THE CALIFORNIA COOK
A more flavorful dry-brined turkey
Flavored salts add a new twist to dry-brined turkey. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times / November 5, 2009)
I e-mailed Rodgers, to ask if she'd ever played with seasoning her salted meats. The answer was immediate and enthusiastic.
"YES! Salting early is a great trick on its own," she wrote back, "but it has another virtue that should get more attention. Add aromatics to the salt. It's a very big deal. A killer combo is black pepper and thyme on chicken or rabbit. Black pepper on steak makes the best pepper steak.
"In my testing, the approach works best when whatever aromatics you're using are crushed just before combining with the salt and then rubbing on the meat."
You can use a mortar and pestle, particularly if you're using fresh herbs, or you can use a spice grinder, which is especially good for mixtures that include hard whole spices or dried herbs such as bay. I use one of those little electric "coffee grinders" from the grocery.
Then Rodgers added that the technique works even better if you let the meat warm nearly to room temperature before salting. "The flavor absorption goes faster, simply because the osmosis/reverse osmosis goes faster at warmer temps."
She also shared very strong feelings about other kinds of marinades. "I rant regularly about the ineffectiveness of (non-)marinades (a marinade without salt is a 'non-marinade' in my book)," she wrote.
"Fancy non-marinades, full of pricey, photogenic aromatics promise, visually, to deliver exotic flavors to a dish, when, at best, they only leave fragile aromatic oils on the surface of things -- where they are likely to burn!
"But add salt to those aromatics and all those molecules of flavor piggy back on the salt and head right into cells of welcoming protein."
Welcoming protein, indeed. As much as I love turkey, even I have to admit that sometimes the flavor can seem, well, a little subtle. It's been accused of being non-vegetarian tofu, though I think that's both cruel and false.
But I will admit that turkey does adapt quite well to introduced flavors. I liked the rosemary-lemon combination so much I was tempted to stop after that. But you know how recipe tinkering goes.
The first thought that came to mind was a kind of barbecue dry rub based on the one I use for pork ribs. Based on smoked paprika, similar to Spanish pimenton de la Vera, it took a little adjusting to get the flavor just where I wanted it. The trick, it turned out, was a good amount of fresh orange zest and just a hint of brown sugar to smooth out the acridity of the spices.
That is good, especially if you like a little bit of smoke on your turkey. But it's far from traditional, so on this holiday above all others, that might not be appropriate.
So for my next seasoned salt, I used the most traditional Thanksgiving flavors I could think of -- sage and bay. And I learned that there is a very good reason these flavors are as widely used as they are: They add a really lovely undertone to the flavor of the turkey.
Once again, holiday tradition pays off. And I can't wait to find out what I learn for next year.