Updated: Nov 29
This recipe combines the approach from the America’s Test Kitchen heritage roast turkey recipe of separating the legs for more baking, a dry brine, and a "secret" ingredient – dried ground Koji rice – to create a well-seasoned, tender, and flavorful meat. You may find that there are very few drippings in the pan when you roast your turkey. This partly a result of mild water loss from the meat while dry aging, and partly because the salt and koji both help break down tougher connective proteins, so the meat does not contract as much when heated and less moisture is squeezed out. This results in juicier meat (though you'll want to use the neck and giblets, along with purchased chicken or turkey stock, to make gravy). We have updated this recipe for 2022 by adjusting the amount of salt and incorporating suggestions from Serious Eats to get nice crispy skin.
Get a Thermometer
If you don't have a good meat thermometer, go get one. You absolutely want to be cooking based on temperature, not time. Heritage turkeys cook faster than broad breasted turkeys, and dry brined turkeys cook faster than unbrined turkeys. This means that things can move a lot faster than you expect! I've reduced the timings of the original recipe a bit to reflect this, but each turkey and each oven is unique. Cooking times will vary, depending on the size of the turkey, how long it is salted and rested, and your particular oven; use a thermometer as a guide, not the time. Click here to learn how.
Start Three Days In Advance If You Can (but you can start later if you need to)
This recipe involves refrigerating the salted turkey for 3 days in the fridge, the last day uncovered, so plan accordingly. You will also need a rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack that fits inside. If you are not using just salt and not the koji, 1-2 days in advance is probably enough. But what if it's just the day before? Then some is better than none! The koji takes more time to have its full effect, but even just 48 hours (or overnight) will help, although it might not be quite as tender.
Get a Scale While You're Buying a Thermometer
If you have a scale that you can set to grams, use that to measure your salt, instead of spoonfuls. .A tablespoon of one kind of large grained salt might be 8 grams, and another kind of fine grained table salt might be 20 grams! If you're dropping $100 on a turkey, might as well get the scale, too.
And Now with Stock and Gravy advice
We have now added recipes for how to make the stock, gravy, and get the most out of your turkey by rendering the fat -- click here!
If This Is Too Dang Much
Want a simpler recipe or a more traditional presentation? We haven't tried it, but this video by a cook who does a lot of heritage and pastured meat on her channel has an approach that looks pretty solid.
10-12 lb heritage turkey
6 tablespoons granular (dried) rice koji, ground to a fine powder [semi-optional -- see notes at end of recipe]
25 grams salt, equivalent to about 3 tablespoons Diamond kosher salt (large grains), or 2 tablespoons Morton’s kosher salt (small grains) [see note at end of recipe for more info on amounts of salt]
1.5 teaspoons baking powder (not baking soda)
10 more grams salt, equivalent to about 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Diamond Kosher Salt/2 teaspoons Morton's Kosher Salt
1 T vegetable oil [optional]
About 3 days before you plan to cook your turkey, get the koji-salt brine ready. Grind koji in a spice mill or a blender to a fine powder, transfer to a small bowl, and mix with the first 25 grams of salt.
Take the turkey out of its wrapper. Remove neck and giblets, and set aside to make stock for gravy. Inspect your turkey for any stray feathers or pin feathers and remove. Optional-but-recommended: Give your turkey an exfoliating spa treatment to remove any bits of loose skin or gunk. Start with a small handful of kosher salt. (Regular table salt is too fine to use for exfoliation, and sea salt is too expensive.) Rub the salt vigorously all over the skin. Repeat until you’ve scrubbed the entire bird. Pay particular attention to the armpits and ventral surface of the wings, which are the parts that the plucker has the hardest time cleaning. Then rinse and pat dry with clean paper towels.
Turkey surgery time! Remove the legs from the breast crown: with turkey breast side up, using a sharp knife, slice through skin between breast and thigh down to joint on both sides. Using your hands, pull each leg quarter back to expose joint between leg and breast. Remove legs by cutting through hip joint and then skin beneath, separating each leg quarter. Then, remove the remaining boney bit from the breast: slice through the membrane and thin layer of muscle connecting breast to backbone. Bend backbone away from breast to break where it meets rib cage; use knife to remove completely. (Reserve this bit of backbone for making stock for gravy.)
