Thanksgiving 2013: Turkey cooking lessons

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… Or things I’ve learned cooking my very first turkey!

This Thanksgiving, I cooked my first ever turkey for a host of friends. Like so many people before me, I was nervous, confused and even slightly intimidated by the process.

While I certainly would not call the end result perfect, I’m sure that everybody at the table would agree that the bird was more than passable for a first attempt – plus I really learned a lot and made a lot of people happy in the process. The most important lessons I learned, I’ve included in the post below in the hope that you, dear reader, may be inspired to tackle a turkey on your own.

Enjoy these hard earned lessons and remember: don’t be your own worst enemy, roasting a turkey is much easier and much more fun than you think. Go slow rather than fast, stay calm and take your time. Oh, and if – in the end – you think things have gone horribly wrong, take a look at lesson six below on how to not only correct a common problem/mistake, but also make it look like the unintentional result was part of the plan all along.


Lesson 1: A turkey takes a LONG time to defrost

Oh, you’re in a hurry? Sorry, buddy, no turkey for you! If you get your bird frozen, as most of us do these days, you need to allow at the very least a half a week for defrosting – probably longer.

Frozen turkeyA frozen turkey this size needs at least four days to defrost. In the fridge, please.

More specifically, a turkey needs to chill in your refrigerator for about one day per kilo of frozen bird. My 4.5 kilo bird took about four days to defrost.

Don’t kill your guests! While today’s turkeys are generally disease-free and clear of harmful bacteria, some pretty nasty things can happen if you don’t follow basic food safety guidelines which include observing proper handling temperatures. Resist the temptation to stage a quick thaw at room temperature. Some very bad things could happen!


Lesson 2: Brining makes all the difference

We all want a beautifully succulent and juicy bird for our dinner, but unfortunately meat generally has a nasty tendency to dry out during cooking. One way to prevent this is to take out a bit of insurance through the concept of brining.

Brining basically involves submerging the food you’re cooking in a solution of water and salt – quite a lot of salt, actually – for six to twelve hours before cooking. As far as I’ve been able to work out, brining uses either magic or the concept of osmosis to magically tenderize meat by introducing moisture into the cells of the meat. It’s got something to do with salt drawing moisture from the meat and that moisture being replaced by the brine. It’s all complicated and scientific. In my book, magic is a pretty nice short-hand notation for osmosis.

I discovered brining years and years ago and today I generally wouldn’t think of cooking a full bird without brining it first. Brining not only makes for a more juicy and succulent bird that’s less likely to dry out during cooking, it also perfectly salts the meat all throughout the bird. Oh, and if you’re really smart, you’ll add a bit of spice and seasoning to your brine. That way your bird will be even more flavorful and perfectly seasoned. See? Magic!

If you’re looking to brine a turkey, allow at least eight to twelve hours for the brine to work its magic. And do use a flavorful brine such as this one courtesy of Alton Brown:

  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 gallon vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons allspice berries
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped candied ginger
  • 1 gallon heavily iced water

Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from the heat, add iced water, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate. When cold, add your bird and refrigerate for at least another eight hours.

Only one minor problem… A turkey’s a pretty damn big piece of bird. In order for the brining to succeed you’ll need to submerge the entire bird in the brine. Meaning you’ll need to find a container big enough to fit both the bird and enough brine to cover the bird. Use your biggest soup pot, a large cooler, your bathtub, or.. No, seriously, don’t use your bathtub. Remember my words of warning on the topic of food safety.


Lesson 3: Stuffing is evil!

Americans have a weird tradition of stuffing their turkeys with a mix of stale bread, bacon, meat, vegetables and all manners of other interesting things.

Resist the urge. I didn’t do it. You shouldn’t do it. Just, don’t.

Why not? Well, stuffing extends cooking time, harbors bacteria and might even help dry out the bird. If you want stuffing, cook it on the side, please. The only thing your turkey needs up its ass cavity is an onion, a red apple and parts of the refrain of one of your favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs: “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.”

Get it? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme? Heh.. Scarborough Fair? No.. Sigh.. Look here!


Lesson 4: Cook low and slow, very low and very slow

Mother nature has worked hard to provide us with a flavorful bird. We’ve helped her along by a bit of brining magic and have, by the way, waited upwards of a week to get to the point where we can roast the damn thing. The last thing we want now is to undo everything by cooking the bird too hot or too long, drying out the meat and wrecking everything.

