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The Best Thanksgiving Turkey Requires Only Two Steps

Spatchcock your turkey, then dry brine it. That's all you need.

The centerpiece of most Thanksgiving dinners is one of the dishes people love to hate on the most. Countless internet articles and social media diatribes decry turkey as dry, bland, and boring. It's become such a common refrain that turkey's mediocrity almost seems like a given, and Americans turn to smoking or deep frying the bird just to make it palatable, if they don't skip the turkey entirely. But it's possible that none of these people dislike turkey—they've just been subject to a lot of poorly cooked turkey.

Why turkey intimidates home cooks

There are a few reasons turkey underwhelms so often. The size of the Thanksgiving bird is more than most of us are used to cooking, which makes it unwieldy, and the poultry doesn't cook evenly. Its relative lack of fat means that there's a tasty, crispy skin, but thick slabs of flavorless meat underneath. To make it worthwhile requires a bit of patience and finesse.

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We don't hold that against other types of meat, by the way. Brisket, for example, must be braised or smoked for hours to become tender, and a poorly roasted chicken is going to be just as bad as any dried-out turkey. But nobody judges these meats by their worst outcomes, because we know how good they can be. A roast turkey can be that good too, and it's actually far easier than most people think. It only requires two relatively straightforward tricks to pull off: dry brining and spatchcocking.

Dry brining your Thanksgiving turkey, explained

Dry brining simply means rubbing your bird with salt and letting it sit long enough for that salt to absorb into the meat. The "brine" is formed when the salt draws the juices out onto the surface of the turkey and forms a solution with them; given enough time, the salty solution then sinks back down into the meat (because salt naturally diffuses from areas of high concentration to low concentration). As the salt permeates deep down into the bird, it breaks down the turkey's muscle fibers. This prevents the fibers from contracting during the cooking process, squeezing out less moisture. Thanks to the brine, more of that juicy flavor is retained during the cooking process. It's a bunch of food science wizardry, but it works amazingly well.

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This is an alternative to the long held practice of wet brining, which involves immersing meat in a saline solution to flavor it and add moisture. Wet brining is a perfectly fine way to make plenty of meals, but for something as big as a whole turkey it's incredibly unwieldy, as it requires finding a tub big enough to fully submerge the bird in. It's also less effective, because while extra liquid may seem like a way to prevent dry turkey, all that water can actually dilute the flavor of your meat.

Spatchcocking your Thanksgiving turkey, explained

Spatchcocking is a little more involved than dry brining, but not complicated. It just involves cutting out the turkey's spine, which lets you spread your roast flat, resulting in more even cooking. It can be a bit grisly, no doubt, and the thicker bones of a turkey means it requires more work than a spatchcocked chicken. The results are absolutely worth it, though, as it will make the rest of the process, from cooking to carving, so much easier. Combined with a dry brine, it's the most surefire way to guarantee a perfect turkey.

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For a layperson like myself, the science of spatchcocking is even easier to understand. The white meat of the turkey breast and the dark meat of the thighs and drumsticks have different ideal temperatures: 165 degrees Fahrenheit for the dark meat and 150 degrees Fahrenheit for the white meat. But when a turkey is cooked in its natural form, the white meat is more directly exposed to the heat of an oven, so it will cook faster, becoming overdone before the dark meat is ready to come out.

Spatchcocking reverses this. By removing the backbone of the bird before cooking, you can spread your turkey flat, chest cavity down, on your roasting rack. That splayed, flattened form might not be as picturesque as a classic turkey orb at the center of your table, but it means the dark meat will actually cook faster than the white, allowing them both to hit their ideal temperatures at the exact same time. It also means your turkey will cook way faster than normal—close to 50% faster, depending on the size—which frees up kitchen time and oven space.

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Combine these two methods and you get a turkey that's faster and easier to cook, with more room for error, and is more flavorful and juicy. The dry brining/spatchcocking combo makes a dreaded holiday cooking challenge almost foolproof, and it will change a lot of people's minds about holiday turkey. Here's how to do it.

How to spatchcock your turkey

Spatchcocking can seem intimidating, but it's easier than you'd expect, and once you get through the first few bones you'll realize how simple it is. The one thing you'll need is a good pair of kitchen shears. Curved poultry shears are ideal, but I've always just used standard ones and never had a problem.

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Flip your turkey so it's breast side down and locate the backbone. Then use the shears to cut through the small bones to one side of the spine. Try to cut as close to the side of the backbone as possible, and don't be afraid to really squeeze your shears to snap through the bone if you hit a tough one. Then just repeat the process on the second side and remove the spine. If you need more visual instructions there are some great videos online too.

Once the spine is out, flip your turkey back over, breast side up, and splay the thighs and drumsticks out so they are laying flat with the skin side up, and the ends of the drumsticks are pointing away from each other. It will look like the turkey is "sitting up." To flatten, put your palm in the center ridge of the breast bone and push down hard with both hands until it snaps. After the bone breaks, your turkey should lie nice and flat. Congratulations—you have just spatchcocked a turkey!

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How to dry brine your turkey

Dry brining is even quicker. You should be using 1 to 1.5 teaspoons of kosher salt per pound if you are using Morton salt, or 2 teaspoons per pound if you're using Diamond salt. Pat the turkey dry all over with paper towels, then rub the salt evenly all over the bird's surface. (If you want it to absorb quicker you can loosen up the skin and rub it directly on the meat, but it's not necessary.) I also like to rub some baking powder on the skin, using a 3:1 salt-to-powder ratio. Baking powder breaks down the skin a bit and helps it get extra crispy.

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Once your turkey is fully prepped, it should sit uncovered in the fridge at least overnight, which will let the brine absorb, and also dry out the skin to help with crisping. You can leave it like that for up to three days, but I usually aim for the middle and go for 36-48 hours. Then it can go straight into your preheated oven. For a 12-lb. turkey, I like to cook at 450 degrees for approximately 75 minutes. (Butterball has some general time and temp suggestions here, depending on the size of your bird.)

Beyond the dry brine, you can flavor your spatchcocked turkey with whatever rubs you want, but I honestly don't think it needs anything other than your standard side of gravy. Twenty minutes or less of prep a day or two in advance will result in a turkey truly worthy of a holiday celebration, and all the turkey haters you know will be literally eating their words.

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