Creating the Perfect Turkey|
Roast turkey is such an essential part of many holiday dinners that it amazes me how many people are content to serve a tasteless dried out turkey year after year. I have actually had people argue with me that holiday turkey is supposed to be dry and tasteless or the holidays would just not be the same.
I can understand their reasoning, as most of the traditional and time-honored methods of roasting a turkey do result in white meat that is very dry because of the need to cook the dark meat to a higher temperature. It is a tricky balance, and while some people have been known to go to great lengths to keep the breast meat moist, including removing the breast from the turkey before or after cooking and cooking the dark meat longer, or microwaving all the dark meat before cooking to make sure it is thoroughly cooked, there are easier ways to make a roast turkey that is tender and juicy - and cooked to the right temperature everywhere.
First of all, I cannot accentuate enough how important it is to brine a turkey. Even if you use your same old roasting techniques, I can guarantee that if you brine your turkey for 24 hours, it will be at least twice as juicy and flavorful. Brining a turkey - or chicken or other bird for that matter - infuses the turkey with moisture and flavor and keeps it from drying out while baking. My favorite brine for turkey is an Orange and Herb Poultry Brine, but a brine can be very simple and still be effective. The most basic brine consists simply of water, 4 cups Kosher salt, and 4 cups sugar. Combine several cups of the water with the salt and sugar in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil and cook until the sugar and salt dissolve. Cool and add the unwrapped turkey and enough water to cover the turkey completely. I usually add a partially frozen turkey to the brine and cannot always remove the giblets and neck - which can stay in the turkey while brining without a problem. Cover and refrigerate (or keep in a very cool place) for 24 hours before rinsing, patting dry, and roasting. By adding other ingredients to the brine you can infuse the turkey with more flavor. Oranges, apples, carrots, onions, garlic, fresh or dried herbs (especially fresh or rubbed sage), peppercorns and other ingredients that might be part of your menu all add flavor. Substituting fruit juice, wine, Madeira, whiskey, bourbon, vegetable juice, or other flavorful liquids for part of the water also adds lots of flavor to the turkey. Just be careful of using lots of dark liquids - like red wine - or else you will have a pink turkey!
Thawing a frozen turkey is also something that many people are confused about. It takes a long time. A turkey should stay in the refrigerator 1 day for every five pounds. There is a faster cold water method, but you have to be careful about doing it. Totally immerse the turkey in cold water. Change the water every half an hour. This method will take 30 minutes per pound of turkey. If you are brining your turkey, it can go into the brine partially frozen and will thaw faster than in the fridge. For a 20 pound turkey, I take the turkey out four days in advance, keep it wrapped in the fridge for two days, and then brine it for two days before roasting. Do not thaw your turkey at room temperature - and I repeat - DO NOT THAW YOUR TURKEY AT ROOM TEMPERATURE! I do not care if your great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, great aunt Fanny, and even your Uncle Phil have always defrosted their turkey on the counter and no one has died or gotten sick. First of all, there is a greater risk of salmonella and other food poisoning in today's food than in years past. Second of all, food poisoning isn't always dramatic and serious. Lots of times it causes upset stomachs, diarrhea, or just a not-so-good feeling. Many of these symptoms are ones that people just chalk up to overeating or too rich food rather than an unsafe meal, so those other turkeys in the past might not have been as benign as you thought. If you forgot to take your turkey out of the freezer in advance, use the cold water method - or go to the store and buy a fresh turkey or other meat to make.
While talking about food safety, it is important to emphasize that raw turkey has to be handled with all the cautions used when handling raw turkey. Clean everything the raw turkey touches - even when it is frozen - well with hot soapy water. Wash your hands and utensils well after handling the turkey. Once the turkey comes out of the oven and rests, you need to eat it or package and refrigerate it before two hours pass. The same goes for the stuffing and any other side dishes.
