The secret to Kamala Harris’s roast turkey recipe

Russ Parsons: This truly does make the moistest, best-tasting turkey you’ve ever cooked

‘Thanksgiving is our one true national food holiday and it’s almost impossible to imagine it without a roast turkey as centrepiece.’ Photograph: iStock.

The bond between those of us who write recipes and those who cook from them is special. When someone serves their family a dish that I’ve thought up, I’m deeply honoured. It’s like they’ve invited me into their home. Which means that sometime in the next four years, I might well be in the White House.

There are many reasons to love the new American vice president elect Kamala Harris. Call me narrow and narcissistic (you won’t be the first), but near the top of the list for me is that she loves my turkey recipe.

And forgive me a flight of fancy, but I can see a time when Kamala and her husband are invited to the Big House for Thanksgiving dinner, and she says “Oh Joe, I know how busy you and Jill are, so I’ll bring the turkey.”

Non-Americans might not appreciate the complexity of our love-hate relationship with the turkey. On the one hand, we love to disparage the bird as bland and dry. But Thanksgiving is our one true national food holiday and it’s almost impossible to imagine it without a roast turkey as centrepiece.


In a video that went viral just before the holiday last year, Harris was recorded extolling the virtues of what she called “dry-brined” turkey. She even went into some detail explaining how to make it. As an aside, Harris is from the San Francisco Bay Area, where these kinds of conversations are almost required.

Google my name and there’s a good chance the first hits will be that recipe. I first wrote about it more than 15 years ago and it became so popular that for years my colleagues referred to me, I believe lovingly, as “Mr Bird Brine”. I take that as an honour: this truly does make the moistest, best-tasting turkey you’ve ever cooked.

Russ Parsons at home in Waterford. Photograph: Harry Weir Photography

I certainly didn’t invent the technique. I’m sure cooks have been doing this since time immemorial. I learned it from my late friend Judy Rodgers, a wonderful chef from San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, who salted every piece of meat, fish or fowl as soon as it came into her kitchen. She learned it from a cook she worked with in Gascony.

Oddly, though it is the basis for Rodgers’ justly famous roast chicken, she had never tried it with turkey, though she wished me luck when I asked her about it.

While the idea itself is not original, I did come up with the name “dry-brining”, for which I took years of stick from poultry pedants who insisted that since brining requires adding water, this phrase was an oxymoron.

As you will see, moisture is involved in this technique, though it comes from the bird itself rather than being added to it. Beyond that, I can only say “Take it up with Kamala.”

The recipe is so simple it really doesn’t even deserve to be called that. It’s more of a technique. Here it is: Sprinkle salt all over the turkey, allowing about 1 tablespoon for every 5lbs of bird. It doesn’t really matter what type of salt, but I use kosher, which is just coarse enough that it’s easier to sprinkle evenly. It won’t look like much more than the amount you’d normally use for seasoning. Rub it in to distribute it, concentrating on the breasts and the thighs - the thickest parts.

Place the turkey in a large sealable plastic bag and refrigerate for three or four days. I’ve had favourable reports from people who have done as little as 48 hours. Each morning gently rub the salt and any moisture that has collected over the bird to re-distribute it.

The night before cooking it, remove the turkey from the bag, place it on a plate and put it back in the refrigerator - this will dry the skin so it stays crisp during roasting.

The salt is absorbed into the muscle, changing the chemistry of the protein strands, allowing them to hold onto moisture longer during cooking.

That’s all there is to it. Cook as you normally would. I usually start it in a 230-degree Celsius oven for 30 minutes to begin the browning, then reduce the heat to 165 degrees to finish. Don’t overcook it - a meat thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the thigh should read about 75 degrees Celsius. It’ll take two to three hours depending on the size of the bird. And don’t forget to let the turkey rest for 45 minutes or so before carving to let the juices settle.

There is a rather complicated scientific explanation for why this works as well as it does. To simplify: the salt is absorbed into the muscle, changing the chemistry of the protein strands, allowing them to hold onto moisture longer during cooking.

If you like, you can flavour the salt before sprinkling it over the turkey. You’ll taste traces of it through the meat. I like to mix lemon zest and rosemary in with the salt, or orange zest and smoked paprika, but you can feel free to use your imagination. Harris recommends an interesting combination of Szechuan peppercorns and chopped thyme.

And if you can find only a frozen turkey, that’s not a problem. You can dry-brine it at the same time it is defrosting. Rinse to remove any surface ice, pat dry and then proceed as above.

Before trying this technique, I had used a traditional brine (which, out of sheer orneriness, I now call a “wet brine”). This means basically soaking the turkey for several days in a big bucket filled with a salt-water solution (many call for sugar, but I find that makes the turkey tastes like luncheon meat).

The obvious drawback to this type of brining is that you have to have to devote enough refrigerator space to hold the bucket. The less obvious one is that it turns the meat spongey - it absorbs and holds on to too much moisture.

With dry brining, the meat stays moist during cooking, but it remains firm and muscular. It is truly a turkey worthy of the White House.