For years, I’ve been advocating “dry brines” as my favorite way to both season a turkey and help keep from drying it out.
A dry brine is nothing more than a salt rub — a brine without the water — and typically salt and some black pepper are all I use to season my turkey.
This year, I’m spicing things up a bit. Instead of just using salt and pepper in my rub, I’m adding herbs and spices to boost the bird’s flavor. Herb and spice rubs are easy to make — in fact, you probably have all the ingredients to make one or more rubs in your spice cabinet right now.
A simple example would be to mix in such herbs and thyme, basil, rosemary, oregano and sage with salt and pepper — and maybe throw in some onion powder, too. Another option would be a Cajun spice blend with cayenne, garlic and more.
You could flavor the turkey with the same All-American grilling rub that you use in summertime for chicken and other meats.
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You can add even more flavor to the Thanksgiving table by using Indian or Asian seasonings or spice blends from other ethnic cuisines.
As with regular dry brining, it’s important to know whether your turkey has been pre-salted before you bought it. Many supermarket turkeys, including the standard Butterball, are already brined. Check the ingredients list for salt, or check the package for the words “contains up to X percent solution of … .” Those turkeys and those labeled “basted,” “self-basted” or “enhanced” are already brined. Kosher turkeys also are salted or dry brined.
If you have a pre-salted turkey and are making your own seasoning blend, simply omit the salt. Salt can be easily omitted from all the accompanying recipes except the miso chicken, because the miso and soy sauce contain plenty of salt. So the miso chicken — which is a wet rub or paste — is not recommended for pre-salted turkeys.
If you have a pre-salted turkey, you don’t really need to add the herbs or spices far in advance. I would still do it at least the night before, though, to allow time for the turkey skin to dry a bit — which helps produce crispy skin when it roasts.
If the turkey has not been pre-salted and your seasoning blend does include salt, you ideally want to apply the rub three days in advance for any large bird. The salt needs time to works its way into every bit of the meat. But even two days will yield significant benefits — not only in flavor but also in the ability of the meat to retain moisture and taste nice and juicy at the table.
Here are a few other things to consider when using a spice rub:
- Wet or dry: Wet and dry rubs work the same way. Wet rubs typically are thick, like a paste, to help them adhere to the meat or skin. Some wet rubs are simply dry rubs with a little oil or butter added. Other wet rubs contain ingredients such as soy sauce, lemon juice or pureed onion.
- Butter or oil: Many spice rubs are moistened with oil or butter, both of which will help brown the skin of the bird. But if roasting at a high temperature, say 400 degrees or more, you probably won’t need any help in browning the bird, and any oil or butter may be undesirable because it will overbrown the bird.
- Sugar: The addition of sugar can aid in browning the bird, but it also can darken the skin too much, so use sugar in moderation, especially if roasting at a high temperature. Brown sugar is a popular choice, but you can use maple sugar, coconut sugar and others. If making a wet rub or paste, you can use honey, agave syrup or maple syrup mixed with spices.
- Note that adding herbs or spices to the bird will have a domino effect on the gravy. So if you don’t want your gravy tasting of ginger or chipotle chiles or whatever is in your spice rub, think twice about using an assertive rub.
- If possible, try to get some of your herb and spices under the skin of the breast and legs. To do that, you have to loosen the skin a bit, but do so gently; if you loosen the skin too much, it will shrink away from the meat during cooking (essentially removing the protective cover that helps keep the meat moist).