turkey:
1 11- to 16-pound turkey
2 3/4 to 4 tablespoons Kosher salt, depending on the size of the turkey (see instructions)
For the turkey stock:
3 pounds turkey necks or legs, or a combination
1 medium onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
A few sprigs of thyme
A small handful of parsley leaves with their stems
2 bay leaves
For the really good sauce:
4 tablespoons chopped shallots
A few sprigs of thyme
1/2 cup Cognac or other brandy
1 batch of turkey stock (about 2 cups)
Salt (if necessary) and pepper to taste
Prepare the turkey:
1. In the morning three days before you plan to serve the turkey (so Monday morning for Thanksgiving), remove the giblets and neck from the turkey, wash it inside and out and dry it thoroughly with paper towels. When you think it's dry, dry it some more. Weigh it. (If you don't have a kitchen scale, subtract about a pound and a half from the packaged weight for the neck and giblets.
2. Into a small bowl, measure 1/4 tablespoon of salt for every pound of turkey. (A 12-pound turkey gets 3 tablespoons salt.) Sprinkle the inside of the cavity lightly with salt (about half a teaspoon or so). Place the turkey breast-side up and salt the breasts – using a little more than a tablespoon of salt, and salting most heavily in the thickest part of the meat. Flip the bird onto its side, and use half the salt left to salt the side, focusing most heavily on the thigh and leg. Repeat with the remaining salt on the other side.
3. Put the salted turkey into a 2 1/2-gallon zipper bag. Press out the air as much as you can, seal the bag, place the bagged turkey on a platter or sheet pan and refrigerate for three days, turning the bird over once a day or so.
4. About six hours before you plan to roast it, remove the turkey from the bag and place it, breast-up, on a platter in the fridge, letting its skin air-dry. No need to wipe the salt off the bird; it will have sunk in.
5. An hour or an hour and a half before you plan to begin roasting, take the turkey out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature.
Prepare the turkey broth:
1. Place the turkey necks and/or legs in a large saucepan, and cover them with cold water. Bring the water to a simmer slowly over medium head, skimming the solids that rise to the top as necessary. After you skim a couple times, add about a cup of cold water, and skim again if necessary.
2. When there's no more skimming to be done, add the onion, celery, carrot, thyme, parsley and bay leaves. Let the stock simmer over low heat about three hours.
3. Strain the stock into a smaller saucepan, pressing on the solids. Discard the solids and place the saucepan over medium heat and cook till it's reduced to about two cups. Reserve until you're ready to make the sauce. (Store it covered in the fridge if you're not using it within a couple of hours.)
Roast the turkey:
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Tie the turkey's legs together at the ankles, if you like (you don't have to). Place the turkey, breast-side-down, in a roasting pan fitted with a rack. Roast for 30 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and use oven mitts to turn the turkey onto its back, so it's breast-side up.
2. Reduce the oven heat to 325 degrees, return the turkey to the oven and roast (no need to baste!) until the thigh meat reaches 165 degrees when tested with an instant-read thermometer. Be sure to check the thickest part of the thigh, making sure the thermometer isn't touching the bone. Start checking about 2 1/2 hours after the bird first went into the oven to make sure you don't overcook it. It will probably take about 2 hours and 45 minutes for a 12-pound bird, but oven temperatures vary widely, so be sure to check.
3. Remove the turkey to a carving board and tent it loosely with foil to rest for 30 minutes, while you make the sauce.
Make the sauce:
1. Pour off all but about a tablespoon of fat from the roasting pan. Place the pan over two burners at medium-low heat on the stove and add the shallots and thyme. Sweat the shallots, stirring frequently, until they're soft and translucent, about 5 minutes; don't let them brown.
2. Pour in the Cognac or brandy, turn the heat to medium-high and deglaze the pan. To do this, use a wooden spoon or wooden spatula to scrape up all the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan; the Cognac and the heat will help loosen them. The browned bits will provide the fabulous flavor to your sauce. Add the turkey stock, and cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce is reduced by about half. Adjust the seasoning, adding salt (if necessary) and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Put it all together:
Carve the turkey, making sure not to let your wonderfully crisp skin touch the juices (you want it to stay crisp). Pour any juices from the turkey into the sauce, and reheat it, if necessary. Strain the sauce into a sauceboat and pass with the turkey.