Fixing the Bird
Five ways to make sure the season’s favored fowl is full of flavor
Most of us will probably cook turkey for Thanksgiving; America’s national feast day is no time to scoff at custom. Some among us have tried; but we’re back among the faithful.
That’s because the season’s favored fowl need not be dull. We have plenty of choices, both in buying and cooking our bird.
You won’t be able to drop into your neighbor’s farm to buy a local bird, we’re sorry to report. Except in Amish country, turkey is not as common among Maryland farms as chickens. There are good reasons for that disproportion. Turkeys are more expensive to raise than their cousins. Whereas chickens give us eggs, turkeys only give more turkeys.
So your choices are fresh or frozen, minimally processed or maximally processed. If fat Butterballs are still your turkey of choice, you’ll find them and their ilk in ample supply fresh and frozen in every supermarket we’ve checked. Remember, however, their advertised juiciness is not au naturel; outside intervention helps plump the birds, not Mother Nature.
If you buy a frozen bird, thaw it completely for safe cooking.
Cheaper turkeys are most likely mass-produced at factory farms, fattened on commercial feed likely laced with growth hormones and antibiotics.
You’ll find minimally processed fresh turkeys that are pasture-fed or plumped on a diet of hormone-free feed at most butcher shops, custom markets, certain small grocers and organic-leaning groceries like Whole Foods. These birds are typically raised in the region. The Amish market in Annapolis Harbour Center, for example, sells turkeys raised in the Amish community around Intercourse, Pennsylvania.
Want to taste before you buy? Whole Foods sponsors a turkey tasting of several commercially marketed brands Sat., Nov. 19: noon-1pm at Whole Foods Market, Annapolis. rsvp: 410-224-2042; www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/annapolisculinary.
Don’t wait until the last minute to buy your local turkey; many markets require you to pre-order their birds.
Choose the gobbler you prefer and cook it to taste, as described below, for a Thanksgiving feast that’s traditional and savory, never dry and dull.
If how you present your turkey is as important as how it tastes, try boning your turkey before roasting.
This method, pioneered by Julia Child, is beautiful and far simpler and more graceful than carving, bone and all, at the table. Either way, you’ll need to be skilled with knives, and your knives will need sharp blades.
Do not attempt to bone and roast your turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Boning is a job all its own.
Add bones to the stockpot to produce a rich stock for dressing and gravy. Improve the stock by adding any parings of onions, celery, carrots and peppers, as well as seasonings. Working ahead, your stock will be finished early, giving you time to strain and refrigerate it to remove the crust of fat.
Boning begins small. With a large, sharp knife or kitchen shears, cut off the wing tips at the joint.
Next, cut the thigh-leg sections from the turkey, inserting your blade into the joints. Leave legs attached to thighs. Switch to a sharp paring knife to remove thighbone. Switch to a small hacksaw to remove leg nubs. If you’re enjoying working with tools, use pliers to pull exposed tendons from turkey legs. Tug hard. Alternately, this step may be done after roasting, but by then you’ll be busy. Put boned thigh-legs aside for stuffing.
For the last step, use a large knife or sharp shears to slice or snip the entire backbone from the bird, cutting along both sides of the spine to complete the job. The result will be a backless turkey breast with wings attached.
Refrigerate covered boned turkey and stock until ready to stuff.
Meanwhile, prepare your favorite stuffing.
Stuff and skewer closed each thigh. Mound remaining stuffing on the well-oiled top rack of a generous turkey-roasting pan. Cover with boned breast-wing section. Wipe down and oil the skins of breast-wing and thigh-leg sections. Place thigh-leg sections on the well-oiled top rack of a separate roasting pan.
Dry roast at 375 degrees, turning legs midway through cooking and basting using cider seasoned with a bit of hot sauce.
Boned turkey cooks more quickly than unboned. Use a meat thermometer to gauge doneness: 165 degrees for thighs, 155 degrees for breast.
Slide roast and stuffed breast onto platter; or lift breast off stuffing and reassemble on platter. Add thigh-legs at appropriate angle. Garnish to complete the illusion. Carve thighs and breast at table, disjointing legs and wings for fanciers of those pieces.
Opinion differs on the right way to cook a turkey. As in the baseball team you root for, the right way is the way you learned. Typically learned from your mother and grandmother, unless you rebelled and set out on your own to find the truth.
Opinion differs on two key points:
One: High or low oven
Should the turkey cook in a hot 450-degree oven for the first hour, as advised by Mike Smollon, president of My Butcher and More. Or should the bird be treated more gently, roasted at 350 or 375 degrees the entire time?
Two: Wet or dry heat
Wet heat is produced by cooking your turkey over water in a covered pan: thus the traditional turkey roaster.
Dry heat is produced by roasting your turkey dry in an uncovered pan. The skin can be simply oiled or rubbed with butter and sprinkled with a little flour plus salt and pepper. Promote browning by basting with pan juices; cover with foil to prevent over-browning.
Whatever method you use, bone-in turkeys require approximately 10 minutes cooking time per pound, with stuffed turkeys taking at least a half-hour longer.
Deep-frying is not for the faint of heart. To plop a big bird into a vat full of boiling oil takes a steady hand, sturdy terra firma and a fire extinguisher within reach. Not to mention a plan for all that used oil.
Deep-frying a whole turkey can be messy and dangerous if not done properly. It should always be done outdoors on a flat, non-flammable surface. Do not fry your turkey on a deck or in your garage.
