When you live as far out in the country as we do, one of the ways of making sense of your surroundings is by learning the common names of plants. Redbud, white oak, pokeweed, mountain mint....
Every Thanksgiving, those of us who follow foodie magazines, blogs, and columns are bombarded with yet more ways to make a turkey moist, more flavorful, less boring, faster-cooking, etc. After sifting through so many different methods and techniques, I'm sure many of us are even less sure about the "best" way to roast a turkey. Besides, this year's "best" turkey (who decides these things?) will most assuredly be discarded in favor of another, "better" turkey roasting recipe.
At the Joy Kitchen, we love experimenting with new takes on American classics and have tried many of these so-called improvements on our Thanksgiving bird. Two years ago, we tested five (!) different methods to see which one should be featured in our holiday promotions: brined, grilled and turned, vertically roasted (with an Eiffel-Tower-esque rack), stuffed and rubbed with arugula-mustard-herb paste, and smoked (in addition to a plain-Jane bird). All of these turned out well. Some were more delicious than others--I'm thinking of the one stuffed with arugula-mustard-herb paste--but most of the tricks, especially brining, were not unanimously loved.
My father is very persnickety when it comes to turkey. Though the rest of us had been traumatized by bone-dry turkey often enough to embrace the moist results that brining yields, Dad was adamant: "I don't like the texture." After ribbing him for liking "dry" turkey, I think I can now say that I whole-heartedly agree with him, especially after making this year's salted bird for the blog. Unless you plan to smoke your turkey at a low temperature, avoid the brine. It's a royal pain in just about every way, and a potentially catastrophic mess if your brining bag starts to leak into your refrigerator...
I would not be in the mood to give thanks if that happened to me. The mind shudders just thinking about brussels sprouts floating in a crisper full of turkey brine!
A few good pointers and suggestions from trying all of these different methods:
- Loosening the skin with your fingers and pushing fresh herbs underneath is delicious. Chop them fine with a sharp knife and moisten with a little olive oil before pushing in with your fingers. I usually go with parsley (or arugula), thyme, a bit of rosemary, two or three sage leaves, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Figure on making about a half-cup for a very herby 16-pound bird.
- Liberally salting the skin and letting the turkey sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, will make the skin crisp up even better and helps the bird retain moisture. We now do this every time we roast a chicken, usually for only a few hours. If you need to thaw your turkey anyway, just herb and salt it once the skin can be loosened and let it thaw the rest of the way on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan. Be sure to wipe any exuded liquid out of the cavity and pan. I let this year's turkey thaw in the fridge--herbed and salted--for two days. Dad said it was the best turkey he's ever had... enough said. I used a 1/4 cup of salt and the pan juices were still fine for making gravy--though I would not add any salt until the end.
- Do not stuff your bird! From a safety perspective, stuffing will harbor turkey juices at the center of the bird, where they will remain below the safe minimum temperature by the time the meat is done, thereby forcing you to overcook the turkey or risk causing sickness. From a flavor perspective, the stuffing will not have an opportunity to form any crusty bits, and you can get more flavor by adding chicken or turkey stock to a casserole filled with stuffing, letting it evaporate, and adding more. Don't worry: you will have plenty of time to cook the stuffing once the turkey comes out. Want to use that cavity for something better? Loosely fill the turkey with coarsely chopped celery, onion, and carrot. When the turkey comes out, remove the roasted veggies, chop them fine (or pulse in a food processor) and add them to the gravy. Absolutely delicious!
- Trussing--tying the legs and wings together so that they aren't flopping around--is not necessary, but it will make turning the turkey much easier (which I highly recommend!).
- Let your turkey come to room temperature for about an hour and a half before putting it in the oven. This will ensure more even cooking.
- Roasting turkey at a higher heat (425°F) will crisp the skin nicely and keep the cooking time down (which means you're cooking less moisture out of the bird). If you're doing a large turkey that hasn't cooked through by the time the skin is perfect, tent it well with a double-layered sheet of foil and finish at 350°F.
- Turning the turkey on its side (thigh and wing facing up) and flipping it every half hour browns the skin evenly and makes basting unnecessary. I have done this with birds big and small. If you don't have silicone oven mitts, just line the ones you have with a double-layer of foil and grasp the turkey at its neck cavity and tail when turning for a firm grip. If you don't have a V-rack, prop it up with crumpled aluminum foil balls. Vertical roasting is a good substitute if you don't want to turn it, BUT you need room to stand the turkey up in your oven.