Whether you are using a fresh or frozen turkey - or a brined or un-brined turkey, there are some things you need to do to prepare it for roasting. Remove the neck and bag of giblets from the inside of the turkey. Traditionally my family adds them to a saucepan with enough water to cover, boils them for at least an hour to make a rich broth and cook the giblets and neck thoroughly. The broth is then used to make the gravy, and the giblets are diced and added to the gravy or stuffing and the neck is thrown out. Personally, I think giblets are disgusting and when it is just my husband and myself having turkey and gravy, the cat gets the neck and the giblets and I make a plain, smooth gravy. The turkey should then be rinsed inside and out well with cold water and patted dry with paper towels. I usually salt and pepper (or with a brined turkey, just pepper it) the inside and outside of the bird. I typically do not bother with trussing the turkey, as very few people actually see the whole roasted turkey so the appearance isn't that important, I have never found an improvement in cooking time between a trussed or untrussed turkey, and the less I have to handle a heavy, cold, slimy turkey the better! For those that want to truss, the process is simple. Using skewers, toothpicks, or a clean needle and kitchen thread, pull the skin over the cavities and seal closed. Tie the drumsticks together to the tailpiece of the turkey with kitchen string and fold the wings in tight to the body. The turkey - trussed or not - should then be placed on a greased baking rack - preferably a V-rack. I usually rub the outside of the skin with a little olive oil or butter, and then roast.
There are several methods for roasting a turkey that I have used in the past that make for a tender and flavorful turkey. I used to rotate the turkey four times while cooking, but discovered that really didn't make a huge difference when it came to the browning or moistness of the breast. However, I do recommend flipping the turkey at least once, because cooking the turkey with the breast down does really help keep the turkey breast moister. I used to roast the turkey breast side down at 300 degrees (14-20+ pound turkey) or 325 degrees (less than 14 pound turkey) for 2-5 hours with the breast down and then flipping the turkey breast side up and cooking for another hour, or until the turkey was thoroughly cooked. This made for a moist and delicious turkey, but it really did not brown well, especially since I usually use a roasting oven to roast the turkey so my oven is free for other dishes.
My current favorite method for roasting a turkey is to roast it breast side down at 450 degrees for an hour. I also add no liquids to the pan for the first hour. What this does is brown the turkey and the juices, which results in a brown gravy and crispy skin. I then flip the turkey over, reduce the temperature to 325, add several cups of water or stock, tightly cover the turkey, and roast until it is cooked through. The results are a nicely browned turkey that is moist and delicious. Adding a lot of liquid and tightly covering it keeps the turkey moist and even if you overcook the turkey it stays wonderfully moist.
You may be scared at my casual description of flipping a turkey - and I have to admit that wrestling a very hot, greasy, and heavy turkey is not an easy task. Or at least it wasn't when I was using special turkey flippers, tongs, skewers, roasting forks and other utensils. It was horrible - so horrible that I almost gave up on the flipping entirely. Until one day I was so frustrated when trying to flip a huge 22 pounder that I just grabbed some clean potholders, grabbed the turkey on either end, and flipped the sucker over. Eureka! It was painless, quick, easy, and all you have to do is wash the potholders in the sink or throw them in the laundry when dinner is done. Now I wouldn't flip a turkey any other way - and flip roasts and other large things the same way to prevent piercing them or fumbling for a long time.
"Thoroughly cooked" is another phrase that needs explanation. You can tell if your turkey is cooked several ways. A thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh, but not touching bone should read 180 degrees. The drumsticks should move up and down easily, and when pierced the juices should run clear. I use a probe thermometer that I insert into the thigh after I flip the turkey to monitor the temperature and set it for 178 so that when it beeps I have a little advance notice to get everything ready for the turkey to be removed from the roaster, and to prepare other last minute dishes.
I know that there are nice neat little cooking schedules for cooking turkey based on pounds. But I made three turkeys over the last few weeks that were within ounces of each over in weight and the cooking time differed on them by almost an hour and a half. Rely on the thermometer to tell you when the turkey is done, and use this chart as a guide only. These times all are based on roasting an unstuffed turkey breast side down for an hour first at 425 degrees.
