Whether you like it brined, bacon-wrapped, or something in between, no Thanksgiving spread is complete without a centerpiece turkey. And all month long, as Kitchn is testing out some of the most popular Thanksgiving recipes on the internet (here's Ina Garten's, Martha Stewart's, and Alton Brown's), we've been especially excited to dive into the main event.
One turkey and brine recipe that kept popping up as a crowd favorite came from Ree Drummond, aka the Pioneer Woman. True to her ranch roots, I expected her to offer a homey, old-fashioned approach, reminiscent of the way my grandmother made turkey. But would it be as easy (she promises only 10 minutes of prep) and delicious as promised? Here's what I found out.
How to Make Pioneer Woman's Roasted Turkey and Brine
First you'll start by making the brine with apple cider, herbs, garlic, orange peel, brown sugar, and a heaping 1 1/2 cups of kosher salt. The brine contains enough seasoning to function as a marinade as well. Ree instructs you to bring the brine to a boil in a large pot and then let stand until cool, which took me a little over four hours. (In contrast, some brine recipes use ice to dilute the brine and quickly cool it to a safe temperature for the raw bird. No matter the approach, it's not safe to put a raw bird in warm liquid that invites contamination, even if the recipe never mentions that.)
The only food-safe container I have that can hold a large turkey (the recipe calls for a 20-pounder, although mine was only 14) is a stockpot. The combined weight of bird, brine, and pot was about 41 pounds, which is a hefty thing to hoist into a refrigerator, plus I had to remove two refrigerator shelves to make room. All that to say: Make you have the time, and the space, to take this on before diving in.
After a 16- to 24-hour soak, you'll rinse the turkey and toss it in a 275°F oven, where it roasts for 20 minutes per pound. Then a compound butter goes on over the skin, an old-fashioned probe meat thermometer goes into a thigh, the oven temp goes up to 375°F, and the turkey roasts until the meat reaches proper temperature.
Ree also asks you to baste the turkey every 30 minutes, but I found that the pan drippings were so scant and shallow that there was nothing to spoon up. (A squeeze-bulb-style baster might help here, but I didn't have one.) To be honest, I wasn't a huge fan of this technique here. Basting was once conventional wisdom, but it's fallen out of favor in recent years because letting the oven repeatedly stand open for a few minutes lets out the heat and extends the cooking time. Still, I followed Ree's directions in hopes that the end result would be worth it.
What I Thought of the Results
First, the positives: The breast meat was impressively juicy and well-seasoned — so this recipe had that going for it.
But, unfortunately, it didn't have much else.
The turkey skin was mottled and soft, with none of the browned crispness that skin-lovers love. The compound butter mixture goes on the bird after it's roasted for two to three hours, so not only was it was challenging to spread over the warm bird, but also most of it melted and dripped off immediately, leaving a smattering of salt, pepper, and herbs stranded on top, where they scorched. There was also no trace of the fragrance and flavor of the fresh herbs and orange zest. And after spending 16 to 24 hours in a very salty brine, followed by a thorough rinse to remove excess salt, the recipe turned around and called for another teaspoon of unnecessary salt, which meant that the pan drippings – although generous at one cup of liquid and one cup of fat — were too salty to even use in a gravy.
If You Make Pioneer Woman's Turkey ...
1. Read your turkey's label. Balanced brine can be a brilliant technique for seasoning a turkey, because it means there's no need for additional salt during the roasting process — which is useful if you hope to use the pan drippings in gravy. But some turkeys are already injected with brine or koshered before they are sold, so read your label to ensure you aren't inadvertently double brining and over-salting.
2. Blot your turkey dry. A turkey that goes directly into a low-temp oven while it's still wet and cold will not brown well, leaving the skin loose and spongy. It's better to blot it dry and start the turkey at a higher oven temperature.
Overall Rating: 4/10
While parts of the turkey (like the breast meat) turned out well, this recipe had a lot that worked against it — including a butter-and-heat combo that gave way to serious scorching and an overly salty brine. There's also a fair amount of work upfront, and for me, the payoff wasn't worth it at all.
Have you tried Pioneer Woman's roasted turkey? What did you think of it? Or is there another turkey recipe you swear by every year? Tell us everything in the comments below!