Every year at Thanksgiving there are a myriad of things to give thanks for. In the interest of a (kinda) parsimonious post, I’m going to focus on only one of those things in this post… I’m thankful that Turkey Day is only once a year. Why? Turkey is one of the least delicious things on the American table and it’s one of the most difficult things to cook (well). There is an endless panoply of things that I would rather eat on Thanksgiving. Here’s the top ten things I’d rather have:
#9 A cheese steak
#6 Veal Parmesan
#5 Grilled Pork Chop
#4 Prime Rib
#3 Stuffed Shrimp
#2 Crab Cakes
#1 Roast Chicken
And, if you are wondering if I actually would be willing to eat pizza rather than turkey on Thanksgiving, the answer is undoubtedly “yes!”
Turkey is generally very poorly prepared. Mother Nature did not design the iconic American bird so that all of its parts could be cooked perfectly in exactly the same amount of time. Unless care is taken to execute the cooking correctly, the breast generally has to be overcooked in order for the dark meat to be perfectly cooked. I’ve experienced this trade-off first hand. I remember at least one Thanksgiving with a screaming argument over when to take the turkey out given that the thighs still didn’t seem done. And, I will never forget the time I made a spatchcocked turkey for a holiday party at work when I was in graduate school and I arrived the next day with what I thought was a fully cooked, cold turkey only to find that it was in fact a bloody mess. Microwaving a half-cooked turkey in order to get it done was an unpleasant, embarrassing experience.
A number of very talented culinary experts, including the legendary Julia Child, have attempted to get around the uneven cooking time of different parts of the turkey using a seemingly unending set of methods. Brining the turkey is one method that is very successful in producing a turkey that is relatively free from the perils of overcooking. (See Cook’s Illustrated‘s recipe here.) The idea is to rely on chemistry to draw water and potentially more flavor into the meat of the turkey. The result is that when cooking the turkey if you are off on the amount of time it takes to get the foul done, you have some leeway before the meat is dry as punk. (If you need to be reminded of what a turkey that is as “dry as punk” looks like and how it is eaten, please refer to this clip from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. If you need to understand more about the etymology of the term “dry as punk” refer to this entry on Wiktionary.) This is essentially the method that Butterball uses in its so-called self-basting turkey, except they inject the bird prior to packaging. If you buy a frozen Butterball (or any frozen turkey that is called “self-basting”), this means that your turkey has been injected in the breast with liquid and then frozen. The result is meat that has had ice crystals develop within the breast and the final result on your plate will be meat that is often spongy and not as flavorful. Therefore, I recommend brining your own bird. Using your large cooler, after properly scrubbing it, is perfect for putting your bird and ice and brining liquid together for Tom’s soak. Replenish the ice throughout the process to ensure that you keep the bird cold enough. However, also be very careful to make sure that you are not brining a bird that has already been injected or otherwise treated with salt or a salt solution. The result could be a bird that is much too salty. And, if you buy a kosher bird, which can be very good because the koshering process relies on a salting procedure, do not brine it. Moreover, you need to be certain that you don’t brine the turkey for too long because the result will also be a turkey that is too salty. This is precisely what happened for a couple of years when one slightly lazy chef who worked for the caterer at my place of employment used to leave the turkey breasts for our banquets soaking in the brine over night. The resulting roasted turkey breast should have simply been renamed “Salt Lick Turkey.”
Julia Child’s very smart idea for conquering the overdone breast/underdone thigh problem was to deconstruct the bird. The basic idea is that you butcher the turkey and cook the parts separately. You remove the white meat from the oven when it is done and then allow the dark meat to continue to cook until it has reached the proper temperature. Remember, the basic idea here is that the breast meat doesn’t need to be cooked as long as the dark meat in order to be fully cooked. Granted, the turkey you hoped to use for an elegant presentation at the table ala Norman Rockwell is pretty much gone with this approach. But, as anyone who has ever tried to carve a presentation turkey at the table can attest, carving roasts of any kind in front of your guests is a recipe for both frustration and disaster. Heather Johnston at SoGood.tv demonstrates the deconstructed method in a video on YouTube. If you are really whetted to having lots of turkey leftovers (why?) you can make two turkeys like Rachel Ray always does. Use one roasted turkey as your presentation turkey on your table and carve the second turkey, which could be roasted deconstructed, in the kitchen and serve that one to your guests.
