The Best Turkey You’ll Ever Eat

The hands-off, naturally make-ahead confit technique transforms turkey thighs into a silky, dense, and savory revelation.

Published Sept. 29, 2020.

know a lot about turkey—I’ve roasted hundreds of birds while developing two previous recipes for this magazine. I’m adept at keeping the delicate breast meat moist while ensuring that the longer-cooking legs and thighs turn tender. I have tricks for seasoning the flesh all the way to the bone, producing crackling brown skin, and maximizing the flavors of herbs and spices. But if I really wanted to wow you with a single unadorned bite—no drizzle of gravy, no sprinkle of flaky salt, no dollop of cranberry sauce—I wouldn’t bother with any of those techniques. I’d make turkey confit.

Before settling on turkey thighs, Senior Editor Lan Lam experimented with using legs as well. After poaching in oil, the parts get browned in the oven.

What Makes Confit So Darn Good?

Deep, Complex Flavor

During a four-day cure, salt; sugar; and some water-soluble compounds in onions, fresh thyme, and black pepper make their way into the turkey, seasoning it to the bone.

Tender Meat

Melted fat heats the turkey gently, evenly, and efficiently, giving its collagen time to break down into gelatin and turning the meat remarkably tender.

Moist, Firm, Dense Texture

A low oven temperature means little water escapes during cooking, so the turkey stays moist. In addition, chloride ions from the salt push the muscle fibers apart from each other, causing them to draw in and retain moisture. After a while, the chloride also starts to denature and “cook” some of the proteins, giving the meat the satisfying firm, dense texture that is a hallmark of confit.

The term “confit” is derived from the French verb “confire,” which means “to preserve.” Before refrigeration, confit was used as a simple and effective way to prolong the shelf life of foods, including duck or goose parts. The poultry was cured in salt and then gently poached in its own fat before being buried beneath the fat and stored in an airtight crock. At serving time, all that was needed was a blast of heat to crisp the skin. Today, all types of dark‑meat poultry, pork, and game are given the treatment (tender white meat breaks down too much with this method), though regardless of the protein, duck fat is a classic choice for the poaching step.

But the most important thing you need to know about confit is that its benefits go far beyond preservation. In fact, the method is a near miracle for turkey, producing satisfyingly dense, silky meat and concentrated savory flavor with very little effort. In other words, Thanksgiving dinner just got a lot better.

In Search of a Cure

I decided to work with bone-in, skin-on turkey thighs, since turkey drumsticks have multiple tendons that can be unwieldy to navigate during carving. Curing the thighs would be similar to brining or salting; it just involves more time and a higher concentration of salt. But there’s no standard approach: In my research, I came across a wide variety of times and salt amounts.

Confit at a Glance

One more reason to love turkey confit is its terrific make-ahead potential. The process takes at least five days, but almost all the preparation time is unattended.

Salt turkey (along with aromatics) for 4 to 6 days.

Oven-poach turkey in fat for 4 to 5 hours.

Refrigerate for up to 6 days. (This step can be skipped.)

Warm through on stovetop, then brown in hot oven.

After several experiments, I landed on a four-day cure using 5 teaspoons of table salt for 4 pounds of thighs. Shorter cures didn’t give the salt enough time to fully penetrate, producing thighs that were salty at the exterior and underseasoned near the bone.

When the curing time was up, I rinsed the salt from the thighs, patted them dry, and slowly oven‑poached them in 6 cups of duck fat along with bay leaves and a head of garlic. (A 250-degree oven was preferable to the stovetop since it didn’t require babysitting. Sous vide cooking is also a great option; see “Sous Vide Confit” for the details.) After an hour, the thighs were hovering in the 140-degree range, which allowed their collagen to break down into gelatin. At the 31/2‑hour mark, the thighs were tender, so I transferred them to a foil‑lined baking sheet, cranked the oven up to 500 degrees, and slid them in. Fifteen minutes later, the thighs were beautifully browned and the meat was evenly and deeply seasoned, with a firm, dense texture.

Seasonings were my next consideration. When salting or brining meat, we don’t normally add extra flavorings, because they take too long to penetrate the flesh. But with a cure, water-soluble ingredients actually have time to travel deep inside, so many recipes recommend mixing some combination of fresh herbs (parsley or thyme), spices (black pepper, allspice, or juniper berries), and alliums (onion, garlic, or shallots) with the salt.

