"Thanksgiving starts here... " Cooking Class Section of Bon Appetit, 2003
I remember my first turkey. I was 25; it was 20 pounds. I had no idea what I was doing, so I snagged a recipe from a glossy food mag that promised to produce the perfect turkey. The ingredients required for the stuffing and the glaze cost exactly two dollars more than the turkey itself, not including the gas it took to drive to three different markets in search of said ingredients.
To make a long a painful story short, I worked my butt off all day long and was rewarded with a turkey that had all the flavor and mouth feel of pulverized Sheetrock, though the stuffing and skin were sublime. Of course, that's the ultimate goal of most turkey recipes: to create a great skin and stuffing to hide the fact that turkey meat, in its cooked state, is dry and flavorless. Does it have to be that way? No. We just have to focus on what the turkey is and what the turkey needs. And we have to consider what it is we really want. This is how I see it...
The Primary Goal:
To prepare a juicy, flavorful turkey with a pleasantly crisp, brown skin that tastes terrific even without the assistance of stuffing or gravy. All of the (minimal) ingredients you need are in red type.
The Primary Challenge:
Because it's not very moist to begin with, turkey meat is extremely easy to overcook. Once overcooked, it becomes very unappealing indeed. What's worse, turkeys are composed of two different types of meat- white and dark- which have to be cooked at different temperatures.
- Buy the right bird
- Alter the nature of the meat
- Cook the meat in two phases, one to brown and crisp the skin and another to cook the bird to the exact state of doneness
- Let the meat rest to preserve moisture
Good Bird Hunting
Although you can order a fresh turkey by mail, once you take shipping into account, the cost is usually three times that of a grocery store bird. I prefer frozen turkey in the 18-pound range (which will feed about 12 people). Since a frozen bird is about as pliant as a bowling ball, it doesn't get bruised on its way to the supermarket. If you don't have time to brine the bird, buy a kosher one, which has already spent time in salt.
Breaking the Ice
Place the wrapped bird in a 5-gallon cooler with a drain spout. Place the cooler in the bathtub and cover the turkey with cold water. You don't have to do the quick thaw in the tub, but it sure makes things easier. I drain and replace the water every 2 to 3 hours (to keep the water at 40 degrees or below) until the turkey has thawed (8 to 10 hours, depending on beginning temperature).
Place the bird in a cooler with about an inch of ice at the bottom. Park it in a cool place and the bird will be workable in about four days. Add more ice if the cooler's temperature rises above 40 degrees.
Time to Brine
Turkeys may not come into the world moist, but there's no reason they have to be dry when they leave. The key is to soak your bird in a salt solution, or brine. Clean your cooler with soap and water, then pour in half a gallon of hot tap water, 2/3 Cup sugar, and a pound of salt. (Remember, different salts take up different volumes. For instance, you need three cups of Diamond Crystal kosher salt to make a pound but only 2 cups of Morton's kosher salt). Stir thoroughly to dissolve the crystals. Then stir in 8 pounds of ice (that's a gallon of water) and 16 Cups of vegetable broth.
Meanwhile, unwrap the thawed turkey and remove any parts (neck, bag o' internal organs, etc.) that might be lurking inside the cavities. If you want to use these to make gravy later, okay. Me, I feed 'em the dog. If there's a metal or plastic clip holding the turkey's back legs together, leave it on.
Place the turkey in the brine, breast side up. If your coooler is too big, the brine may not cover it. If we're talking only an inch or so, don't worry about it. But if your bird is seriously beeched, you'll need a smaller container. If your turkey floats, fill one gallon resealable bag with water and place on top of the buoyant bird. Set the cooler, lid closed, in a cool place for 8 to 12 hours, turning the bird over once if possible. For safety reasons, it is important to keep the brining liquid at 40 degrees or right below. Check it periodically with the probe thermometer. If the temperature is getting too high add a few freezer packs that have been enclosed in resealable bags.
Final Countdown (T minus 4 hours and counting till dinner)
Remove one of the oven racks and set the other in the next to the lowest position, then preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Why 500 degrees? Because we need the fat under the turkey skin to heat quickly and saute the skin from below. If we start with a low temperature, a lot of the fat will melt and roll away to the bottom of the bird without doing any browning at all.
Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse under cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Contemplate the main cavuity. Lots of things can go in there... in fact, only one thing shouldn't: stuffing. Stuffing is evil. Stuffing adds mass, so it slows the cooking. That's evil because the longert the bird cooks, the drier it will be. And since the cavity is a perfect haven for salmonella bacteria, you have to absoltuely certain that the cavity is heated through to 165 degrees, which means overcooking at least part of the bird... which is evil. If you really love stuffing, wait until the turkey comes out of the oven, add some of the pan drippings to the stuffing and bake it in a dish. That's called dressing and that's not evil- stuffing is, though.
FOR PART TWO click here