Long Reads

Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird)

November 15, 2011

Every week, Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: The simplest possible technique for a succulent turkey. It will forgive you if you overcook it. You can do it while you're defrosting the bird, if you so choose. And best of all, it tastes like turkey.


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- Kristen

Five years ago, the L.A. Times Food Section held a turkey taste test that changed the way they (and a lot of others) talk about Thanksgiving.

Under the vigilant eye of Russ Parsons -- longtime Food Editor at the paper and author of How to Read a French Fry -- four birds came to the table, and a simple new technique had the panel smitten.

The bird had been dry-brined (though the term "dry-brining" wasn't being tossed around much yet). In less-fancy words, a few tablespoons of salt had been sprinkled on it a few days ahead.

Because of this, the turkey was well-seasoned through and through, and had all the juiciness of your average wet-brined turkey, without its sometimes off-putting texture (we'll come back to that later). It tasted like turkey, but turkey having a very good day.

Parsons has written about the salting technique every Thanksgiving since, testing new variations each year and slashing steps he decides aren't important. The response has been glowing. By his count, he's received over 1,000 emails from happy cooks, and some of the most genius hacks have come from their suggestions.

So where had this turkey been all our lives? To find out, I had to get the story from the two clever cooks we have to thank for the recipe: one an editor, the other a chef. Without both parties, the world might never have known the wonder that is the Judy Bird.

Russ Parsons    Judy Rodgers     

Here's how it all went down:

Since the late 1980s, Judy Rodgers (you remember Judy) has dry-brined the famous roast chicken -- and just about everything else -- at Zuni Café in San Francisco. She learned the technique while cooking in Southwestern France and perfected it back in the States, meticulously trying it on everything from fish fillets to hamburgers to roasts, even some vegetables -- but never a turkey.

dry-brined turkey

Salting early doesn't dry these things out -- if timed and measured right, moisture is pulled out and back in again, and the process magically realigns the proteins so that they'll hold on tighter next time. For a much more scientific explanation, see Rodgers or McGee. But I can tell you what this means to your mouth: juicy, tender food. As a bonus, it's salted all the way to its middle, not just on the surface.

This juice-retaining action is the same as with a wet brine, with one big difference: the wet version also draws in some of the surrounding water and makes everything vaguely ham-like. Juicy yes, and flavorful, but springy and tight in a way that doesn't smack of fresh meat. Not to mention the space concerns: wet brines are greedy things. Not only are you storing something in your fridge for several days, you're storing it in a vat of liquid.

Enter Parsons, circa 2006, who had quizzed Rodgers on her relationship with salt for various stories over the years. "I was casting about for Thanksgiving ideas and I wondered if something that worked for chicken might work for turkey." Parsons wrote to me in an email, "I called her and asked if she’s ever tried it and she said no."

In fact, Rodgers had recommended a wet brine for turkey in the Zuni Café Cookbook in 2002, a recipe she's been using on pork chops since her days at Chez Panisse in the 1980s and had scaled up successfully for the big unwieldy bird. Though she has dry-brined plenty of geese and ducks (and more chickens than probably anyone on earth), the reason she never pursued turkey is simple.

"I'm just not a big turkey, Thanksgiving girl," Rodgers says. "A lot of chefs feel this way. At Zuni we still change the menu every day, and sometimes I taste 75 things in the course of a day, from oysters to desserts. So for me, Thanksgiving is a holiday from cooking and eating. If I don't have to plan a menu, I think, 'It would be really nice to just scramble some eggs'."

roasting turkey

So Rodgers consulted and Parsons (a serious turkey fan) got testing. "I tried it first with a 12-pounder and it worked great. Then I worked my way up," Parsons wrote. "When I talked to Judy, I think she was a little surprised … and maybe a little amused that I was so excited about it. I can get a little geeky."
Geeky like a fox. Since then, he's figured out grilling the brined turkey, and the right herbs and spices to add to the salt -- but his most amazing discovery is that you can brine a frozen bird as it defrosts in your refrigerator. And why wouldn't you?