Why You Should Invest in Duck Fat

Some confit recipes call for vegetable oil or chicken fat instead of duck fat, and we found that all three fats produce confits that brown beautifully and taste similar—even though the fats taste very different on their own. That’s because the meat doesn’t absorb fat during the confit process; it emerges with just a bare coating on its surface. But I still recommend using duck fat (chicken is my second choice) if you can swing it. The fat absorbs flavors from the meat as it cooks, making it even more complex-tasting, and I find duck fat to be particularly delicious. The upshot is that you end up with a fantastic by-product that can be reused in a variety of ways. Strain the leftover fat; freeze it; and then use it as the fat for gravy or to make more confit, sauté vegetables, or drizzle over a simple soup for depth.

To help everything stick to the thighs and to ensure even distribution, I processed the salt with chopped onion, fresh thyme leaves, and black pepper, plus a touch of sugar for complexity. I increased the salt to 21/2 tablespoons because the onions would capture some of it, preventing it from seasoning the turkey’s interior. I spread a portion of the green-and-black‑flecked mixture in a baking dish, arranged the thighs in the dish, and packed the remaining mixture on top before refrigerating the assembly for four days. (After a few more tests, I concluded that for the sake of convenience, the thighs could sit for up to six days.)

When I cooked the thighs, I was delighted to find that the aromatics had worked their way into the turkey, giving it a rich, deeply savory taste; the sugar rounded out the flavors. This was far better than the salt‑only turkey. In fact, it was the finest turkey I’d ever eaten. A colleague described it best, proclaiming, “It tastes like turkey, gravy, and stuffing all in one delicious bite!” (For a deeper dive into the benefits of curing and poaching in fat, see “What Makes Confit So Darn Good?”)

Beware of Bubbles

The turkey’s flavor was top-notch, but I couldn’t help wishing that the meat were a little more moist. I had noticed a thin stream of bubbles rising through the poaching fat from the thighs as they cooked, indicating that moisture was escaping the meat. Would the turkey be juicier if I dropped the oven temperature?

Sure enough, when I reduced the oven to 200 degrees, the bubbles disappeared. Actually, it didn’t look like anything was happening at all. But 5 hours later, the results were well worth the wait. This was the moistest turkey yet, because the ultralow-and-slow approach forced less water out of the meat.

Checking for Doneness

Don’t wait until the meat is falling off the bone, which is an indication that it’s overdone. Instead, gauge the turkey’s doneness by inserting a metal skewer straight into the thickest part of the largest thigh. If the skewer can be easily removed without lifting the thigh with it, the meat is ready.

Finally, many recipes call for transferring the protein to a clean container; separating the fat from the perishable juices; and refrigerating the meat, submerged in the fat, for a “ripening” period. I didn’t want to bother separating the fat from the jus, so I tried six days of refrigeration (the longest I could go without the jus turning sour) directly in the pot of fat and jus. Ultimately, this waiting time had no effect on flavor or texture. That said, it was great to know that I had such a wide window for making the confit in advance.

Beyond Gravy

Gravy, of course, is traditional with Thanksgiving turkey. But this turkey was anything but traditional, and a meaty sauce would only mimic the rich, decadent flavor of the meat. For a bold, fresh accompaniment, I combined citrus and mustard in the form of sweet orange marmalade, tart lime, and whole-grain mustard. A few spoonfuls of the concentrated turkey juices provided a savory backbone, and a pinch of cayenne added subtle warmth. It was bright and cheery—which is exactly how I felt when I served this turkey.

How to Carve Turkey Thighs

1. Place thigh skin side down. Using tip of paring knife, cut along sides of thighbone, exposing bone.

2. Carefully remove bone and any stray bits of cartilage. Flip thigh skin side up.

3. Using sharp chef’s knife, slice thigh crosswise ¾ inch thick.

Turkey Thigh Confit with Citrus Mustard Sauce

The hands-off, naturally make-ahead confit technique transforms turkey thighs into a silky, dense, and savory revelation.
Get the Recipe

Sous Vide Turkey Thigh Confit with Citrus-Mustard Sauce

Confit is well suited to sous vide cooking: You need only 1 cup of fat or oil instead of the 6 cups required for the oven method; it allows you to precisely control the cooking temperature; and as with traditional confit, the timing is flexible.
Get the Recipe


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