To comply with COVID-19 conditions limiting the size of social gatherings, cooks everywhere are rethinking the size – and even the species – of the birds they will put on their Thanksgiving tables. Regardless of its size, a local, spatchcocked, dry-brined bird is one of the most sustainable preparations for showpiece holiday poultry. It’s a combination technique that wastes no water, no oven real estate, no energy, no food miles nor any part of the bird.

Although Common Wealth Poultry in Gardiner does offer turkey parts – bone-in and boneless breast and dark meat packages with two legs, thighs and wings – through its online store, most local turkey farmers are selling whole turkeys for the holiday. And while I don’t fancy spending most of December polishing off a 20-pound turkey I cooked to feed six on Thanksgiving, I’m committed to the idea of a whole bird that I’ve ordered in advance so my farmer can plan accordingly and charge a price that is fair to both of us.

I will spatchcock the 14-pounder for three reasons: fuel efficiency, gravy expediency and maximum crispy skin. “Spatchcock” is an attention-grabbing term for removing the backbone with a pair of sharp kitchen shears and severing the breastbone, so the bird lies flat. I could, maybe should, have demurely called it “butterflying,” but would you still be reading now?

The reconfigured bird roasts evenly and in half the time (using half the fossil fuel) that it takes a bird in the usual configuration to cook to a safe 165 degrees. Plus, a turkey prepped this way doesn’t hog the whole oven, allowing space to roast vegetables and bake a pie at the same time.

While the butterflied beauty bastes, the backbone gets thrown into the stockpot with the neck, aromatics and herbs to simmer into rich stock for the gravy. And since all the skin from the underside of the thighs to the top of the breast is exposed to the circulating hot oven air, everything gets evenly browned and crisped.

Dry-brining the turkey also helps the crispy skin situation. Brining, in general, is a process that infuses flavor and moisture into lean meats through osmosis. With a wet brine, you fill a container big enough to hold your bird – I have used a cooler in the past – with a liquid brine containing salt, sugar, herbs and spices. You lower the bird into the brine to sit for a day or two. Putting the bird in and taking it out of the brine are messy processes. And in the face of climate change, a cook must worry about keeping the vessel that is big enough to hold her bird between 35 and 40 degrees. My refrigerator is not that big. And in this age of climate change, I can’t count on the back porch staying below 40 degrees in November.

Also called pre-salting, dry brining seasons the turkey like a wet brine, but without the water. You apply the rub between the skin and the meat and then let the bird rest in the refrigerator for one to three days. While it sits, the salt draws out the meat juices and the salt dissolves into the juices, creating a liquid brine without wasting all the water like a wet brine does. This brine is reabsorbed into the meat, where it starts breaking down muscle proteins, so the finished product is juicy, tender, seasoned meat.

I will share this small bird with a small group this year, so that I can make a bigger bird – local, spatchcocked and dry-brined – for more eaters next year.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

One of the many advantages to a spatchcocked, dry-brined Thanksgiving turkey? The skin is crispy all over. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Spatchcocked, Dry-brined Thanksgiving Bird
You can dry brine fresh or frozen turkeys and chickens, but not the self-basting ones, as they have already been brined. Kosher birds have likely been salted, too. A bird weighing 12-14 pounds is best brined for 48 hours. For a chicken, cut both the rub recipe and the brine time in half. For a 20-pound turkey, increase the rub recipe by 50 percent and let the bird brine for three days. Taste your pan drippings before using them in gravy, as they will be saltier than those of turkey that has not been brined. Not sure how to spatchcock a turkey? Find a good video to help you master the technique here: bit.ly/2H3LcjA 

¼ cup kosher salt
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dried mixed herbs
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 (12- to 14-pound) fresh turkey, thawed and spatchcocked
4 tablespoons butter, sliced into 8 pats
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

Combine the salt, sugar, herbs, pepper and onion powder in a small bowl.

Lay the bird flat on a baking sheet, skin-side up. Work your fingers between the skin and the flesh all over the bird. Massage the rub into the flesh evenly all over the turkey. Slide the uncovered bird into the refrigerator and let it sit for 48 hours.

When you’re ready to roast the turkey, remove it from the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lift the bird off the pan and scatter the carrots, celery, onion and fresh herbs around the pan. Place the bird on top of them. Slide the pats of butter under the skin around the bird.

Slide the bird into the oven. Roast until the thighs are cooked to 160 degrees, about 1½ hours. Remove the bird from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before carving.


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