Nor should you attempt this cooking method without the right equipment: a heavy-duty portable propane burner; a large stockpot (26- to 40-quart capacity) or a custom-made turkey-frying pot; a heavy-duty cooking thermometer; and a tool that will enable you to safely lower the turkey into the hot oil — and remove it when the turkey is ready.
If you’re game for trying frying, there are a number ways to get a distinctively flavored bird before dumping it into the oil. Injectable marinades come in flavors like Cajun or Savory. Or use a poultry spice rub, covering the dry bird inside and out. Most recipes suggest marinating the turkey for at least two hours.
In turkey fryer, heat oil to 400 degrees. Leave room for the turkey, or the oil will spill over, making a mess and endangering cook and spectators. Layer a large platter with food-safe paper bags.
Put the turkey in the frying basket neck-end first. Tell gawkers to step back as you slowly lower the basket into the hot oil to completely cover turkey. Maintain the temperature of the oil at 350 degrees and cook turkey for three and a half minutes per pound, about 45 minutes.
Carefully remove basket from oil, and drain turkey. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh; the internal temperature must be 180 degrees. Finish draining the turkey on the paper bag prepped platter before serving.
Nothing delivers a juicier turkey than an overnight brining before roasting. The salty bath both seasons and tenderizes the meat, ensuring moist even cooking through and through.
Whether fresh, frozen or fresh-frozen, your turkey must be thawed and for this recipe should weigh in around 20 pounds.
Line either a big stockpot or sterile bucket with an extra-large plastic roasting bag. Fill with 8 quarts water, 2 cups coarse Kosher salt, 1 cup brown sugar, honey or maple syrup and stir until disolved. Add two lemons, halved and juiced into liquid, two halved onions, 12 cloves crushed garlic, 20 peppercorns, several sprigs each of parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram or other fresh herbs. Have some juniper berries or allspice seeds? Add some to the brine.
Remove neck, giblets, liver and heart from turkey cavities, saving for gravy. Gently lower turkey into the bag. Add water to cover completely, press out excess air and tie off the bag. Cover your pot or bucket and refrigerate overnight and up to 18 hours.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove the bird from the brine, and pat dry with paper towels. Rub skin and cavities first with olive oil, then Kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper. Fill turkey cavities with solids from brine mixture and discard brine. Tie legs together over rear cavity, and pinion wing tips under wing joints.
Set bird breast-up on a roasting pan with rack, add two cups water or stock and place in oven. After one hour, remove and baste turkey with pan drippings, adding stock or water if necessary. Repeat every 30 minutes until done, 10 minutes per pound. If the bird browns too quickly, cover with foil.
Pan juices from a brined bird are very salty, so add them to gravy judiciously and use little or no additional salt. The cavity of a brined bird is no place for dressing, which is just as well, as stuffed turkeys are the number-one cause of Thanksgiving food poisonings.
You’ll have to pay close attention to the local meteorologist to be successful with this method. A cold, windy or wet Thanksgiving will foul plans to roast your bird on a spit over hot coals. Even with a gas grill, cold outside temperatures could make it tricky to keep the heat high enough to fully cook the turkey.
But if Momma Nature cooperates, there’s no better way to get a crispy brown bird that’s juicy and tender.
Turkey on a spit works best with birds that are no more than 12 pounds as most rotisseries aren’t designed to handle big birds. Bigger birds take longer to cook, a challenge if you are using charcoal. Try two smaller turkeys if you need more than 12 pounds.
You don’t stuff a rotisserie turkey. Cook dressing separately in a casserole dish in the oven.
Remove giblets and neck from turkey and blot dry with paper towels. Season the cavity with salt.
Tie wings and legs securely to the body to prevent ungainly flopping and to ensure even, thorough cooking. Be sure neck skin is pulled back and caught under string or skewered to back.
Balance turkey on the spit and insert meat thermometer into thigh, not touching the bone.
Brush turkey with olive oil.
If you are using a covered charcoal grill, arrange hot coals around outer edge with a drip pan as low as possible beneath the bird. Maintain a 325-degree temperature.
Turkey is fully cooked when it reaches 180 degrees in a thigh and 170 degrees in a breast.
Remove all of the trussing before serving. You don’t want guests pulling pieces of string out of their mouths at the table.
The first Thanksgiving meal was brought to the table by those who grew it or hunted it. To follow in that tradition, you’ll need to have already bagged your own turkey; Maryland fall season ran from Oct. 29 to Nov. 5. Or hope that you are as lucky as our friend Jack, who was given a bird harvested on his Pennsylvania property.
The hunter dressed and skinned the gift bird. Hand-plucking turkey feathers takes hours, so skinning wild birds is common, even if this means removing most of the flavor-giving fat. To replace the natural fat and flavor lost in the skinning, Jack gave the bird a thorough rub down with a stick of salted butter, then covered it in dried herbs: sage, rosemary and sweet marjoram. He baked the turkey in a browning bag according to package directions.
For gravy, Jack used the melted butter, herbs and juices left in the bag.
When presented at the Thanksgiving table, the wild Tom wasn’t the same crispy brown plump bird pictured on magazine covers. Nonetheless, the slimmer beige bird tasted delicious, not at all gamey as some diners expected. Instead, its earthy quality treated Jack’s guests to a taste of the wild woods, a real back-to-basics holiday.