How to Cook the Perfect Turkey and My Favorite Side Dishes

This entry is part 89 of 96 in the series Holiday Foods

Today I am sharing the method I use to make my annual holiday turkey and a few of my favorite side dish recipes. With a few tweaks over the years, I think I have arrived at the perfect blend of technique and flavors. I borrowed the technique from one of my favorite chefs, Judy Rogers of Zuni Café in San Francisco. 

A meal at Zuni is a real experience. It is located in an old building with brick walls, towering ceilings, and a long copper bar that runs the length of the main room. As the restaurant grew in popularity, it expanded into adjacent buildings, so there are lots of funny twists and turns, small rooms, and lofts. It is warm, welcoming, funky, and so much fun. Co-owner and head chef Judy Rogers is renown in food circles and the author of the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. While their menu is always seasonal, local and full of delicious choices, they are nationally known for one dish … the Zuni Roast Chicken.

Sliced turkey with gravy and homemade cranberry sauce

Sliced turkey with gravy and homemade cranberry sauce

This dish has become so well known, that it is often considered the best roast chicken in America, and typically lands in the top 5 of just about anyone’s list. In fact, my guess is that if Zuni’s chicken is not on someone’s list, that person probably has not eaten there. Yes folks, it is that good. And the technique, while time-consuming, is really simple. I have taken the chicken recipe, added a few ingredients and use it for my own holiday meals. These birds are by far the best turkeys I have ever made and I’m sharing that recipe with you!!

Cheesy Cauliflower with Saffron Cream Sauce

Cheesy Cauliflower with Saffron Cream Sauce

The technique calls for rubbing salt on the bird and letting it rest in the refrigerator a few days. Yep, you read that right, three days. What happens next is a miracle of chemistry. Without getting too technical, the salt initially draws liquid out of the meat, but if you leave it alone, the liquid is reabsorbed carrying the salt with it and the meat becomes seasoned from the inside out! The meat is tender, juicy, and incredibly flavorful. If you add seasonings to the salt rub, such as sage or poultry seasoning, those flavors also get absorbed. The salt does all the work for you and no more wrestling with a bucket of brine and a slippery bird or worrying about keeping it at a safe temperature. Hallelujah, Thanksgiving just got easier!

Maple Roasted Carrots, Apples and Onions

Maple Roasted Carrots, Apples and Onions

For me, the other main component of Thanksgiving dinner is the gravy. It can be a nightmare or a dream, cause headaches or delight. There are a few tricks to perfect gravy and if you follow them, it will turn out perfectly every time. Start the gravy with a roux made from turkey drippings and flour. Cook until it is golden colored, stirring to make sure there are no lumps. A flat whisk is the best tool for this. Take the pan off the heat, add your liquid, whisking until fully incorporated and smooth. Return to the heat and cook until thick and creamy, stirring constantly. That’s all it takes. A few minutes, a little patience, and you will have award-winning gravy!

Gluten-Free Thanksgiving Cornbread Dressing

Gluten-Free Thanksgiving Cornbread Dressing

All right, are you ready to learn how to make the world’s greatest turkey and gravy? From my house to yours … Zuni Turkey!! 

More Thanksgiving Recipes for You:

Cheesy Cauliflower Gratin with Saffron Cream Sauce

Thanksgiving Cornbread Stuffing or Dressing (Gluten-Free)

Cranberry-Orange Sauce

Maple Roasted Carrots, Apples and Onions

Pecan Pie Bars

Pecan Pie Bars, a pecan pie without a crust

Pecan Pie Bars, a pecan pie without a crust

Jane’s Tips and Hints:

I know that the world is convinced that wet brining is the only way to guarantee moist, tender poultry. But I swear this method works, is much easier, and take a lot of the guesswork and hassle out of roasting a whole bird.

Gluten-Free Tips:

Make sure the turkey you buy has not been pre-brined. Many processors use ingredients that contain gluten in their brines. Your safest choice is a fresh, organic turkey that has had minimal processing.

