Buttermilk-brined meat is food science in action. The technique, which likely hails from the Southern tradition of soaking chicken in buttermilk overnight to tenderize it before dredging and frying the bird, was recently repopularized for turkeys by Samin Nosrat. In 2020, Nosrat adapted her buttermilk-marinated roast chicken recipe from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat into a Thanksgiving main for The New York Times. “The buttermilk and salt work like a brine, tenderizing the meat on multiple levels: the water it contains increases moisture, and the salt and acid it contains disables proteins, preventing them from squeezing liquid from the meat as the bird cooks,” Nosrat writes in the book. While the result is indeed a gorgeously golden-brown-skinned, super-tender turkey, submerging that huge bird in buttermilk is an ordeal, to say the least.
Personally, I never wet-brine turkeys. Buckets of liquid and raw poultry just feels like a disaster waiting to happen, so I always dry-brine my Thanksgiving birds in a blend of salt and pepper, sometimes spices or dry herbs. When contemplating how to achieve the tender meat and stunning color of a buttermilk-brined turkey with the simplicity of dry brines, it hit me: buttermilk powder. Also known as dry buttermilk, this incredibly convenient shelf-stable product is a baker’s dream. Instead of buying a new quart of buttermilk every time I need a cup for a recipe, I keep the dehydrated stuff—available online and at many supermarkets—in my pantry at all times. Wouldn’t you know that when mixed with salt and pepper, rubbed on a turkey (or chicken, for that matter) and left to cure overnight, the result is the same tender-fleshed bird, with none of the liquidy mess! Blessedly, dry buttermilk also contains all the sugars of regular buttermilk, meaning that you’ll achieve the same deeply caramelized skin. In fact, it gets so golden so fast, you may think the turkey is done after its first 30 minutes in the oven (it’s not).
I don’t think this turkey needs gravy, but if your Thanksgiving table isn’t complete without it, check out a number of gravy recipes here.
Believe me when I say this is the most tender, most low-stress roasted turkey I’ve ever made.
*Technically, a brine is a salt and water mixture; a “dry brine” is really just salting in advance. So a buttermilk mixture into which one submerges a piece of meat is in fact more of a marinade than a brine. What should you call a dry brine consisting of powdered buttermilk and salt? I don’t know, so let’s not get hung up on terminology and just enjoy the ride.
Note: I tested this recipe with Diamond Crystal kosher salt, which is about half as salty by volume as Morton’s kosher salt, so if using the latter, use ¾ teaspoon of salt per pound of meat.
- Prep time 8 hours 15 minutes
- Cook time 3 hours
- Serves 8 to 10
¾ to 1 cups
dry buttermilk powder (about 1 tablespoon per pound of meat)
6 to 7 tablespoons
kosher salt (about ½ tablespoon per pound of meat)
freshly ground black pepper (about ½ teaspoon per pound of meat)
(12- to 14-pound) turkey, defrosted completely if previously frozen, giblets and neck removed
fresh thyme, oregano, or half of each (plus more for serving, optional)
head garlic, halved crosswise
- In a small bowl, combine the dry buttermilk, kosher salt, and black pepper.
- Place the turkey on a sheet pan lined with a wire rack. Pat the turkey dry all over, including the cavities (turkeys have two, both of which should be empty!) with paper towels.
- Sprinkle the dry buttermilk mixture evenly all over the turkey and pat it on to ensure it adheres to the skin.
- Transfer the turkey, uncovered, to the refrigerator for at least 8 and up to 24 hours.
- When you’re ready to roast the turkey, heat the oven to 400°F.
- Transfer the turkey, breast side up, to a clean sheet pan, discarding any liquid or excess powdered buttermilk that’s accumulated in the first pan. (If you remember, do this 1 hour before you plan to roast; if not, it’ll be totally fine.) Stuff the cavity with thyme and/or oregano and the halved head of garlic. If you’d like, you can tie the legs together with kitchen twine, but this is only for a neater look, and won’t affect the cooking at all.
- Roast the turkey for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325°F. Remove the turkey from the oven and baste with any juices accumulated in the pan (but there may not be any, and this is okay). Rotate the pan, then return to the oven. Continue roasting, removing the pan to baste and rotate every 40 to 50 minutes, until the turkey registers 165°F in the thigh, about 2½ to 3 hours. The skin and wings are going to get very dark as a result of the buttermilk—if at any point an area looks like it’s starting to singe (this can happen early in the roasting process, so don’t be alarmed!), tent with a piece of foil.
- Let the turkey rest on the sheet pan for 20 minutes, then tilt the bird to spill out any juices in the cavity onto the sheet pan (you can leave the herbs and garlic in the bird). Transfer the turkey to a large cutting board to continue resting until cool enough to slice into and carve. (This could take up to 1 hour; if not serving immediately, transfer to the refrigerator after 2 hours.) Reserve the carcass for stock, and if you’d like, make gravy from the sheet pan drippings. If using, place the carved turkey on more fresh thyme and/or oregano.