Big roasts or birds are expensive. There's a lot at stake, and not only financially. You're expecting a lot of people to come over and help you eat this thing, and heaven knows any holiday meal has its own emotional baggage. Is it too much to ask that your meal's starring cast member be tasty and moist? Nope. Let's talk for a minute about how to get there.
For a while, wet brining poultry was all the rage. People were mixing up water, spices, salt and sugar in large vats, coolers, stockpots, inflatable swimming pools or whatever they could cobble together, then putting birds in for a swim, for anywhere from an hour to a full day. It was messy, heavy, and the results could be underwhelming: soggy, watery meat. I am not sorry to see this ordeal fade from today's kitchen. There's a better way to go.
I have long been a proponent of dry brining. Barbecue pit masters have been doing it for years, calling it the rub. Basically, you mix up a salt and spice mixture, season your bird or meat inside and out, and let the laws of physics and some time do the rest.
The salt and sugar draw out the meat’s juices, where they mix with the flavor of the seasonings. Given the right amount of time, the laws of osmosis pull the flavored, salted liquid back into the meat, where it stays through the roasting process, making it taste more moist and enhancing its flavor from the inside out.
For something as simple as a chicken breast or a 1" thick pork chop, budget at least an hour and a half for the magic to happen, and you can season your meat as far ahead as to 12 hours. As long as you don't get heavy-handed when sprinkling, it will be fine.
A whole chicken or pork roast will need at least 6 hours and preferably 12 before you put it in the oven.
When you buy value-packs of chicken thighs or pork chops, season them with the brine before you package them up in individual meal-sized amounts. I put the repackaged meat in the refrigerator for a a couple of hours to let the brine start doing its work before transferring them to the freezer.
For irresistible, crispy skin, let the bird spend some time uncovered in the refrigerator. This will dry out the surface, making crispy skin pretty much guaranteed.
For a meal where the gravy is almost as important as the meat, it's important to get the tastiest juices you can from the pan. For any roast, having the meat be in contact with the pan is a formula for tough, dry results. Using a rack or stand of some kind to raise the flesh from the pan’s surface allows heat to circulate around the bird or roast, and it’s a plus if you can add flavor at the same time.
Chefs often do that by using mirepoix (carrots, onion, celery) instead of a roasting rack. The vegetables do the same job and add flavor to the pan juices at the same time.
It's important to season the cavity and the outside of the bird, but don't use too much. You're not looking to encase the meat or make a paste, just to season it and let time do its work.
This spice mixture is one I have on hand all the time, and I use it for many more things than turkey and chicken. I put it in the panada (binder) that I use to make moist, flavorful turkey burgers.
I use it on roasted potatoes with herb oil, for a ranch-style flavor that’s very satisfying. It’s very good on pork chops or roasts, or as a rub for anything headed for the barbecue.
With the biggest poultry day of all bearing down on us, I thought you could do with some more prep hints from yours truly.
For comprehensive backtiming roadmap to get ready for Thanksgiving, check out a post I wrote a few years ago for King Arthur called “Turkey Day countdown.”
Dry Brine for Poultry and Pork
You can double or triple this recipe, put it in a mixer with a paddle, and mix at low speed until the ingredients are evenly combined. I've skipped weighing everything for this; volume measurements are fine. True confession: sometimes I don't measure at all and eyeball the whole business.
Any extra is a great homemade gift or stocking stuffer, poured into an attractive jar. Give it to anyone you know that cooks or grills.
1 cup fine sea salt
1/3 cup onion powder
2 tablespoons dry thyme
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 ½ teaspoons to 1 tablespoon rubbed sage, to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder or granulated garlic
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
This couldn't be simpler. Put everything in a bowl and mix it up, with a whisk or a paddle attachment on a stand mixer. Pour into jars or any airtight container you like, label it, and keep it handy near the stove. Have fun experimenting, and let me know if you have any questions about how to play with it below!