Thanksgiving

At Last, a Dry Buttermilk Brine. But How?

Buttermilk powder is the key to mess-free, super-tender turkeys.

November 10, 2021
Photo by JULIA GARTLAND. PROP STYLIST: MEGAN HEDGPETH. FOOD STYLIST: LAUREN LAPENNA

If you’ve wet-brined a chicken or Thanksgiving turkey, odds are you’re familiar with the concept of dairy as the base of that brining solution. The lactic acid in milk, yogurt , buttermilk, even feta helps tenderize the bird by breaking down protein walls. Though the result is incredibly moist meat, the dairy-brining process is messy, there’s no way around it. But what if I told you that the most tender buttermilk-brined turkey actually requires no liquid at all?

Meet the dry-buttermilk-brined turkey. You’ll mix powdered buttermilk—literally just a dehydrated version buttermilk—with salt and pepper, and rub it all over the skin.

In 2020, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Samin Nosrat adapted her book’s wildly popular buttermilk-marinated roast chicken recipe for a spatchcocked turkey in The New York Times. Indeed, it’s easier to place a butterflied bird in a bag of buttermilk than a whole turkey, but the fact remains that you still need quarts of buttermilk and a two-gallon bag. Now I genuinely don’t mind a project on the average evening. But on Thanksgiving, when I’m in the midst of cooking multiple other dishes, I want the simplest possible recipe with the highest quality result. With a dry-buttermilk-brined turkey, the only equipment needed is a sheet pan—and cleanup truly couldn’t be easier.

When applied to turkey (or chicken for that matter—yes, I tested it with chicken too!) dry buttermilk acts exactly like its liquid counterpart. The lactic acid, still present in the dehydrated product, works with the salt to tenderize and season the meat. Once roasted, the sugars in the powder begin to caramelize, rendering a glistening, deeply browned skin. Whichever size bird you plan to brine, use about 1 tablespoon of dry buttermilk, ½ tablespoon kosher salt (I use Diamond Crystal), and ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper per pound of meat.

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Top Comment:
“Spatchcocked and cooking on my big green egg after 48hr brine. Have you followed this up with any type of injection prior to the cook or find it flavorful enough with the brine only? Ty ”
— harrod12
Comment

One thing feels important to note: I roast all turkeys (and chickens) directly on sheet pans, not on a roasting rack. Though you may think a roasting rack is the secret to crispy poultry skin, it’s not. In fact. There really isn’t a way to roast a whole bird and get crispy skin—there’s simply too much steam in the oven and juice in the meat when cooked low and slow, the best way to yield tender meat. You’ll have a better chance of slightly-more-crisp skin by letting the turkey dry brine in the refrigerator, uncovered, for a full 24 hours, and drying any juices that leach out during the process before heading into the oven. Could you still make this turkey in your beloved roasting pan? Why not! But ultimately, for crisp skin, you’ll need to sear poultry parts in a skillet on the stove, then finish in the oven, and that’s simply a whole other thing.

Photo by JULIA GARTLAND. PROP STYLIST: MEGAN HEDGPETH. FOOD STYLIST: LAUREN LAPENNA

Considering that dry buttermilk, which is available online and at many supermarkets, has an incredibly long shelf life (we’re talking years, if not more) even after opening, and can be used exactly the same as the liquid, I personally tend to keep a container in the fridge at all times. So if you don’t use it all with this recipe, simply swap it in according to the package directions in any recipe that calls for buttermilk. When it comes to brand, any brand of buttermilk powder will do (and there are dozens!), but I’m partial to Sacco, Bob’s Red Mill, and King Arthur Flour.

Would you try this dry buttermilk brine on your Thanksgiving turkey? Let us know in the comments.

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.

9 Comments

Msawall November 25, 2021
I tried this last week with a chicken to “audition” the recipe. It was fantastic! I expect no less with my turkey. Goodbye Judy Bird….this is my new tradition.
 
Geo November 22, 2021
It sounds very intriguing! I was wondering if there is a complete recipe somewhere. How long do you bake the Turkey? temperature. Thanks
 
Author Comment
Rebecca F. November 23, 2021
Hi! there is a link in the article, but it's also here https://food52.com/recipes/86472-best-buttermilk-brined-turkey-recipe
 
robynmrl November 22, 2021
Hi Rebecca! I looked at your recipe and was wondering how you would adjust the time or temp for a whole turkey breast (just under 6 lbs). Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Rebecca F. November 22, 2021
Hi! I haven't tested this on just a turkey breast, but I recommend roasting at 400°F for 30 minutes, then reducing the heat to 325°F per the original recipe. From there, I'd try continuing to cook until the breast reaches 165°F, which likely will take 45-60 mins.
 
m November 20, 2021
hi. i just wanted to make sure the salt quantity is correct. seems a bit high when compared to the judy bird dry brine. thanks!
 
Author Comment
Rebecca F. November 20, 2021
Yes, it’s correct! It’s different from the Judy bird.
 
harrod12 November 19, 2021
Giving this a go with a 16lb bird. Spatchcocked and cooking on my big green egg after 48hr brine. Have you followed this up with any type of injection prior to the cook or find it flavorful enough with the brine only? Ty
 
Author Comment
Rebecca F. November 19, 2021
Hi! I have not tried injecting the turkey with anything—I find this recipe makes for quite moist meat on its own (compared to regular roast turkeys, not injected turkeys). Also, I have not tested this brine on a turkey for longer than 24 hours (I sometimes find any longer can make the skin a bit tough), so try at your own risk! I also have not testing the timing spatchcocked/on a grill, so again, use your best judgment—hope it's great :)