Zuni-Style Dry Brined Turkey
Yields 14
Based on the technique used at Zuni Café, San Francisco.
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  1. Sage and Lemon Seasoned Salt
  2. 1/3 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt (if using another brand of kosher salt, use 3 tbsp)
  3. 2-1/2 tsp ground sage
  4. 1/2 tsp onion powder
  5. 1 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest
  6. Turkey
  7. 1 (12 to 15 lb) turkey, preferably fresh and organic (see below if using a frozen bird)
  8. 4 large onions plus 3 medium onions, peeled
  9. 5 carrots, chopped
  10. 4 stalks celery, chopped
  11. 2 lemons
  12. Fresh sage
  13. Olive oil
  14. 1 cup dry vermouth, white wine, or water
  15. 1/2 cup turkey stock or water
  1. In the bowl of a small food processor, combine the salt, sage, onion powder, and zest. Pulse until thoroughly blended. Measure out 1 tbsp of the salt mixture for every 5 pounds of the turkey’s weight. If you get a 15 lb turkey, you will use 3 tbsp of the salt. Store the remaining mixture in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
  2. Starting 4 days before you intend to cook the bird (that’s Monday for cooking on Thanksgiving Thursday) remove any giblets or other items from inside the turkey. You can use them for other recipes or discard. Rinse the bird thoroughly, inside and out, in cold water and pat dry. Set on a cutting board.
  3. Starting on the breast, sprinkle the entire top with about 1 tbsp of the salt mixture. Rub it in with your hands, putting more on the meatiest areas. Rub the remaining salt mixture on the legs and thighs. Place the turkey breast-side up in a 2-1/2 to 3 gallon resealable food-safe plastic bag. If you can’t find a zip-top bag big enough, you can use an oven-roasting bag. Press the air out and seal tightly. If you are using a roasting bag, twisting the open end tightly and using a rubber band to hold it shut works well.
  4. Refrigerate the turkey for 3 days, turning occasionally and massaging the salt into the meat (without removing from the bag) at least once a day. You can brine for less time but the bird won’t be as flavorful. Initially you will see a bit of liquid on the skin and in the bag – don’t be concerned, this is part of the process. The salt pulls the liquid out of the meat, but it will eventually be reabsorbed and when it does, it will pull the flavor of the salt and any additions deep into the meat.
  5. Remove the turkey from the bag and wipe with a paper towel. The skin will be moist with no salt remaining. Place it in an open container – a plate, your roasting pan, etc. – and refrigerate uncovered about 8 hours. The air in the refrigerator will dry the skin. This helps with the browning and crisping of the skin during roasting.
  6. When ready to cook, let the turkey sit at room temperature for at least an hour before placing in the oven. If you want to use a compound butter under the skin, now is the time to insert it.
  7. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
  8. Cut the ends off the large onions and slice horizontally into 1/2-inch thick slices. Place slices in an even layer on the bottom of a large roasting pan, top with the carrots and celery, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Cut remaining medium onions and the lemons into quarters, and place inside cavity of the turkey along with a handful of the fresh sage. Rub the entire surface of turkey with olive oil, and set breast-side down on the layer of onions. Pour vermouth and stock in pan and carefully transfer to the hot oven.
  9. Roast for 30 minutes and reduce temperature to 325°F. Roast another 30 minutes then remove turkey from oven and very carefully flip it over, breast-side up. Add a little more vermouth or stock if the pan is getting too dry. Return to the oven and continue roasting until the thigh reaches 165°F. Use an instant read thermometer. The total time will be about 2-1/2 to 2-3/4 hours. (An unstuffed turkey cooks faster than a stuffed one.) If you don’t have a thermometer, wiggle the leg – it should feel loose in the socket. Pierce the thigh and make sure the juices that flow out don’t have any pink in them. If they do, keep cooking for another 15 to 20 minutes and check again.
  10. When done, remove from the oven and transfer turkey to a cutting board. Be careful, there may be liquid inside the turkey. Use the pan drippings for the gravy and to keep the leftovers moist. Tent with foil and let rest at least 30 minutes. The juices will be reabsorbed into the meat. Carve and serve on a warmed platter.
  11. For a Frozen Turkey: You can use the same technique without needing to defrost the turkey first. Just rinse the frozen bird under running cold water until you are able to pull the giblet sack(s) out. Pat the turkey dry and follow directions above for salting and brining. The turkey will defrost and brine at the same time!
  1. You can dry brine for less time, but it will not be as flavorful. It will take at least 2 days for the dry brine to fully work. The final drying time can also be shortened if needed. Pat any extra moisture off with a paper towel before roasting.
The Heritage Cook ®
Foolproof Turkey Gravy
Yields 6
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  1. 6 cups turkey broth (can be made well in advance – recipe here)
  2. 4 tbsp butter
  3. 6 tbsp all-purpose flour or, for gluten-free, 4 tbsp cornstarch
  4. Pan juices from turkey roasting pan, optional
  5. 1 to 2 packets of liquid turkey broth concentrate from Savory Choice, if desired
  6. Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. In a medium saucepan, bring broth to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low to keep warm.
  2. In a large saucepan or skillet, melt butter over medium-low heat. Using a flat whisk, stir in the flour (or cornstarch) until smooth with no lumps. Take your time with this step. Cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually add the broth. Whisking until completely incorporated and smooth. Return pan to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. You can whisk in some of the pan juices from the roasted turkey. Taste and add concentrate if the turkey flavor isn’t strong enough add salt and pepper if needed. If there are any lumps, you can pour the gravy through a wire strainer.
  4. For Serving: Pour very hot water in your serving container to heat it. When warm, pour out water, dry container, and fill with steaming hot gravy. Keep remaining gravy warm on the stove so refills will be hot.
  1. Yield: about 6 cups
  2. Make Ahead: You can make the gravy a day or two in advance and store in the refrigerator. Reheat in the microwave or over low heat. Add a tablespoon or two of water or chicken stock if it is too thick, whisking until you have the right consistency.
The Heritage Cook ®

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  1. says

    Hi Jane!

    I have actually heard of the Zuni Cafe and their chicken. I’m still looking to get that cookbook too.

    I totally believe you when you say this method is so much easier. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to try it this year. I have a turkey still defrosting. (don’t ask:) I will be trying it though with a chicken because I most definitely don’t want to wait until next year.

    Thank you so much for sharing this method and those gravy tips, Linda. May you and yours having a glorious Thanksgiving!!! Louise
    Louise recently posted..Cape Cod’s Famous Cranberry RecipesMy Profile

    • Jane Bonacci says

      Hi Louise,
      Actually, you can salt the turkey while it is defrosting and do this technique all in one step! Try it with a chicken and you will be amazed at how good it tastes! And don’t be afraid to cook turkey during the year. I often make a breast for The Artist and myself. Then we have delicious turkey sandwiches afterwards!!

      I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving too. Just relax and breathe!!! :-)

    • Jane Bonacci says

      I would love to have you join us Rhonda!!! The technique would certainly work with a deep fried turkey because it seasons the meat all the way through. I would just make sure it is completely dry before putting it in the hot oil. Did you see today’s Chocolate Monday round-up? You’re in it!! 😉