Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cooking A Yummy Thanksgiving Turkey

Theories abound on how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey that has the crispy outer skin most people love, while still maintaining a moist, tender bird inside.  This is especially tricky on the breast side of things where the meat tends to get drier and more sawdust-like by the hour as the dark meat cooks and cooks and cooks, right?

I've come up with a few tricks through the years that make our turkey delicious and satisfying at the same time.  This year, I thought I'd pass a few of those along for your Thanksgiving meal.

First, in terms of safety:  you can't go wrong with perusing the Butterball website.  They even have roasting directions for your still-frozen turkey if you forget to thaw it or if you have to buy one on the fly Thanksgiving morning and make your own feast due to a medical or other family emergency issue.  (Don't laugh.  It could really happen to you.  We have been there and back again -- remember a frozen turkey breast in your crockpot can be your friend if you are cooking on the fly and someone in the family has rampant stomach flu.  I'm just saying...)

For the novices out there, the video tutorial on the Butterball website can be really helpful.  Remember this very helpful tip:  remove the bag of assorted turkey organs and gizzards from the turkey BEFORE you put it in the oven, and you are already ahead of 50 percent of the people out there in America this year.  I wish that I were kidding.

I swear by my covered, oval nonstick roaster with a lid.  They can be difficult to find, especially this time of year, so keep an eye out for one for next year of you can't find one at your local stores.  You can make do with a nonstick roasting pan, a disposable foil pan that is deep, and some heavy-duty aluminum foil in a pinch.

This is approximately what you are looking for -- a covered oval roaster -- but, alas, this one is not nonstick.  If you liked the bottom with some parchment paper, you could probably make do if you needed to with this, though, but I can't vouch for it with certainty.

Here's what I do with my turkey, and I'll include directions for a makeshift pan if you can't find a covered roaster:

First, make sure you season your turkey well the night before you cook it.   I season mine and pop it into a large oven bag and let the spices and flavors soak in overnight.  This really allows the flavor to permeate the meat, and for the salt to do its magic with a brine seasoning so that the meat retains a lot of its moisture while it cooks.

If it is a salty brine, I rinse it off, dry the turkey well, and then re-season before putting it in the oven.  With a sticky chicken seasoning, I leave it on and just pop it in the oven to form a spice crust.

This year, I'm trying a ready-made dry herb and salt brine from Williams-Sonoma (which also came with a bottle of cider-bourbon glaze which may or may not get used on my turkey this year, but will definitely get friendly with some roasted pork loin in the near future).  I like the moistness that brining brings to a turkey breast, but I don't really love the mess that a wet brine makes, especially given how much space it takes up in my already overstuffed fridge.  This dry brine this year is my attempt to get the results without the irritation.  We'll see.

In the past, I've used Sticky Chicken spices (yummmmmmm!), which is delicious but doesn't lend itself to good broth that is gravy friendly.  It gets way, way too spicy as a pan dripping from all the paprika and cayenne.

The past few years, I've used just a blend of salt, pepper, Penzey's poultry seasoning, and Penzey's Sunny Spain seasoning to give it some herby, lemony, garlic and oniony zing.  I love this, and may end up switching back to it next year, but I was in the mood for a little change for some reason this year.

What I never, ever change is the following:

The day before the turkey gets cooked, I make a compound butter.  Take a stick or two of a good quality salted butter and place it in a baggie that has a good zipper seal.  Let it sit out on your kitchen counter for a while to soften quite a bit.  Once it gets soft, mince some fresh shallots very fine, along with some herbs of your choice -- I love to use flat-leaf Italian parsley (leaves and stems), some fresh rosemary leaves, fresh thyme leaves, and some fresh sage leaves, with the balance being more parsley and thyme and less sage and rosemary because they are so much stronger -- a little minced garlic, salt and pepper.  What I will often do is to whirl this by pulsing in the food processor until it is finely minced together, and then will pour this into the baggie with the butter.

