For any true food lover, Thanksgiving is the king of all holidays. The be all end all. The big dance. In short, it’s a game on, all out foodie bacchanalia, and the crown jewel is the turkey.
I’m not delusional. I realize that for most people, turkey is not actually their favorite part of the holiday meal. But Thanksgiving without a turkey would be like the Superbowl without a football. You simply must have it, and if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well.
I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my bird. I’ve tried it all – brining, upside-down roasting, deep frying. Nothing says Normal Rockwellian Freedom From Want like a big breasted bird roasting in the oven for hours, emitting a pheromone-like fragrance that will have your family salivating and lining up for seconds (and offering to do the dishes later). It was how my grandmother did it. It’s how my mom does it. And that’s good enough for me.
Of course, long roasting can present quite a conundrum. The prized breast meat comes out dry as a bone, and the succulent dark meat (my personal favorite) is barely cooked through. So I’ve amassed some tips and tricks over the years that I’m now going to pass along to you.
My first foray into turkey roasting was during my senior year of college. My sorority (eeeeek, ok there, I said it) hosted a pre-Thanksgiving dinner for our senior sisters and all of the local alums. It was a 30 pound bird in a 10 pound oven, and it took about 8 hours and 15 phone calls to my mother. It also brought out the first hints of my control freak nature, dormant until then, when all the older alumnae showed up and immediately tried to swoop in and steal my gravy-making thunder. Narrowly avoiding an all out fisticuffs, I merely turned to the three women hovering over my shoulder and said in my most Dot-like tone (i.e. the tone you never mess with), “I’ve got this, thanks.”
Growing up, most of our Thanksgivings were spent on the road to New Jersey to be with my dad’s side of the family. So I had little prior turkey roasting experience when I took the plunge at Bucknell. But there were a few years after college when we stayed at home in Baltimore for the holiday, and I have warm memories of Thanksgiving morning with my mom, learning about stuffing and where to find the turkey innards that must come out pre-oven (hint, the innards are inside the turkey. Huh.) Once hubster and I were married, we started spending Turkey Day in the city, with his mom and brother. These were my first years of prepping and pulling off the dinner solo, and I’m glad these initial trial runs were only for four people. It allowed me to get creative with the bird, first brining, then roasting upside down. For our first Turkey Day in Huntington last year, we deep fried, which was a novelty. Of course, it rained, so we ended up setting up the fryer in the filthy garage, and stood around drinking beers and watching it fry like the good white trash that we really are. It was a complete and utter mess to clean up for an end result that was not really superior to the regular bird. I have to say I’ve never had a turkey disaster, but I honestly think some of these methods are just a whole lotta hoopla.
My main beef with all these new fangled poultry methods is that I’m a gravy junkie. If I could mainline it, I would. Most years I settle for drinking it from a glass. Seriously. There’s nothing you can’t fix with a good gravy, and if you brine or fry, you are severely limiting your ability to make just that. The brine ends up making the drippings too salty, and if you deep fry, you have no drippings at all. Case closed.
As for upside down roasting, it has its merits. Theoretically, it does keep the breast meat moist, that is if you don’t end up dropping the entire scalding hot, half cooked turkey on the floor as you try to flip the bird right side up. Consider this: I’ve jumped out of an airplane, but I think this method is a little risky. Nothing is more confidence shattering than mopping up splattered turkey with your tears of shame.
Remember that the turkey is actually the easiest part of the meal (unless you are a fan of canned cranberry sauce). Once you’ve got it all prepped and ready to go, you just pop it in the oven and hang out for 4 hours. With my tips I think you’ll be armed and ready for battle turkey. If all else fails, know that your family still loves you and keep a fully stocked bar…
1) Invest in a probe thermometer. Forget what your dear sweet granny told you about basting. It’s hogwash. The little amount of juice that actually makes it back up to the breast dribbles right off, if you’ve seared the meat properly, and the constant opening of the oven lowers the heat so that you’ll have to keep the bird in even longer. Longer cooking time equals drier meat. Aaaand, we’ve come full circle. A probe thermometer allows you to keep tabs on Tom without ever having to open the oven door, meaning the heat source stays constant and the turkey roasts for a shorter amount of time.
2) Prepare the gobbler the night before. Take said turkey out of his packaging, remove giblets and make stock Wednesday night. Rinse the bird, pat him dry, and leave him in a roasting pan uncovered overnight in the fridge. This will help dry the skin out, which comes back to searing 101. Dry meat gives you a better sear, thereby locking in the juices.
3) Remove the turkey from the fridge and let it come up in temperature for about an hour on your counter. Tuck the wings underneath the breast. Preheat your oven now to 425. Heating this early will ensure that it’s good and hot when you pop the bird in. In the meantime, prepare his massage oils. A stick of softened butter, and any combination of chopped herbs you like. I usually go with thyme, sage and parsley (so easy on the sage, it can get overpowering). Combine butter and herbs, and a few cracks of black pepper. Once the turkey has warmed up a bit, pat it dry again with paper towels. Season the inside cavity with salt and pepper. Then, very carefully, slide your fingers under the breast skin, without breaking the skin (if you break it, the melted butter will just run out of the hole). Rub half of the soft butter all over the breast meat, massaging it into the bird as lovingly as you would…well, fill in your own fantasy here. Rub the rest of the butter over the legs and thighs. Wash your hands and season the outside of the lubed up bird with salt and pepper.
4) No stuffing. The only thing that should be going into that cavity is a halved onion, some fresh herbs, celery, maybe a little garlic or some apple slices. The trick it that you don’t want to cram it too full. Pack it very loosely and come out with your hands up. Then, tie the legs together tightly and call it a day.
5) Put the bird in the oven. Roast at 425 for about 45 minutes to sear the outside of the meat and skin. Remove from the oven, close the oven door, cover the breast with tin foil and insert your fancy new probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (think about where your thigh is the thickest and then look at the turkey. That’s right. The chub rub spot), making sure not to touch the bone. Then, turn the oven heat down to 325. Put turkey back into oven and roast until the alarm beeps (set it to 165). If you like crispy skin, remove the foil when the temperature reads 140. Figure on about 15 minutes per pound total cooking time.
6) Remember that just because the bird is out of the oven does not mean it’s done (also remember that when you are working on a project, you are not done, you’re finished. Only meat, fish or fowl can be done. Satisfied, Mom?). You have to let it rest to protect all of those juices you’ve worked so hard to retain. Remove the bird to a large cutting board and let him rest for 45 minutes to an hour. Check here for some easy carving tips. No one needs piping hot turkey meat, but if you want to warm it up (Kriss) before you serve, pour a little hot turkey stock over the top of the meat, and remember that all normal people with good taste will douse it in gravy anyway.
7) Think you messed something up? Make extra gravy and relax. It’s only food (at least that’s what Uncle Mel said when he screwed up the turkey. Funny, no one’s heard from him since…)