Let’s move on to the main course.

Turkey

For the vast majority of Thanksgiving celebrants, the day is punctuated with the arrival of the Turkey, a massive bird with the crackly brown skin and a candle sticking out of the top to wish America once again another Happy Birthday. Here are some collected thoughts on how to make the best turkey for the Holiday table.

TURKEY PREPARATION:

First, buy a turkey. It can be frozen, but for the benefit of all involved, including yours truly who will be up to his elbows in turkey for the foreseeable future, buy it early and give yourself time and space to prep it for the big day. What does this mean?

Size: For every person you’re having for dinner who eats turkey, plan on a pound to a pound and a quarter of whole bird weight to satisfy all appetites. I know which aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews like a light meat and which like a dark meat, so I adjust accordingly. PROTIP: Tom turkeys are the larger ones, and therefore have higher percentages of breast meat, but anything over a 14-16 pound Hen can yield a dry breast. No amount of injections or brining can provide the balanced, moist meat that comes with a smaller bird.

Organic vs. Natural vs. Butterball, etc.:

Does it really matter? Maybe. What you want to do is Read the Label. You’ll see on many labels that there is “Up to (x)% water or solution added.” What does this mean? It means that if you want a turkey with a skin that is crisp and brown, after you spend your days thawing it out, you’ll need to let the turkey rest in your roasting vessel overnight to let it drain. That’s resting, out of the package, skin exposed to the elements, so it’ll gain a tacky skin, or to use a culinary term, pellicle. 

There’s a constant debate that rages in the meat department, with people insisting on purchasing only organic meat. Those who are adamant in their support for organics swear by the tenet that Organic meat is only fed by GMO free feed. Still, there is no way to tell that a particular crop is GMO free without traceability and a whole mess of paperwork. More than half of our large crops (corn, soybeans and sugar beets) are raised with Genetically Modified seed, and the best the gross majority of meat purveyors can offer is an all-vegetarian diet. My belief is that the plain and simple all-vegetarian birds offer equal enjoyment. Since there is no discernable flavor difference between a GMO-fed bird and a non-GMO fed bird, I typically go with the one of lesser expense. As most people only eat one whole Turkey a year and not care where the turkey on their Subway sub comes from, it’s a concession that most of us should be willing to make.

At my store, we have Organic birds, All Vegetarian “Natural” birds, Pre-Brined, Fresh, Frozen. Which one should you choose?

If you choose a frozen bird, be aware that you’ll lose about a pound of water as it thaws. The skin will take longer to get crispy, and you may have to brine it.

A Pre-Brined bird is a good option, as is a turkey plus a brining kit. However, Brining kits are messy, and you’ll have to get a bucket, a plastic bag, and it’ll just be a huge hassle, adding 24 hours or more to your dinner prep process.

Pre-Brined birds are great. I had one for last year’s dinner, and it was moist and flavorful. No mess, brined in the bag, and ready to go. Some places call this a “Self-Basting Bird”. If you choose to dry season your bird, get your bird thawed, take it out of the bag, season it, and let it sit in the fridge overnight in a self draining pan. If you have your roasting pan, that will do.

Heritage birds are typically older breeds of bird that are leaner and more flavorful than your traditional store bought turkey, but for the price and inavailability of these birds in your area, they’re not the best idea. The extra five dollars per pound you spend on a turkey will not give your bird the clear cut advantage when serving it at the dinner table. When shopping for meat or wine, I ask people the question, and ask them to respond honestly: Can you tell the difference between a filet mignon and a good top sirloin steak in terms of quality? Does your palate know the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle? If in your mind, you answered no, save yourself the money and get yourself the less expensive option.

The Heritage Turkey

Want to do it all yourself? Get a brining kit, or find a recipe for a brine, buy a bag, a bucket, and get some water and a clear a large space in your fridge to let the turkey sit in your bucket overnight. Do not use your mop bucket.

Now, to thaw a turkey. If you get a frozen one, you’re going to need to take one day for every five pounds of bird weight to thaw it in the fridge. Do not thaw it in a tub, Don’t thaw it on the back porch if the temperature is going to get over 40 degrees. Fortunately in Chicago, the temperature today is perfect for thawing a turkey during the day. It sometimes dips below freezing at night, so it might not be the most favorable option, but it’s still viable.

Today is Friday. If you’ve got a monster frozen bird of 20 lbs. or above, pull it out of the freezer today to start thawing. Nothing promotes a dry, overcooked bird like a partially frozen turkey in the oven. The outside is firm and tough, and the inside, along the bone, is still pink. This is less than ideal, and for those who are eating, you must make sure that it is fully cooked and rested before you slice into it for service.

When your turkey is fully thawed or out of the bag, treat your bird like the hero centerpiece that it is, but first, remove the neck and/or giblets from the cavity and from between the breast. Boil them in about a quart of water with some holiday herbs, and you’ve got yourself a stock that you’ll use for the gravy later. Use the Peking Duck method of prepping, which is separating the skin from the meat. Just run your fingers between the breast meat and the skin covering the breast. This not only makes a pocket for putting little bits of flavor, such as herbs, sliced garlic or pats of butter, but also serves to give a little bit of room for the rendered fat from the skin to bubble and baste the breast meat. For those who have families who jump for the white meat, this is an important and imperative step that cannot be ignored.