Cook’s Illustrated, which has never, ever failed me, each year seems to come up with a different method for tackling the Thanksgiving bird. They have a recipe for Roasted Brined Turkey, which they first introduced in 1993. For those who don’t want to have to soak their turkey in a salt solution, they developed the Roast Salted Turkey. In this method, you salt the bird and store it in the refrigerator for a period before then chilling the breast of the turkey upside down in a bowl of ice for an hour before roasting in the oven. The result is that the breast goes into the oven colder than the thighs and therefore buys some much-needed roasting time for the dark meat before the breast meat is fully cooked. In 2008, they released their take on dear old Julia’s deconstructed turkey with their recipe for Slow-Roasted Turkey with Gravy. In 1997, they released a recipe for Stuffed Roast Turkey that included brining, roasting the bird upside down to help guarantee that the breast doesn’t get overcooked, and microwaving the stuffing before it goes into the bird to ensure that the stuffing gets hot enough during the cooking process to kill bacteria and be fully cooked. (One of the greatest perils at Thanksgiving is not that the bird will be unevenly cooked but rather that the stuffing inside the bird will be undercooked and therefore riddled with dangerous salmonella.) For those who want to free up their kitchen from the annual turkey roast, this year Cook’s Illustrated developed a Simple Grill-Roasted Turkey recipe, which pairs the salted and refrigerated bird with cooking on your trusty charcoal or gas grill. They tackled the fact that turkeys can be particularly tasteless with their Herbed Roast Turkey recipe released in 2005. And the list goes on and on and on… I’m willing to wager that Cook’s Illustrated, one of America’s most respected culinary resources, has tackled the legendary American roast turkey more times than any other dish in their canon of cookery. This basic observation is a testament to my very point–good roast turkey ain’t easy and, therefore, roast turkey ain’t a particularly good dish.
Of course, all of these brining and salting methods start only after you have a defrosted foul. One of the most frustrated things is to go to a grocery store on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving (Thanksgiving Eve?) and watch ignorant folks buying 20-some pound frozen birds for their Thanksgiving dinner. There’s a part of me that wants to be the fly on the wall in their kitchen to see how on earth they are going to get a large frozen bird defrosted and cooked in time for a family meal the next night. Or, I want to be the evangelist of the meat case and run up and scream “Save yourself now!” It takes a long time, even soaking in ice water, to get a large bird defrosted. If you are buying a last-minute turkey, ensure that it is a fresh bird. Also ensure that despite saying “fresh never frozen” on the packaging that it hasn’t frozen or partially frozen while sitting in the grocer’s refrigerator case. (I suspect that one of the reasons that the spatchcocked turkey from the 1997 holiday lunch at work during graduate school was undercooked, particularly in the thighs, was because despite being a “fresh” turkey, it had partially frozen while hanging out in the refrigerator case.)
So, what do I do when forced to cook turkey for a holiday. First, I rely on a very basic recipe for Easy Roast Turkey Breast from my heroes at Cook’s Illustrated. The simple brined breast (I make sure that I buy a fresh breast that has not been injected or koshered, but I would love to find an inexpensive kosher turkey breast and skip the brine all together. But, alas, kosher meat is always expensive!) is cooked to the precise temperature of 160 degrees on an instant read thermometer. (This is my favorite instant read thermometer, but I rely on a probe-style thermometer like this one to ensure that I don’t miss the 160 degree threshold.) Of course, with just a breast, there’s no dark meat, but you no longer have to worry about getting two different meats to the right temperature. If you have a large crowd, you can roast multiple breasts at once. The more serious side effect associated with cooking only a turkey breast is that there is scant, if any, quality drippings that are otherwise needed to make a traditional gravy for your turkey. There are a few solutions to this problem. One of my favorites is to make turkey gravy ahead of time using turkey wings, thighs, or legs that you’ve roasted in the oven and then simmered on the stove with goodies like onion, celery, wine, etc. The resulting flavorful stock is reduced and then thickened to produce (a lot of) excellent homemade gravy. Cook’s Illustrated has an excellent recipe, which basically relates how to do this (but their recipe assumes that you have offal and a turkey neck from a whole bird.) Since buying dark meat turkey parts can be expensive, I’ve been known to buy a whole turkey and then butcher it myself. I make gravy from the dark meat a day or two ahead and then roast the breast on the holiday. This generally is cheaper and results in more meat since you can leave the wings and the associated meat attached to the breast. And, you are left with extra gravy, which you can freeze and use throughout the holiday season. You can also use jarred or canned gravy. There are a number of excellent prepared turkey gravies on the market.
But, in the end, think how much more satisfying our Thanksgiving would be if the Wampanoags had just brought a few pizza pies to Plymouth Plantation!