Year after year I watched my mother cook our Thanksgiving turkey. She thawed the frozen bird in a sink with cold water and salt, bathed it like a baby, and carefully patted it dry. The next morning she slowly cooked diced onions, carrots and celery in plenty of butter and folded them together with eggs, broth, sage and parsley in a bowl with her egg-shaped homemade bread cubes. The big bird, stuffed, skin-dried, and buttered, went into a 325 ° F oven, where it stayed until it was brown and very tender.
This ritual never changed during my childhood. All over America, mothers made their turkeys the same way as mine. In the 50s and 60s, chefs had fewer options than they do today. The culinary explosion of the Food Network and cooking magazines has given us opportunities and techniques that we would never have dreamed of.
With them came experimentation … and some confusion.
When I started making my own turkeys, I wasn’t satisfied with making them the same way year after year. I experimented with a maple soy glaze, herb butter under the skin, breast-down roasting, roasting in the Weber grill, smoking, curing, injecting and marinating. One year I filled the bird with blue cornbread dressing, another year with wild rice and a year with vegetables only. I selected frozen birds, large birds, small birds, fresh birds, free range birds, and organic birds. Nothing stayed the same.
We all did something to our Thanksgiving turkeys in hopes of a spectacular success. Ultimately, several wisdoms emerged from my wealth of experience: Get the best turkey you can afford, a box of kosher salt, and an instant thermometer. Keep it simple Focus your creative urge on the side dishes.
The better the bird, the closer you are to spectacular success. I choose a fresh turkey every time. They are reliably tender and tasty. Commercial freezing is much faster, so a commercial bird’s texture will suffer less than it did in days gone by, but I still find a fresh bird better. A frozen butterball can be a passable preparedness when you’re not getting a fresh turkey, but you have no control over what the maker injected into it. Read the labels.
I use kosher salt because it’s a pure, light, clean salt with no additives, dissolves quickly, and most importantly, because salt adds flavor and, with time, can juice your bird. Brining has become a valuable ally. It requires a large bucket to dip your bird in. If all you have is a refrigerator, some juggling may be required. A salted turkey will be firmer and meatier while it is still moist and juicy. Salting poultry changes the structure of the protein in the muscle; the strands unwind, become sticky, and tangle together to trap liquid between them.
For speed and ease, I rub my fresh bird under the skin with a little kosher salt and let it rest uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours. My turkey goes breast down at 350 ° F, then breast up at 400 ° F, 3/4 of the cook time until it’s done. This method is an excellent way to get juicier, firmer meat, even if it’s overcooked.
My final advice: drop the pop-up timer. An instantly readable thermometer is the most important tool you can have for any meat cooking project. It will protect your family and remove the blind guesswork that has destroyed many Thanksgiving turkey.
Really quick salted turkey
This method saves you the extra work of salting your bird with water and provides a flavorful, moist turkey.
16 pounds of turkey, offal and neck removed
2 T. Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, more as desired
4 T. melted unsalted butter
Gently press your fingers under the turkey skin on the chest, legs and thighs to loosen it; avoid injuring the skin. Rub about 1 tablespoon of salt under the skin of each breast and each leg / thigh. Place the turkey in the roasting pan without a lid for 24 to 48 hours (this will dry the skin so that it turns brown).
Preheat oven to 350 ° F. Remove turkey from refrigerator 30 minutes to an hour before frying. Rub the inside of the skin and breast meat with butter or oil as desired. Fill with warmed or room temperature filling (for safety).
Choose a heavy duty skillet with 2 inch high sides, big enough so that the bird doesn’t touch the sides of the pan. An oiled frame makes it easier to remove the bird, but is not necessary. Place the pan on the lowest rail in the oven.
Cook the turkey breast-side down for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or about 3/4 of the approximate cooking time. Turn the turkey on its back and raise the heat to 400 ° F. Fry until the skin is golden brown and the filling (on an instant thermometer) measures 165 ° F and the thickest part of the thigh measures 170 to 175 ° F .
After roasting, let your bird rest in a warm place for 20 minutes. It continues to cook and the juices that have been drawn out migrate back into the bird. Carve your creation with a freshly sharpened knife.
- Easiest Way to Find Turkey Roasting Times: Calculate 13 minutes per pound at 350 ° F for an unfilled turkey, or 15 minutes per pound for a stuffed turkey. There are several pieces of advice on what temperature is best for roasting a bird. In general, the bigger the bird, the lower the temperature. It will take a while for the heat to reach the center of the bird before the outside turns brown. (This is why it makes sense to reheat the filling for a large bird.) You can start with a preheated oven for 30 minutes and bring it down to 325 ° F, but it’s not necessary. I am voting for my mom’s easy method of 325 ° F for large birds and 350 ° F for smaller ones.
Tuscan Roasted Vegetables and Balsamic Sauce
I’m not much for sauce, so I make this sauce for my turkey (or chicken). I often roast the vegetables the day before and make the sauce while the turkey rests. I learned this sauce while working in a Tuscan cooking school. The woman who offered it loved birds and instead served it with a roast pork loin stuffed with prosiutto and basil leaves.
6 to 8 servings
1/4 C. Olive oil
3 large carrots, 2c. Diced 1/2-inch cubes
1-1 / 2 c. Diced 1/2-inch cubes of celery
1-1 / 2 large red onions, 3c. Diced 1/2-inch cubes
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 T. balsamic vinegar, more to taste
6 large leaves of fresh basil or 1 C. coarsely chopped Italian parsley, loosely packed
2 C. Chicken broth and / or turkey juices
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Mix the carrots, celery and onions with the olive oil and a little salt. Pour vegetables into a 10 “x 14” skillet, tuck thyme under the vegetables. and put the pan in the oven to fry.
Fry vegetables until tender and browned, about an hour. Pour 1/2 cup of stock into the pan, cover partially with foil, and saute until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
Take the pan out of the oven, uncover, pour 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar over the vegetables and let cool down a little. Remove sprigs of thyme and scrape off leaves in vegetables; Discard stems. Put the vegetables in the food processor and puree them with the basil or parsley leaves. Pour in a cup of broth or juices and continue to puree until they are lumpy and smooth.
Season the spices with more vinegar, salt and pepper.
Adjust consistency with remaining stock or juices; Sauce should be on the thick side. Put the sauce and the rest of the broth in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Serve hot.