The Easiest Ways to Cook Turkey and Not Screw It Up, According to Butchers

Choose-your-own-poultry-adventure this year.

The holidays are many, many things. Besides the good food, flowing wine, and, in this year’s case, PCR tests and face shields… there’s truly no better time to air family grievances. In our house, we fall on separate sides of the turkey almost across the board. Do you brine? (Yes, duh.) But wet or dry? And for how long? AND WHERE? AND HOW DO YOU COOK THIS THING?!!!!?!?

We wives go round and round about the turkey every year. So, especially if you aren’t getting to see your family this year, take a peek into our family conflict to sort out what the hell to do with that dang turkey.

Part 1: The Brine - Wet vs. Dry

Erika: I prefer to wet brine because it adds more moisture to the bird to begin with. But it’s also a vehicle for flavor! It’s not just salt. I bring 4 liters of water to a boil, add 2 parts salt and 1 part sugar then go crazy with the aromatics. Coriander or star anise… bring it up to a boil. Then turn it off, and add 4L of ice. 
Jocelyn: Ohhhh, so this is a moment for you to go to your mother’s house and empty out all her spices from the 80s and brine yourself a turkey.
Erika: Yes.
Jocelyn: That might be reason enough BUT! I will not relent. I dry brine because a) if you start with a beautiful heritage bird, you’re already going to have a bomb turkey and b) I’m all about that skin so I don’t want any extra “moisture” as you casually call it. And then c) how the hell do you have space to dry brine a turkey in your fridge? It’s full of all your other mise en place for sides.
Erika: I brine in a cooler.
Jocelyn: Ok you have a point. But I stand by the crispy skin. You don’t need to taste a bunch of other flavors — the turkey should be the turkey! So salt the hell out of it with kosher salt and let it sit uncovered in the fridge for two days. You won’t be sorry. When the skin looks questionable and too dry, it is JUST DRY ENOUGH.
Erika: Ok. Well, we disagree. What about trussing?
Jocelyn: I used to be a trusser! I used to buy into the whole spiel about it being cooked more evenly. But I find that during holidays, we all need to freaking relax. That goes for the bird too. Don’t truss that lady. Let her splay out. It will all cook so much better! And more oven heat to skin ratio = MORE SKIN TO EAT.
Erika: No, no. I truss. I think if you’re going to handle your bird during the cook, like how some people flip their bird during the cook, you need it trussed so it’s easier to maneuver.
Jocelyn: So your trussing defense is you truss in order to flip?
Erika: No! What about after it’s cooked and you have to put it on the platter or cutting board? You need to have it trussed.
Jocelyn: My mom has this nifty little thing — it’s these two chains you put under the bird and it has handles and you can lift it out no problem. It’s like Operation Dumbo Drop.
Erika: You make that joke every year.
Jocelyn: It’s a good joke. So what’s your real defense of trussing?
Erika: It’s definitely a more even cook. It’s you’re going to stuff the bird with aromatics, a quartered onion, a halved lemon, a head of garlic, and herbs — you stuff it in there and you tie it up so it doesn’t fall out.
Jocelyn: What? NO. What, am I stuffing it and then tying it up because I’m going to be in there shaking it around? Once it’s in, it’s in.
Erika: Once you close it the aromas…
Jocelyn: Oh, it’s an aroma defense now.
Erika: No! It's the cook and the aromatics! It’s better!!

How to Wet Brine, Erika’s Version

  • Bring 4 liters of water to a boil, add 2 parts salt, and 1 part sugar. You can go crazy with the aromatics (coriander, star anise, whatever you like.)
  • Bring it up to a boil. Turn it off and add 4L of ice (or put it into a cooler with the bird). 

How to Dry Brine, Jocelyn’s Version

  • Generously salt the turkey and let it sit uncovered in the fridge for two days. When the skin looks questionable and too dry, it is JUST DRY ENOUGH.

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Part 2: The Cook

Erika: I do the entire bird without covering any of it. I start hot at 500 F. Let the bird go for 15-20 minutes or so then I start checking it —
Jocelyn: Oh and you shake it around? But your bouquet garni doesn’t fall out because you trussed it right?
Erika: I DON’T SHAKE IT. When it looks like it’s getting good color, nice and browning, I knock it down to 225 F and let it roll. I don’t do that 15 minutes a pound or any of that —
Erika: AGREE!
Jocelyn: That’s two agreements.
Erika: Anyway, I put the turkey at 170 F in the breast.
Jocelyn: Whaaaaa?
Erika: Yeah. It’s better. I don’t temp the thigh. I temp the breast.
Jocelyn: Me too. Slide the probe in the breast under the wishbone but so it’s not touching the bone. Or you’ll get a bad read.
Erika: Exactly. So I pull it at 170 F and then rest.
Jocelyn: Ok I do a similar thing. I start at 500 F and I put my dry as a goddamn bone loose goosey bird in the oven but the KEY before putting it in the oven is to achieve height. Height is key. If you don’t have one of those roasting rack thingies, you can use regular ole tin foil, maybe half a roll, and fashion a foil snake. Coil that sucker around and you have yourself a turkey roasting rack. Then I pop it in, and after 30 minutes or so, I knock the heat down to 250 F and let it cruise. I baste every 30 minutes. Basting for me is less of a culinary choice and more of a social choice. If you’re in a bad convo, you’re like hoo boy I have to go baste that turkey. Then you walk away and baste! that! turkey! I pull it at 160 F.

The Cook, Erika’s Version
1. Pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the turkey in the mid-rack of the oven and let it cook for 15-20 minutes, until it has a nice, golden color. 
2. Turn the oven temperature down to 225 degrees Fahrenheit and allow the bird to cook until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of breast near the neck registers 170° F. Keep in mind that the temperature will continue to climb while the bird rests, 65–85 minutes longer.

The Cook, Jocelyn’s Version
1. Pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a roasting rack, create a foil snake with tinfoil to create a DIY roasting rack.
2. Once the turkey has roasted for 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. 
3. Baste the bird every 30 minutes. 
4. Cook the bird until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers at 160 F.

Part 3: The Carving

Jocelyn: You have to rest the bird.
Jocelyn: I tent it in foil and let it rest for a full 45 minutes. Then you put all the sides back in the oven, get everybody’s crap hot and it’s all on the table at the same time. 
Erika: Agree. So where do you carve?
Jocelyn: The kitchen no question. Away from observers, grubby kids, hungry people. You gotta plate before people start taking bites.
Erika: But, don’t forget, victory lap first, then carve. The key is to plate it white meat somewhere, dark meat somewhere so people all get what they want. Everybody’s happy! The key to holidays!

The Carving, Erika’s Way

  • Rest your bird for at least 45 minutes, then carve it.

The Carving, Jocelyn’s Way

  • Pull your bird out of the oven and tent it in foil. Allow it to rest for 45 minutes. 
  • Carve it in the kitchen, away from grubby kids and hungry people. 

So there you have it, folks. You can do the Erika (wet brine, truss) or the Joce (dry brine, no truss) but the important parts are NO stuffing! Give your bird some height in the pan so there's airflow and everything is thoroughly cooked. And temp the breast to about 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other than that, the rest is up to you! We’ll be live on our gram on Turkey Day if you’re screwed and would like some gentle guidance. We’ll definitely give you two different answers.

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Jocelyn Guest and Erika Nakamura are a queer lady butcher duo who focus on sustainable and ethical sourcing. They live in the New York countryside with their baby daughter Nina, their cat Winnie, and their six pet chickens.