Edible San Francisco Heritage Turkey Tips

0 Posted by - November 20, 2010 - feast, Heritage Turkey, Meat, Recipes, Seasonal Recipes, Thanksgiving

Repeat after me: “I will not brine my Thanksgiving turkey this year.”

The best way to treat your heritage bird: bag the brine and use the salt cure method instead.

{Editor’s note: content updated for November 2013}

If you’ve plunked down a serious wad of cash for a heritage turkey, the last thing you want to do is drown it in a bucket of brine. Why hassle with gallons of salted water sloshing around in your fridge when an easier method is right at your fingertips?

We’re long-time adherents to the “salt-cure” method first popularized by Los Angeles Times food writer Russ Parsons in 2006 (he took his inspiration from Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café and her technique of pre-salting chicken). Says Parsons:

“Salting works like brining, without the water. You just sprinkle the turkey with salt, and then set it aside for four days for a 12- to 16-pound bird. At first, the salt pulls moisture from the meat, but as time passes, almost all of those juices are reabsorbed, bringing the salt along with them.”

And Russ is absolutely right. The turkeys we’ve prepared with this method have been extraordinarily moist, savory, and delicious. They tasted like turkey, imagine that.

As long as you’re bucking convention and going with a dry brine  (salt-cure) why not consider taking your turkey a step further with our tried and true method?


It may seem blasphemous, but cutting up a turkey ahead of time and roasting the breast separately from the legs and thighs is a foolproof method for a perfectly cooked bird.

We gave up on roasting a whole turkey long ago. It’s practically impossible to get all the different parts to cook to the proper temperature at the same time. And besides, you’re going to carve the turkey before serving it, so what difference does it really make if you cut it up now?

By cooking the parts of the turkey separately you are ultimately in control of how the meat turns out. After all, the endgame to a Thanksgiving dinner is a perfectly roasted breast and moist, juicy dark meat, right?


Edible San Francisco’s Braised and Roasted Heritage Turkey Recipe

Most heritage turkeys are delivered fresh, not frozen, which means you can separate the pieces immediately and get right to the salt cure. If your bird is frozen, defrost in the fridge beginning the Thursday or Friday before Thanksgiving.

Start with cutting the leg and thigh pieces from the whole bird and set aside. Pull back the leg and cut into the skin along breast/leg area.

Pull the leg/thigh bone down hard until the joint pops out.

Cut along backbone to separate leg and thigh.

Trim the wings and keep the neck for stock. Leave the breast meat attached to the carcass. You can cut off the back as well, leaving you with the just the breast attached to the heel bone.


Shower the leg and thigh pieces with salt, turning them over to coat both sides evenly, and then salt the breast, rubbing the inside the carcass as well (Russ Parsons’ recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of kosher salt for every 5 pounds of turkey).

Put the turkey pieces in a heavy-duty garbage bag and refrigerate for at least three days. Save the wings, neck and giblets for stock.

On Thanksgiving day, remove the bag from the refrigerator at least one hour before cooking. Start a simple stock using the turkey wings, back, neck and giblets with 6-8 cups of water (sometimes we make the stock on the day we cut up and salt-cure the turkey and keep it in the fridge until Thanksgiving day). Let the stock simmer on the stove while you prepare the legs and thighs.

We like to cook the legs and thighs by braising them in turkey stock the first thing in the morning and save cooking the breast until later (this allows you to focus all of your attention on a perfectly cooked breast without having to worry about the dark meat). Return the breast to the refrigerator while you prepare the legs and thighs.

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

Additional ingredients you’ll need:

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped carrot

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup white wine

A couple sprigs each of rosemary, parsley and thyme

In a roasting pan or Dutch oven, brown the leg and thigh pieces, skin side down, in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. We usually baste the legs with some of the hot oil too because most of the surface area of the skin won’t touch the pan.

Once the skin is deeply browned remove the leg and thigh pieces from the pan and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add chopped onions, celery and carrots.

Cook the vegetables over low heat until soft. At this point we like to stir in some tomato paste and cook until it turns a dark crimson red and then add a cup of white wine. Bring to a boil and reduce by the wine by half and then return the leg and thigh pieces to the pan and pour in the turkey stock to come about halfway up the sides of the meat. Bring the broth to a simmer, toss in a bay leaf, scatter some fresh thyme, rosemary and parsley on top, cover and put the pan in the oven.

Begin checking the meat after an hour. When the temperature of the legs and thighs reads 165°F. on a meat thermometer, remove them from the pan, set on a plate, let cool, cover and refrigerate. Strain the braising liquid through a fine-mesh screen, pressing on the vegetables to extract as much juice as possible. Set the strained liquid aside to use for gravy.



Timing for roasting the breast

For cooking the breast, figure on 15-20 minutes per pound. If you started with a 20 pound turkey, you probably have at least 8-10 pounds of breast on the bone to roast, which will take at least 2 hours. Also remember that if you take the breast meat out of the refrigerator at least an hour before roasting and you let it rest at least 30 minutes before carving when its done, that’s 3 1/2 hours from taking it out of the fridge to serving, so plan accordingly!

Season the breast all over with salt, pepper and whatever else your tradition calls for (butter perhaps?). Put the breast on a roasting rack and cook for half an hour at 425°F. before reducing the temperature to 375°F. Keep a close eye on the temperature of the breast meat by checking it every 15 minutes after the first hour, while periodically basting it with the rendered fat (or butter).

Remove the breast from the oven when it registers 165°F on a meat thermometer and slide the leg/thigh pieces back into the oven on a uncovered plate to warm through for 15-20 minutes. Let the breast rest at least 30 minutes before carving (which gives ample time for the leg/thigh pieces to reheat in the oven).

When you are ready to serve, first carve the meat from the thigh bones (we leave the legs whole), the thigh bone should come out easily with a few passes of the knife, leaving you with big portions of dark meat. Slice crosswise into thick pieces.

Cut each breast from the carcass, trying to get most of the meat off in one piece. Cut the breasts by slicing into thick pieces across the grain. This makes for a much more tender piece of meat (the same logic as slicing a steak across the grain).

We usually give the whole platter a quick shower of sea salt and fresh ground pepper and then bring it to the table to serve.

Bon Appetit!

Here’s what we’re drinking with this fabulous turkey:

Le Noble Les Aventures Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly

De Moor A Ligote 2012 Magnum

Hofgut Falkenstein Niedermenniger Herrenberg 2011 Spätburgunder Spälese trocken

Broc Cellars Paso Robles Cabernet Franc



Follow us on Instagram for more cooking tips and recipes!

Wow, that heritage turkey is expensive!  Click here for more info on the costs of raising heritage turkeys.

Russ Parsons Dry-brined turkey (a.k.a. the ‘Judy Bird’).

Russ Parsons: Questions About Salt Cure Techique.

UPDATE 2013:  Suzzane Goin’s Roasted Turkey Stock  “I don’t like to stress out home cooks by insisting on homemade stock in my books,” she said. “But when you’re making a turkey anyway, it’s the logical next step.”

UPDATE 2012: Great video clips of Chef Michael Mina’s technique for braising legs/thighs and roasting the breast separately.

Michael Mina Video: Cook Taste Eat — Braised Turkey Legs

Michael Mina Video: Cook Taste Eat — Roasted Turkey Crown 

CHOW Video: How to carve a turkey with Chef Mark Dommen.

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