Home cooks have tried just about everything - from aluminum foil to brown paper bags and specially made oven cooking bags - to keep their turkeys moist during the long hours required for roasting.
But one surefire method for a moist bird is brining.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan swears by the power of the brine, a 24-hour immersion in heavily salted-sweet water that infuses every pore in the turkey's flesh with garlic, herbs, and juniper (see recipe). And instead of roasting indoors, LaBan grills his turkeys outdoors.
But if you find yourself lying awake at night in fear that the bag will break and the water will leak, creating a massive mess, consider dry brining. In this method, you salt the bird, put it in a bag without water, and into the refrigerator for four days. (See recipe.)
Trussing - tying the bird tightly - also keeps moisture in and creates that perfect Norman Rockwell shape.
To truss, use a 12-foot length of cooking twine and start with the bird on its back, with the legs facing you.
Make a loop in the twine and hook that over the turkey's neckbone. Pull the twine down either side of the breast and tie a knot at the bottom.
Then, working with one leg at a time, loop the twine around a leg, then up that side of the breast, and down the other side. Do the same with the other length of twine and the second turkey leg.
Now for the wings. Loop the two ends of twine up and around each wing, flipping the bird in the process, and tie a knot on the back. Flip the bird back to breast-side-up and tie the final knot over the legs. Trim the excess ends of twine.
There's a good video demonstration of trussing - and carving - by Alton Brown on youtube.com.
Makes enough for a 14- to 16-pound turkey; takes 4 days
1 (14- to 16-pound) fresh turkey
3 tablespoons kosher salt
12-foot length of cooking twine
1/4 stick unsalted butter
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 there.
3. Turn the turkey on one side and sprinkle the entire side with salt, concentrating on the thigh - about a little less than a tablespoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the opposite side.
4. Place the turkey in a 21/2-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 the bird 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 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 oven to 425 degrees.
7. Before putting the turkey in the oven, you can take the optional step of brushing it lightly with butter. Then truss the bird.
8. Place the turkey breast side down on 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.
9. 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. Total roasting time will be about 23/4 hours.
10. 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. The cooking twine will fall away and the turkey is carved.
Craig LaBan's Wet Brine for Turkey
Makes enough for a 15-18-pound turkey
One (15- to 18-pound) fresh turkey
8 quarts water
2 cups coarse kosher salt
1 cup packed brown sugar (or honey)
1 bunch fresh thyme
6 to 8 peeled whole garlic cloves
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon juniper berries
1. Prepare a container large enough to hold a turkey, but small enough to fit inside a refrigerator, by lining it with a sturdy trash bag. (A clean plastic office wastebasket works well.) Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil.
2. Place the turkey inside.
3. Mix the boiled water well with salt and brown sugar. Once cool, pour over the turkey and add thyme, garlic, pepper, and juniper.
4. Add remaining water. Then tie the trash bag to seal tightly. Place in refrigerator for 24 hours.
Craig LaBan's Charcoal Grilled Turkey
Makes 12 servings
15- to 18-pound turkey, preferably never frozen
2 lemons, cut in half
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons smoked
1/2 cup herbes de Provence
1 orange, cut in half
1 head garlic, halved
1 bunch thyme
6 bay leaves
1 bunch parsley
1. Remove the turkey from the brine, dry, and remove the wishbone. Rub the entire bird with juice from one lemon half. Smear the whole turkey with olive oil, then season generously (inside and out) with salt and pepper, paprika, and herbes de Provence. Stuff the cavity with remaining cut lemon, orange, garlic, and herbs. (Not a bread stuffing; make that separately in the oven).
2. Truss turkey cavity closed. The inside thighs should be slightly exposed to heat (not tied too tightly against the body) but the legs should be tied loosely so they do not hang over direct heat and burn.
3. Prepare the grill by placing an aluminum pan for drippings with a little water in the bottom, between two coal-side baskets. Then preheat the briquettes. For a 221/2-inch grill, use 50 briquettes to begin. When the coals are well-started, divide them evenly into side baskets. Open vents on the lid and bottom, place the cooking grate over the coals, and close the lid until the kettle reaches about 350 degrees.
4. Place the turkey on the grate over the drip pan and cover with the lid. Add about eight coals per side every hour (or four every half hour) to maintain temperature. A 15- to 17-pound unstuffed turkey should take 23/4 to 31/2 hours to cook. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the bird is cooked - when the thermometer registers 180 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh or 170 degrees in the breast.
5. Remove the turkey from the grill. Cover it with foil and let it rest a minimum of 45 minutes before carving.
Per serving: 251 calories, 170 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 68 grams fat, 496 milligrams cholesterol, 413 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.