The Best Holiday Turkey Recipe

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Lately, the endless quest for the perfect holiday turkey has led chefs to the idea of brining the bird before roasting.  With some trepidation, we decided to give it a try for Thanksgiving.  The result was an unqualified success: the most delectable, most succulent, most flavorful turkey we've had in 15 years. 

We adapted Alice Water's recipe which appeared in The New York Times on November 17, 1999.  Four days ahead, we made the brine: Bring 2 gallons of water to a boil in a 16 quart or larger stockpot.   Add 3/4 cup kosher salt, and 3/4 cup sugar, and stir until dissolved.  Turn off the heat and add 1 diced carrot, 1 large diced onion, 1 leek (white and light green parts only, cleaned and diced), 1/4 cup diced celery, 2 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, 3 or 4 crushed chilequepins (or 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes), 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, 2 star anise, and 2 or 3 sprigs fresh thyme.  Let the mixture cool and then refrigerate.

About 48 hours before cooking time, we put a 14-1/2 pound organic turkey, giblets removed, in the brine and refrigerated it.  (Note: The recipe calls for a 12- to 14-pound bird to be brined for 72 hours, but we couldn't pick ours up that far ahead.   You will need a very large stockpot to brine a bird this big--ours is a 20 quart.   You could also put the bird and the brine in a plastic garbage bag, and turn it frequently.)  The turkey wasn't completely covered by the brine, so we turned it every 4 to 6 hours.

On Thanksgiving morning, we took the bird out of the brine and dried it off.  We stuffed it with my grandmother's traditional oyster stuffing (updated with shiitake mushrooms), sewed up both ends with a needle and thread, and rubbed it all over with olive oil.  The turkey was roasted in a 425-degree oven for 30 minutes, until it began to brown; then the heat was lowered to 350-degrees and we continued to roast it for a little over 12 minutes per pound, about 3 hours.  About an hour into the roasting, we covered the turkey loosely with aluminum foil to keep it from getting brown too quickly.  We basted every 20 minutes, first with rosemary branches dipped in olive oil (an Alice Waters touch) and then with turkey drippings.

After roasting, we let the bird rest for 20 minutes before carving.  The skin was a glorious golden brown; both breast and dark meat were moist, juicy, and full of flavor.   The brine seems to change the texture of the meat to that it holds together better when carved.  Informal observation suggests that this recipe will be repeated in the future: Children who normally have just one piece of turkey this year had seconds and have even asked for leftovers.  Domino, our springer spaniel, scratches at the refrigerator door and had to be forcibly restrained from stealing a mouthful.  Only the bones are left for soup.

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