But how, then, do we avoid certain disaster? The answer, my friends, is slow roasting!

Crank your oven up as high as it will go, and place your bird on a roasting tray set over a pan to catch the drippings.  When oven reaches temperature open her up and introduce the turkey, cook at full blast for a few minutes, then lower the oven temperature to about 125 degrees (Celsius) and continue to cook for an extended period of time until the bird is done. You’ll know when it’s done by checking out lesson 5 below.

The quick blast of high heat should help the skin crisp up and brown nicely during cooking, if it doesn’t check out lesson 6 even further below.


Lesson 5: Work by temperature, not time

Say it with me, everyone: “An electronic probe thermometer is a home cook’s best friend! It will set you free!”

There are (roughly) a million recipes and directions out there, many of them famously printed on oven doors around the world, telling you that for perfect doneness, you should roast your beast or fowl for so and so long at such and such temperature. Believe me, they’re all wrong! There’s just no putting up a standardized formula for this kind of thing. No two slabs of meat are identical, no two ovens are quite alike and home ovens are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to keeping a steady temperature.

When it comes to getting things just right, there’s only one surefire way and that’s inserting a probe thermometer into the thickest part of whatever you’re cooking and keeping an eye on it! Once your target temperature is reached, you must stop the cooking or reduce the oven temperature quickly.

ThermometerThe only secret to cooked poultry perfection? A probe thermometer! This is Miss Chicken, by the way, not Mister Turkey

For turkey or poultry, my desired doneness would be between 67-70 degrees measured at the thickets part of the breast. And I would bring my poultry up to that temperature very slowly. See, poultry contains both breast meat, which cooks quickly and dries out easily, and thigh meat which cooks slower and contains lots of connective tissue, meaning it’s less likely to dry out but needs more time to reach the finger-licking good state. If you cook your bird low and slow, as mentioned above, you even out the cooking process and ensure even doneness.

If your bird reaches doneness before you’re ready to eat, fear not, turn down the oven even lower and just let it maintain a steady internal temperature of 67-70 degrees. In no way will this harm the bird, on the contrary.


Lesson 6: What to do if the skin didn’t get crispy, golden and delicious?

So, you’ve followed the advise of me or some other foodie geek. You’ve defrosted, brined and perfectly slow-roasted your bird and it’s a perfect 67.5 degrees all throughout. You’ve followed every step to perfection, but you’re left with a pale bird with soggy skin? Aww, don’t cry, we’ve all been there! You’ve still got a few options:

Option the first: Remove bird from the oven, crank oven as high as it will go and turn on the broiler. Once properly hot, slide the bird back in and really give it a bit of heat. The skin should crisp up almost immediately. Watch the bird, it will burn – quickly!

Option the second:  Do you own a chef’s torch? You know, one of those little blow torches meant primarily for making Crème Brûlée? It’s a great tool for browning meat and/or crisping things up! Use it!

Option the third: Remove bird from the oven, crank oven as high as it will go and turn on the broiler. Using a sharp knife, carefully remove skin from breasts and thighs in large squares. Put skin on a rack in the oven and cook/broil it to crispy perfection while you carve the turkey. Cut or crumble crispy into attractive shapes and serve turkey slathered in gravy with the crispy skin on top. Pretend like this is the presentation you aimed for all along.

I’ve personally tried all of the options above when crisp skin or crackling has been involved and things haven’t quite gone according to plan, not that that ever happens – and they all work rather beautifully. Just bear in mind that you’re working with really high heat and that when browning does start to occur, it occurs quickly!


Get to work!

With the lessons above, including tricks on what to do when things do not go quite according to plan, I hope to have inspired you to tackle a turkey on your own. It’s a lot of work, granted, but also a lot of fun and a great coming of age project for any home cook.

Results may not be perfect the first time, but it’s your own damn home-cooked turkey, and that’s a pretty big thing! Also, sometimes not quite perfect is a pretty good thing, too. Just look at my not quite perfect turkey with side dishes and all…

Thanksgiving dinner 2013Thanksgiving dinner 2013! Mmm.. Turkey!

Oh, that reminds me… Next up: side dishes!

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Leave a Reply!