|Weight ||Total minutes per pound ||Time to Roast at 325 degrees
|8-10 lbs ||25-20 ||2-2.5 hours|
|10-14 lbs ||20-18 ||2.5-3 hours|
|14-18 lbs ||18-15 ||3-3.5 hours|
|18-19 lbs ||15-13 ||3.5-4 hours|
|20 lbs ||15-13 ||4-5 hours|
Ahhh...and the most contested Thanksgiving issue has been mentioned finally. To stuff or not to stuff? My position on this is very resolute and clear. I will never make a stuffed turkey again. Never. There are a lot of reasons for this. The first is that I don't like soggy, greasy stuffing. And that is exactly what happens when you bake your stuffing inside the cavity of the turkey. I like my stuffing to be moist and flavorful, with a brown and crunchy top. I also like my turkey to be moist and succulent. Those juices that make the stuffing soggy and greasy have to come from somewhere, and where most of them come from is the breast area, resulting in dry and tasteless white meat. All those juices also mean that the stuffing is filled with the bacteria and other raw stuff from the turkey. That means, to be safe, the stuffing has to be cooked to a temperature of at least 150 degrees. By the time the stuffing gets to 150 degrees a turkey is typically extremely overcooked. The last reason I don't stuff my turkey is that I prefer to fill the cavities with aromatics like apples, oranges, cranberries, onions, carrots, and fresh or dried herbs. These help make both the turkey and the gravy more flavorful and moist.
So how do I make my stuffing? I use my favorite recipes and place them in baking dishes. I bake them at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. For a moister stuffing that tastes like it came right out of the turkey, I bake the stuffing covered and liberally baste with the pan juices from the turkey. This results in a moist and flavorful stuffing that fans of stuffed turkey will love. For those who like a lovely browned stuffing, I place the mixture in a baking dish or mold and bake uncovered, and baste with the pan juices just once or twice at the beginning of the baking time.
Once the turkey is finished roasting, I take it out of the oven or roaster, place it on a platter, cover it with foil, and let it rest for 20-30 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to settle, making the turkey easier to carve and more moist. It also gives you time to use the pan juices for basting the stuffing and making the gravy - and if you only have one oven to reheat dishes, make rolls, or make other last minute preparations.
Gravy is the last important part of a roast turkey. Traditional recipes for gravy use all of the pan juices, but in my personal opinion they are just way too greasy and heavy - not to mention unhealthy. In addition, brined turkeys tend to produce pan juices that are very strong in flavor and are quite salty. I make a very simple lowfat gravy by mixing 1/3 cup of the pan juices - concentrating on getting lots of little browned bits of turkey from the pan which adds the wonderful typical flavor and color to the gravy - with 2 cups of chicken or turkey stock or broth. For more gravy, just double or triple the proportions. I bring this mixture to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer until dinner is almost ready. To thicken the gravy I use an indispensable product called Wondra Quick-Mixing Flour. It is a specially formalized flour that comes in a can with a shaker top that dissolves instantly in a liquid, sauce, or gravy, without forming any lumps. It is made by General-Mills and is readily available for a very reasonable price at most grocery stores. Other brands not available in my area might be called Instant Flour or Shake & Blend Flour. In a pinch, cake flour (preferably) or even regular flour in a sugar shaker or other container with a shaker top will work. Simply shake the flour into the simmering broth mixture while whisking constantly, adding enough so that the gravy is slightly thickened. Cook for a minute or two, whisking constantly, and let the gravy thicken more. If you want thicker gravy, add more Wondra and cook for a minute or two more. If you have added too much flour, thin by adding a little water or other liquid (like Madeira or port) and whisk well. Add sautéed mushrooms or diced giblets to all or part of the gravy and serve hot. The lower amount of fat in the gravy results in a gravy that is lighter and less likely to separate or form greasy clumps.
That is the end! It seems like a lot of work, but the end result is definitely worth it. And the taste and flavor of a turkey prepared with care is so good, you might find yourself enjoying turkey all year round rather than just on the holidays. With a little practice, the process becomes almost easy. Over the past month before writing this article, I made over a dozen turkeys in my test kitchen, and the entire process of thawing, brining, preparing, roasting, flipping, and finishing the turkey and gravy has become easy and stress-free because I am assured that even if I forget about the turkey, or in the case of one really bad day, even over-cook it for two hours, the turkey will still come out moist and delicious. Enough so that we are still looking forward to our next turkey on Thanksgiving. Although the cats are refusing to eat any more giblets!