Tuck the wings back behind the breast, so it looks casual and doesn’t leave anything flailing. This will stabilize the bird during cooking and carving, and also hold the neck skin in place as it cooks.

Like This. Ferris Bueller wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving.

If you want, put some sage leaves, sprigs of rosemary or chives underneath the skin, and arrange them in whatever pattern you like. It creates a nice effect on the finished bird. As you let it drain before cooking, you’ll notice that the skin shrinkwraps back to its original state around the breast, so nobody will be the wiser except you and your tastebuds.

Cooking the Turkey:

If you’re starting off by browning the skin, preheat your oven to 425°. If you want to brown the skin as the last step, preheat to 325° to 350°. If you want some aromatics in there, (and believe me, you do), rough chop a couple of carrots, some onions, and a few sprigs of parsley and thyme, tossed with a little bit of oil, salt and pepper. Place them in the bottom of your roasting pan, as they will also add to the complexity of your pan gravy. Oh yes, you will be making a pan gravy.

If you’re browning your turkey first, leave it in at 425 for about 30 minutes, then cut the heat down to 325. You want about 15-20 minutes per pound as a cooking time, so if you have a 15 pound turkey, you leave it in there for a minimum of 225 minutes, or 3 hours, 45 minutes. Most ovens aren’t the most even with their heating, so I recommend rotating the pan 180 degrees in the oven halfway through to make sure it’s even. Moreover, if you want a super delicious bird, but don’t care about how it looks, place the bird Breast side down. There is more fat in the dark meat, and it will roll down to further baste the breast during cooking. I don’t expect anyone to do this, but I’ve done it before, and it works out.

At this halfway point, you have decisions to make. How does the skin look? Is it dark? Is it crispy? Does it need more liquid? You can always have a cup of melted butter and broth whisked together on the side with which to brush the turkey. Straight broth doesn’t always help. It needs a little extra fat to stay moist and offer more crispness. If it is too dark, you can cover your bird for the last half of cooking. If it is not dark enough, baste it with some fat and put it back in.

Make sure you have a probe thermometer. These days, they’re found in almost any store directly across from the turkeys. It is a wise investment. Halfway through the cooking, check the temperature in two key places: directly inside the breastbone of the turkey, and between the leg and the breast meat. The first temperature check is to ensure that your breast will cook all the way down to the bone, and the second place is the last location that will cook on a bird. Most places say that you need the breast to temp out at 180°, but that will be overdone. Just give yourself a preliminary idea of where your meat is in its stages of cooking. With that, if it’s running a fever, don’t panic. Just let it ride for another hour, and check it again in the same basic place.

Fast forward an hour or so. If you’ve stuffed the bird, check the temperature of the stuffing in the center. It should read 165°. An in the bird stuffing can’t really be overcooked, because it will be basted by the juices from the bird. Since it is lubricated by turkey juice, it needs to register the 165° for safe food handling techniques as deemed appropriate by every food sanitation and safety class I’ve ever taken.

Check the breast meat temperature. Is it hot? 165-170° is sufficiently cooked, and since the beast is large, it will exhibit characteristics of carryover cooking after you pull it out of the oven and let it rest for twenty minutes. The internal temperature will continue to rise about ten degrees as it keeps cooking from the residual heat from the oven and roasting vessel.

Check the temperature between the thigh and the leg. Is it at least 165°? Okay, good. If carving at your house is not a huge production, you can easily separate the leg quarters from the breast by slicing between the joints, and returning the dark meat to the oven for another 20 minutes while the breast meat rests and absorbs the juices from cooking. You can also remove the stuffing if it isn’t temping out, put it in a casserole dish, and throw it in the oven for 20 minutes as well. It’ll still be moist and flavorful.

So, Carve your turkey from the bone into Breasts and Leg quarters, removing the wings. If the turkey is cooked all the way down to the bone and you leave a little bit on, you can still pick at it and put it in the pile on the side, or just take a couple of bites yourself, since you deserve a reward after cooking such a beautiful bird.

Now, what are you going to do with that dirty pan?

Remember from earlier, where I told you to make that giblet broth? Okay, some of you didn’t do that, but I hope you have some kind of broth available. You’re going to need about a quart of chicken broth.

Pour all the drippings from the pan through a strainer (to catch all the vegetables), into a bowl. There should be juice at the botton and some fat on top. Skim the fat off the top and put it back in your roasting pan. If your pan can’t go on the stove, scrape out all the bits from the bottom of the pan and throw it in the bottom of a heavy saucepan with this turkey fat. Turn it over low to medium heat and add a pat or two of butter. When the butter melts, start whisking in enough flour until it becomes a paste, like you’re making a roux. Let it simmer for a few minutes until it starts to bubble and brown just a bit. When this happens, start whisking in your broth 1/2 cup at a time. Depending on how thick you want your gravy, add less liquid for thicker, more for thinner, and keep in mind that the flour is your thickening agent, and with the heat, will do the thickening work for you.

When all your liquid is incorporated, let it come to a bubble and stir constantly for 4 to 5 minutes until desired consistency is achieved. Remove it from the heat, adjust your seasoning with salt and/or pepper, and pour it into your favorite gravy boat and sprinkle with fresh thyme. Congratulations! You have now made a great pan gravy!

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