Saturday, November 28, 2009

Buttermilk-brined turkey

Now if you know me, you know that I tend to be humble, but I make this statement with assurance and pride. I can make the best damn turkey. I've perfected this turkey after several years of modification and experimentation. Most importantly, each morning after Thanksgiving, I'm missing the 4am early bird sales because I am at home taking copious notes on what went well, what went wrong, and what should be tried to make the following year's turkey even better. With a cup of coffee in hand, I'm sure I annoy everyone as I conduct in-depth analyses, interviewing each family member on the intricacies of the turkey I just cooked the night before.

Here are my top three successful-turkey-cooking tips, followed by what is really what I've found to be THE recipe for the most tasty, succulent turkey. The recipe began as a Williams-Sonoma recipe for buttermilk-brined turkey, but has been modified a great deal. I'm also going to include my own time table for feeding about 10 guests on Thanksgiving. I ask my guests to arrive at 4pm, and we're usually ready to eat by about 4:30 or 4:45 pm. We usually eat on the early side because for all the years I've been cooking, kids and early bedtimes have been a factor.

OK, unless you can already cook a great turkey, you REALLY want to print this out and file it for next year! (I usually am fairly humble, right?)

Top three musts:

  1. Must use a fresh organic turkey (not frozen!).

  2. Buttermilk brine is the way to go. The combination of the buttermilk and the salty solution helps create a tender and juicy turkey.

  3. An instant-read thermometer is the most important part of cooking any meat, but especially a turkey (any cheap one will do).


1 14-16 pound turkey (for my table of about 10 guests with enough for leftovers)

2 cups turkey brine (usually a kosher salt and herb mixture. I've tried different brands, and any seems to work - you could make your own if you really wanted to)

4 quarts buttermilk

1 handful (total) of celery, carrot, onion cut in large pieces

1 stick of butter at room temperature

Large brining bag

6 tablespoons flour (for gravy)

About 1/3 cup Williams-Sonoma Turkey Paste (it's basically a thick mixture of grapeseed oil and dried herbs - you could easily make your own - and next year, I may try)


Wednesday Morning - the day before Thanksgiving:

In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the 2 cups turkey brine and 1 quart water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until the brine dissolves, about 5-10 minutes. Let the brine mixture cool to room temperature. While cooling, start the giblet stock.

For the giblet stock, use everything (including neck) except the liver. Simmer in a pot with 12 cups of water and the handful of veggies for 1 hour. Strain (unless you like the giblets in your gravy - I personally don't). Cool, then put away safely in the fridge for tomorrow.

While the stock is cooking and the brine is cooling, rinse the turkey inside and out and place in a large brining bag inside a pot (make sure you put in a pot or you could end up with a big mess if the bag breaks!). Be sure your pot will fit in the fridge.

Now that the brine is cool, add the brine liquid with all it's herbs, and the 4 quarts buttermilk to the bag with turkey. Zip it carefully, pressing out air, and shake it around a bit to completely coat the turkey. Refrigerate for 24-36 hours, turning occasionally (I do this by just taking the pot out and shaking it around a bit).


Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)

  • 12pm: discard buttermilk-brine. I do this by taking the bag out of the pot, putting it in the sink and clipping a corner of the bag. I drain the liquid first because this avoids any potential mess. Take the turkey out of the bag and rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water and pat dry. Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a large roasting pan. Carefully slide your hand between the breast meat and the skin and add a generous amount of turkey paste (or oil/herb mixture). Let the turkey stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Also, take the turkey stock and butter out of the refrigerator.
  • 1:30pm: position a rack in the lower third of oven and preheat to 400 degrees F. Set aside 2 cups of stock to make gravy later on, and add the rest of the turkey stock to the bottom of the roasting pan. Rub butter on the outside of the turkey and then plop the stick right into the bottom of the roasting pan as well, right into the stock. Roast the turkey for 30 minutes, watching carefully that the skin does not brown too quickly. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F, and continue roasting, basting every 30 minutes or so with the pan juices. If the breast begins to brown too quickly, tent it loosely with aluminum foil. After about 2 hours of total roasting time, begin testing for doneness by inserting the instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, away from the bone. The breast should register 165 degrees, and the thigh, 175 degrees. Here's the important trick - if the breast is not at 165, set your timer for 10 minutes and check again. Relying on the right temperature and not overcooking is KEY. Using the timer so you don't forget to check often is KEY. The turkey will be done around 4pm or so. If you have never cooked an fresh and organic turkey, you'll notice they often cook a little faster than frozen turkeys.
  • When the turkey breast registers 165, remove from oven, transfer to a carving board, cover loosely with foil and let rest for 20-30 minutes.
  • To make the gravy: pour all the pan drippings into a gravy separator (not imperative, but a worthwhile tool to have - even if you use it once a year!). Add about 6 tablespoons of fat to a medium saucepan. Add 6 tablespoons flour, whisking constantly and cook till brown. Add the remaining 2 cups turkey stock and drippings (the pan juices only - no more fat). You may need to play around with the gravy adding water/stock to thin or more of a flour/water (slurry) mixture to thicken. The pan juices will be very salty, so if you choose to add salt, taste first.

Last thoughts - This is the recipe that has worked for me consistently for a few years and was probably as close to perfected this year as it's going to get. I realize there are all sorts of prized recipes (and I'd love to hear them!) whether they involve basting with a soaked cheese cloth, the philosophy of no basting, or being deep fried in gallons of oil. If you don't already have a great recipe - the buttermilk brine is the method to try next year!

Oh, and don't forget - in the words of Moose from Nick Jr. "When everyone's together, everyone is happy, we're thankful that we have so much to share".


  1. Wow, after reading about your turkey, I'm feeling hungry already. How about giving me some of your cooked turkey so that I can use my torch ginger flower today to make some salads? Now I am convinced that your children and hubby are very lucky people indeed.

  2. ... and the fourth must is a very big oven :-D This turkey recipe sounds good. Will try one day. Saved a copy already! TQVM. Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. Hi Wendy, thank you for this! I'll print to save. You will (maybe) laugh that even though I love to cook/eat, I usually don't follow recipes...though I have tons of cookbooks...I buy them for the colored!
    I use buttermilk when making fried chicken so I know it's a great tenderizer.
    Okay, now i'm hungry!

  4. This sounds yummy! Secret: I've never made a Thanksgiving dinner. :oX I've only cooked a whole turkey once, when my husband brought one home from a hunting trip.
    I'll definitely give this a go if he gets one in the spring, it sounds like it will be a big hit.
    Have you ever tried it with a chicken? Might be worth a try. :o)

  5. What a delicious post! Last night I dreamed about eating this turkey, ripped it apart and ate with my hands...and I've been a vegetarian for almost 18 years!

  6. What a great resource!

  7. Thank you very much for your well articulated recipe. I've used a buttermilk brine for fried chicken like one of your other commenters but never thought about it for turkey. I've never heard of "turkey paste" but I figure that olive oil, good salt, cracked pepper and thyme is all I probably need. Happy Thanksgiving!!

  8. We just made the best Thanksgiving ever and at the heart, your recipe for turkey! Thanks!


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