Knead all of this together well, and allow the butter to cool and reform into a log.  Leave this in the fridge overnight to solidify and when you wake up in the morning, it is easily sliced into thin, flavorful slices that you then slip under the skin of the turkey, between the breast and the skin, which you gently work apart with your fingertips being very, very careful to avoid tearing.

This then works as a sort of self-basting miracle for the breast of the turkey as it cooks.

I also brush the outside of the skin with some olive oil that I've mixed with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper.  This keeps the skin from sticking in the roaster in case it is touching the top.

I make a rack on the bottom of the roaster with some celery stalks, carrots and cut-up onions, then gently place the turkey on top.

Some years, I have roasted the turkey breast-side down for the first couple of hours.  This also acts as a self-basting technique and makes for a very, very moist turkey breast by the time you are done roasting.  This works best with a small turkey, however -- if you are roasting anything over 12 pounds, it is really tough to flip for the last it of cooking, so be forewarned.

I pour a little turkey stock -- that I have made a day or two beforehand in my crockpot -- into the bottom of the roaster.  Usually I use about a cup or two, just enough to cover the bottom but not so much that the turkey is swimming in it.  You want it to roast, not boil, right?

But I also do the following, and I think this makes a world of difference in how the whole turkey turns out.  I picked up this trick from a recipe in Marcella Hazan's work of genius, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. In it, she shares her recipe for a perfect roast chicken, into which she inserts a whole lemon, with holes poked in it with a fork to steam and perfume the meat from the inside.

It could not be an easier trick, and it really works.

I do the following, though, because turkeys are a lot bigger and I like mine to have good flavor:  I quarter a lemon and do the same with an onion.  I stuff these pieces, along with fresh parsley and thyme sprigs, into the turkey cavity and around where the neck has been removed under that flap of skin that is just left there.

Then, as the turkey bakes, the meat is perfumed from the inside with the juices and oils from the lemon, onion and herbs.  It is delicious, and keeps the bird much more moist than it ever is without this.

If you start your turkey breast-side down, you will definitely need help flipping it over for the last part of cooking.  It is absolutely a two-person job, and must be done with care because the juices are hot and will splatter on you and burn you if you are not careful.  Also, your turkey can fall apart, so flip it no later than 2-hours into the cooking time or you risk pieces of turkey instead of an intact bird.

When I do this, I have a baste of olive oil mixed with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, and a little melted butter ready to go.  And I baste the whole breast, drumsticks and other areas all over really well before we pop it back in the oven.  I put the lid back on my roaster and let it cook until it is just about done, then remove the lid the last 10 minutes, upping the temperature from the roasting temp of 325 F to 425 F in order to brown and crisp the skin, basting once more with the olive oil, herb and butter mixture right as the lid comes off.

As a rule of thumb, we get a turkey that is somewhere between 10 and 14 pounds most years.  Which means that I cook the turkey, at 325 F, for about 4 hours or so, give or take, depending on how much lemon, onion and herb I've crammed into the turkey and how well-thawed it was before it went into the oven.  I do not take any chances with poultry and I use a thermometer, stuck carefully into the thigh area, to double-check on temperature -- a minimum of 165 F, but Butterball recommends going to 170 F for safety reasons.

If you don't have a covered roaster, you can use a regular roasting pan as the bottom.  Having something heavy-duty that you can easily pull out with your turkey without having to fear it falling through the bottom is a blessing and a half.  If you are using a thin, disposable foil pan, do yourself a favor and put a baking sheet under it before you ever put it in the oven.  It is a LOT safer that way.

Once you have your turkey in the roasting pan, find a deep foil pan that fits over the top all the way to the roaster's edges.  Seal the rims together with heavy-duty aluminum foil, and...voila! have a make-shift covered roaster.

I find that using a covered roaster makes it somewhat self-basting, especially with the butter between the skin and the breast as well.  But I still end up basting periodically -- maybe every 45 minutes or so -- with the pan juices that accumulate in the bottom of the pan.

I'll let everyone know about the dry brine once we've used it.  It smells really good, but the proof will be -- as it always is -- in the taste once we have the turkey cooked.

Hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving!

(Lovely photo via iwona_kellie.)

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