Once you taste your very own Judy Bird, you can thank them both: the chef who'd rather not think about Thanksgiving at all, and the food editor whose job depends on it.

roasted dry-brined turkey

Russ Parsons' Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird)

Adapted slightly from The L.A. Times Food Section

Serves 11 to 15

One 12- to 16-pound turkey (frozen is fine)
Kosher salt
Herbs and/or spices to flavor the salt (optional -- see suggestions in step 1)
Melted butter for basting (optional)

See a slideshow and the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Want more genius? TryJudy Rodgers' Roasted Applesauce

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Get more of the genius of Russ Parsons, in book form: How to Pick a Peach and How to Read a French Fry

Photos by Nicole Franzen


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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • mcc480
  • saramarsh
  • tosacem
  • Jennifer Tunguz
    Jennifer Tunguz
  • Jeanne Pickrel
    Jeanne Pickrel
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


mcc480 November 27, 2019
Can this be done the day before, or is that not enough time?
saramarsh November 27, 2019
I've been making my turkey for Thanksgiving like this since 2009, using Bay leaf, rosemary, black pepper, and sage pulverized in with the salt!
3 years ago, I needed my oven and decided to use my gas grill and I've never looked back; Same temps same directions for flipping the bird, all of it.
I still use an aluminum drip pan under the roasting rack, so drippings are more like fond, but I add white wine or broth as the turkey cooks, and that helps to keep some liquid for gravy. Now my oven is free to bake the Pumpkin Cobbler, or anything else we need to keep warm!
tosacem February 9, 2019
It's been a couple of years since using this method and usually we do make ahead gravy as need a lot for thanksgiving. Is there enough pan juices for gravy making doing this method?
saramarsh November 27, 2019
If you do the cooking in the oven, yes! I do mine on my gas grill, same steps and temps, and it couldn't be easier. But I keep white wine/broth on hand to help the fond into gravy!
Jennifer T. October 27, 2015
Can you use this same recipe/process for boneless/skinless turkey breasts and thighs?
Jeanne P. November 24, 2014
Just relax. Your best friends are an imagination and a meat thermometer. Whatever you like as long as it is not over cooked will.be perfect.
fiafia October 30, 2014
I made this turkey last year. In addition to the salt, I added a little brown sugar and fresh cracked black pepper along with a myriad of savory dried herbs. I mixed that with the salt and gave him a good rub down every day. The turkey was so delicious that my family members bring it up constantly and have designated me the turkey roaster from here on out. My bird will now replace my mother's at all holiday feasts.
Dave H. June 11, 2014
I'd agree with Mr. Garrett... reading this story and the accompanying recipe, I too thought and herb or two (even California Sinsemilla?) like sage or rosemary would do. Herbs are always good for fowl.
Robert G. November 25, 2013
Is there a need to put any liquid aromatics (just a small amount) in the bottom of the roasting pan? Something like fresh sage/rosemary/thyme w/some citrus zest in small amount of apple cider?
Craig M. November 24, 2013
I've been cooking T birds for years.... cook it two days before pick it! then take the bones to make and reduce to a stock..... then bury everything in the stock after it has cooled.... And it will be the most moist turkey you have ever had.... it's an ancient way of preserving food.... it's called Confit!
Dflip December 25, 2012
I've wet brined turkeys for the past eight years and they turned out well. This year I tried the "Judy bird", and it was the best turkey yet. It maintained the juicy turkey, without the "city" ham quality (moist, but lacking the texture of turkey). I used salt, thyme, rosemary, pepper and lemon zest as the dry brine.
On my Big Green Egg (lightly smoked with apple wood)over a tray with water and two sliced lemons. I cooked an 18 pound turkey in about 3 hours. Pulled it at 165 degrees in the breast and let it rest about two hours before dinner. I might of had 5 tbsp. of juice in a large turkey tray after cutting it all up after dinner.
It had the texture and moisture that I would hope for in a turkey, almost as good as it gets. I also adapted the regular potato and bread stuffing with some celery root, caramelized onions and dried apricots, which either cook in the oven or the outside Weber at Canadian Thanksgiving.
The good news, two hours to prepare in the morning and then very little effort to make it all come together. I guess practice makes perfect. This is the third turkey I've BBQ'd on the Egg and the fifth one on a bbq overall.
General recommendation, never stuff a turkey, either the stuffing is cooked to a safe temperature and the turkey tastes like shoe leather, or the turkey is cooked to the right temperature and you may get sick. Pull it at 165 F and let it rest as long as you can, 1 hour minimum.
I will be trying this recipe again on the second Monday in October, Canadian Thanksgiving.
J C. December 22, 2012
Help, I've always brined turkey in a bag. Forgot bag and put in aluminum pot. Left foe 8 hrs before realized. Is it ok?.
Kristen M. December 24, 2012
J church, so sorry for the delay -- brining in aluminum isn't recommended, because of how reactive the metal is. Is there any chance your aluminum pot is anodized?
erincpdx November 22, 2012
I've just decided to do turkey this year for Friendsgiving! We're eating either tomorrow or Saturday. Is it too late to dry brine? Anyone know whether it works in 24 hours? 48 hours? Thanks!
Kristen M. November 22, 2012
Hi erincpdx -- the longer the better, but a shortened brining time can still have great results. Russ Parsons answered this (among other questions from readers) here in 2009: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/18/food/la-fow-turkeyfaq18-2009nov18 The shortened time won't have quite the same protective effect so you'll just have to watch the bird more closely to make sure it doesn't overcook.
katie75 November 22, 2012
I just realized I forgot to let the bird sit out for the 8 hours. It willl have 2 hours out before I need to put it in the oven -- will this work? Any tips? Thank you! Happy Thanksgiving!
Kristen M. November 22, 2012
The step of leaving the bird uncovered in the fridge for the last 8 hours is optional -- instead, just pat the bird dry very well, inside and out, to help the skin crisp up. Don't forget to pull it out of the fridge at least an hour before you're ready to stick it in the oven. Hope you like it!
teenahoo November 21, 2012
What about adding some sugar to the salt rub? Looking at many wet brining techniques, sugar, spices, and citrus are usually incorporated into the bribes. Has adding sugar to the dry brining method turned out well for anyone? I'm very curious, as I'd love to try it our sometime with five spice and sugar as my flavor twists to the salt rub!
Kristen M. November 21, 2012
I don't think I've heard others report back on adding sugar in a dry brine, so if you do please let us know! You can always try it on a chicken sometime before committing your Thanksgiving bird. Check out Russ Parsons' recipes for 3 herb & spice salts for turkey brining here: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/thanksgiving/la-fo-calcook18-2009nov18,0,3107976.story
katie75 November 20, 2012
I waited until monday afternoon to start my dry brine. Will it work -- figure I have 62 hours. Hope it works!
Kristen M. November 20, 2012
Yes, it should be fine!
mrslarkin November 26, 2011
Best. Turkey. Ever! Will never do it any other way.
Ritacooks/bakes November 25, 2011
I used this dry brine for our thanksgiving Turkey this year and my husband then grilled the turkey on the Webber grill. It was delicious and so much easier than the typical wet brine. I will use it again and try it for chicken too. Grilling the turkey makes a delicious bird but no drippings for gravy. Still a good deal to have the oven free for all the pies and side dishes!
Dflip December 25, 2012
If you have a drip tray underneath with water (apple juice) and either apple or lemon slices, you will collect the drippings and they make a nice gravy with either a lemon or apple twinge. Put it in the fridge or freezer for an hour and the juices will separate. Add them to the stuffing and gravy and you will have an excellent bird. Serve with either a fruity or slightly acidic white wine (http://www.lingenfelder.com/creatures/bird-label.htm). My stuffing has caramelized onions and sliced dried apricots added to it.
olygirl November 25, 2011
My first turkey in my new home of only 2 weeks...first time cooking with a gas stove, too. Totally easy, totally yummy. The only heads up I'd give other newbies...it's SO moist, that even when the temperature read 165 degrees, the juice (oh, so moist!) ran a bit pink at first, which made us think is was under cooked, but we trusted the thermometer, and boy, am I glad we did.