- Grilling the bird is a great way of freeing up the oven for getting everything else ready ahead of time (and keeping it warm). Be sure to put a drip pan on the bottom grate and pile coals on either side. You can put the turkey on the grate above or let it sit on a rack (or a vertical roasting rack) in the pan itself. You will have to add more charcoal to keep most grills going at 425°F for the two or three hours it will take to cook the turkey through. Be sure to adjust the flow of air so that the grill is in the right ballpark (tip: make small adjustments and be patient when waiting for them to take effect). In order to do this, you need to have a grill thermometer... you can easily ghetto-rig one by piercing a candy thermometer through the side of two wine corks. Just stick the thing in the top vent so that the thermometer's tip is near the turkey. For gas grill users, turn the burner underneath the turkey off and set the other accordingly.
- Always use an accurate digital thermometer to tell when the turkey is done. Cooking time is simply not a good way of divining when the bird should come out. Period. Look for 165°F in the thickest part of the inner thigh.
- Lastly, and most importantly, RELAX! It's just a big chicken.
So there you have it. If you want a recipe that incorporates all of this wisdom, the one below will take you through the whole process, from herbing and salting to making gravy.
If you really want to make the gravy sing, check out our guide to making poultry stock from scratch in under 2 hours total. For a new take on some classic sides, try our Caramelized Brussels Sprouts, Whole Cranberry Sauce with Dijon and Walnuts, and delectable Puréed Cauliflower with Caramelized Shallots and Fried Sage.
This high-heat roasting technique delivers a beautifully browned, intensely flavorful bird, and it only requires attention to a few details. To keep the drippings from burning, the pan should be heavy-gauge.
Remove the giblets and neck from:
Place them in a saucepan and simmer for 2 hours in:
4 cups chicken or turkey stock
Strain the stock and reserve in the fridge for making gravy, below. While the stock is simmering, combine in a small bowl:
1/2 cup fresh herbs, finely chopped (your choice, but we use a combination of sage, thyme, rosemary, and parsley or arugula)
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
(1 tablespoon red pepper flakes)
(1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard)
Gently loosen the turkey’s skin around it’s breasts, thighs, and legs with your fingers and push the herb mixture underneath, distributing it as best you can. Generously rub the turkey’s skin with:
Salt (around a 1/4 cup for a 15-pound turkey)
Place the turkey on a rack in a heavy roasting pan and refrigerate overnight, or up to two days before cooking.
Take the turkey out of the refrigerator and let it warm at room temperature for 1 hour. Position a rack at the lowest level of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Wipe any accumulated juices out of the roasting pan and cavity. Stuff the bird with:
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 celery rib, coarsely chopped
Truss the bird with butcher’s twine for easier handling. Brush all over with:
4 to 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
Turn the turkey onto its side, wing and thigh facing up. If it topples over, prop it up with crumpled aluminum foil. Roast for 30 minutes. Remove the turkey from the oven. Wearing silicone gloves or heavy-duty oven mitts to protect your hands, grasp the turkey at both ends. You might find a set of sturdy tongs helpful for lifting and balancing the bird. Turn it onto its other side, again propping it up with foil if necessary, and roast for another 30 minutes. Turn twice more so that the turkey roasts twice on each side and until a thermometer plunged into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165°F. If the bird is over 18 pounds, you may want to tent it with a double-layer of aluminum foil and turn the heat down to 350°F to keep the skin from getting too brown. Remove the turkey to a platter and let stand loosely covered with aluminum foil, for at least 20 minutes before carving.
For the gravy, pour into the roasting pan:
1 1/2 cups dry white wine, sherry, port, Madeira, or water
Place the roasting pan on two burners over medium-high heat. Bring the juices to a simmer and, using a wooden spoon, scrape up the browned bits in the bottom of the pan. Pour the mixture into a heatproof glass container and let the fat rise to the top, then skim off the fat with a spoon and discard. (You can also use a gravy separator.) Pour the remaining liquid into a saucepan. Add the juices that have accumulated around the turkey, along with all of the reserved neck-and-giblet stock.
Bring to a simmer. Mix to a smooth paste with your fingers:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Whisk the paste bit by bit into the simmering sauce and cook until thickened. Season with:
Several drops of fresh lemon juice or vinegar
Salt and black pepper to taste
Enjoy your Thanksgiving!