Thanksgiving is fast approaching and for many, what should be quality time with family becomes a great bundle of stress. Not only are you worried about the many dishes you need to cook for a judgmental family, concerned that your mother will comment on the dust you forgot to clean above the mantle, and stressed that Aunt Frida will have a repeat performance of last year (keep the wine far away from her), you are tasked with cooking a massive and unwieldy bird. I speak of the Thanksgiving centerpiece, the star of the show, the turkey. As always, we are here to help with a few ideas to help you keep your bird moist and cooked perfectly.
Fatten It Up:
No we do not mean raising your own turkeys to an ideal weight. Instead, one should introduce some fat to your bird before you cook it. Many like to use softened butter, rubbing it on the outside of the skin and in the space between the skin and meat. This is a useful technique as turkey is a rather lean bird. The butter on the outside helps the skin crisp up while the inner butter keeps the meat moist throughout the long cook time. You can also mix herbs into the butter for more flavor. Another popular technique is using mayonnaise. Mayo has several advantages as it is both easy to spread and stays on the surface of the meat longer, helping keep juices in. I like a method of soaking a cheese cloth in melted butter and draping it over the turkey breast, removing it for the last hour to let the skin brown.
Brining a turkey is key to great cooking and flavor. By submerging the turkey for 24 hours in a salty liquid (most commonly water), you allow the salt to penetrate the inner meat, flavoring it and providing extra moisture to keep it juicy. I like to use a salt and buttermilk brine. The acid helps tenderize the meat while the fat helps with moisture and browning.
Butchering and Tying:
While most opt to cook the turkey whole, there is no culinary reason for it. Not to mention, you will likely serve it carved up. Cutting the turkey into its major pieces is a great option for several reasons. Each piece takes a different amount of time so when separated, you can remove each cut as it is done. The turkey pieces will also cook faster than a whole turkey, saving you precious oven space and time. I suggest cutting off the wings. Then I like to remove the leg and thigh as one piece. You can separate them, but I like them as one cut. Finally, I leave the breasts on the body and remove them after cooking. This allows you to roast the carcass for making stock the next day. If you want to keep the turkey whole, try spatchcocking it (removing the backbone). This will allow you to lay the turkey out flat, creating more surface area. The turkey will cook much faster, stay juicier, and brown better. If you choose to cook it in the traditional style. Tie the legs together to protect the breasts as they need to be cooked to a lower temperature than the legs to stay moist.
Do not baste your turkey. If you follow these techniques, your turkey will be plenty moist. Not to mention, every time you open the oven you loose heat. This means the turkey will need to stay in there longer drying it out. And do not stuff your turkey. Stuffing is the perfect trap for bacteria from the turkey. And by the time the stuffing is safe to eat (165 degrees F), the turkey will be long overcooked. I opt to shove chunks of carrots, apples, and onions up the cavity for flavor. I dispose of them once the turkey is served.
In Thermometers We Trust:
Never trust the popper that comes with the turkey. Use a good instant read thermometer to determine if the turkey is cooked. Insert the thermometer in the meat between the thigh and breast. It should read 165 degrees F or a little higher. Next, check the center a breast. The USDA recommends 165 degrees F but I feel fine at 150-155 degrees F so long as you allow the turkey to rest at least 30 minutes. By the time you carve it, the carryover heat will have finished cooking the breasts.
Let It Rest:
Like any other meat, we want to let the turkey rest before serving it. If you cut into it hot, all the juice will spill out. Resting the turkey allows the meat to reabsorb the juices released during cooking. Cover loosely with foil (too tight and it will steam, ruining the crispy skin) and let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour before carving.