Koji-salt brine time! Using your fingers, gently loosen skin covering legs and breasts, separating as much skin from the meat as possible without tearing. Rub koji/salt mixture under skin, directly on the meat, on the undersides of any exposed meat, and all inside the breast cavity, distributing evenly. Put the turkey pieces back in the plastic bag (or in a 2.5 gallon resealable bag, a couple of oven bags, or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap.) Return to refrigerator, on a roasting pan to catch any liquid which may try to escape).
The night before (or morning of) you plan to cook your turkey, remove the turkey pieces from the plastic bag and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Mix together the baking powder and remaining salt, and rub this all over the skin. Return the turkey to refrigerator in the tray on a wire rack to rest uncovered, skin side up; this will help reduce the moisture in the skin so it gets a little crispier.
On the day you plan to cook your turkey, remove it and the wire rack plus baking sheet from the fridge, about 30 minutes ahead of time to take some of the chill off the meat. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 250 degrees. Lightly grease rack and return to baking sheet.
Transfer the breast to large plate and set aside. Place leg quarters skin side down on wire rack and place in oven; roast until thighs register 140 degrees, 45-70 minutes. (The timing is a broad guideline -- use a thermometer to check at all steps.)
Flip leg quarters skin side up and place breast, skin side down, on wire rack next to leg quarters. Return to oven and roast for another 45-60 minutes (less if it took you less time to get to 140 degrees in the prior step, more if it took you longer).
Flip breast skin side up and continue to roast until breast registers 150-155 degrees and thighs register 175-180 degrees, another 1-2 hours. (Check temperature sooner rather than later -- things can happen quickly with a heritage turkey; timing will vary and I only get to test this recipe once a year.) If the breast is ready before the legs, then just remove the breast and let it hang around outside the oven, it will just have a longer rest. When everything is up to temperature, remove turkey from oven and let rest for 30-60 minutes.
While turkey is resting, increase oven temperature to 500 degrees. Either stack the turkey-rack-sheet assembly on second baking sheet to prevent excess smoking, or throw some sliced veggies and a splash of water on the baking sheet so that any fat that renders doesn't smoke the joint up. Brush the skin of the turkey with vegetable oil (optional; you can do this sooner in the process if the skin is looking dull). Return turkey to oven and roast until skin is golden brown and crispy, 5 to 10 minutes.
Rest turkey for 20 minutes, without a foil tent on top (it causes the skin to steam, making it soggy), then carve and serve.
This recipe is using about 0.7% salt by weight for the dry brine - so about 35 grams total. You can adjust the amount of salt up or down, but don't exceed 1% (too salty), or go below 0.5% (the salt has a very important role in changing the structure of the proteins so that they don't squeeze as much moisture out when heated).
Put the koji/salt mixture under the skin, since the starch in the rice may cause the skin to brown too quickly; the baking powder in the salt mixture that goes on the skin helps make it crispy, as does the oil.
We have tried making this recipe with both powdered koji rice and with fresh shio koji condiment; we prefer the powdered koji method since it is easier to control the saltiness, although the shio koji version does provide a nice sweetness to the meat.
You can also skip the koji and apply just the salt for a dry brine; you probably don't need to dry brine as long with just salt, but give it at least 24 hours.
Use the neck, giblets, and backbone to make a stock for gravy; this recipe generally does not produce much in the way of drippings (which is a good thing - it means the moisture stayed in the meat).
You can spatchcock the turkey and it will speed up cooking time, but we still recommend separating the legs entirely and giving them a head start – in an older, more active bird, those legs have some strong connective tissue, and the difference in time to cook the white and dark meat is greater than in a broad-breasted turkey.
PRO TIP – Save the bones from your turkey after you finish eating it! The bones from pastured poultry are FULL of healthy minerals and fantastic flavor. I have an Instant Pot, and will usually just chuck in the bones along with any scraps of meat, 1 quart of water, a couple tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (which helps get the calcium and other minerals out of the bones and into the broth), veggie scraps, a bay leaf, a couple peppercorns and a generous pinch of salt in, then cook at high pressure for 1-2 hours, until the bones are starting to crumble. Strain and you have a great soup base or a healthy, tasty snack! Here are instructions on how to do it stove top: https://homesteadingfamily.com/how-to-make-chicken-bone-broth/
Are you a video person? We are going to work on a photo and video in time for Thanksgiving 2024, but in the meantime, this video has an overall similar approach for stock making, bringing (without koji though), and cooking in pieces. This presenter does piece out the wings and breast as well, which you can certainly also do if you prefer (although I would leave the breast on the bone for thermal stability). Also if you were to use his rosemary salt in place of just the plain salt it would probably be super delish.