One question for next year...it dripped very little juice while roasting, and we didn't think we'd have enough drippings for gravy so we added a little broth to the bottom of the pan maybe half way through...is there something I could/should do differently next year...now that this is my new tradition? :)
juliunruly November 25, 2011
I did my first turkey ever this year, and this recipe worked great! Could not have been easier or less intimidating. Some people who'd never heard of a dry brine were dubious, but it made for a beautiful, delicious, juicy bird ... and great gravy, too!
Supertaster November 23, 2011
Hi there,
After preparing a turkey using this dry-brine method, is it possible to make a nice gravy from the pan juices?
thirschfeld November 23, 2011
The pan juices have a nice Unami so go easy on any additional salt but they are great and make a great gravy.
Supertaster November 23, 2011
Thank you for the help! I have a 19.5 pound turkey, so how long should I roast it using this recipe's method? Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Springmom November 24, 2011
Supertaster - Cook it for same amount of time as a regular turkey, but keep an eye on it in case it gets done sooner. Here are the roasting times from the USDA website:

Timetables for Turkey Roasting
(325 °F oven temperature)

Use the timetables below to determine how long to cook your turkey. These times are approximate. Always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your turkey and stuffing.

4 to 8 pounds (breast) 1½ to 3¼ hours
8 to 12 pounds 2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4½ to 5 hours
Supertaster November 24, 2011
Thanks, Springmom, for your help! Happy Cooking!
Dflip December 25, 2012
My best solution is to buy an oven probe with a wire to the gage/wire and put it in the turkey after two hours. Many you can program and they will tell you when the temperature reaches 165 degrees. I cooked an 18 lb. turkey that was done in just over three hours today. A probe solves the confusion and you won't overcook the meat. It is well worth it and I use it for all types of roasts.