How to Roast a (Perfect) Turkey without Bags, Brine or Gallons of Hot Oil!

Time for my annual rant on how to cook a Thanksgiving Turkey.  Every year, thousands of lovely birds are done a HUGE disservice by being prepped and cooked poorly. 

For those of you who are unsure, or making plans to listen to Lynn Rosetto Kaspar’s “Turkey 
Confidential,” or those who simply make dried, shoe leather turkey year after year:  Listen up.  Here’s how do to perfect turkey, along with some of the whys.

Step #1: Choose a free-range or natural turkey.

Try organic.  Even better, get a heritage bird.  Here’s one cut of meat where I guarantee you will taste the difference. And you won’t have to worry about bad bugs from bad processing.

If you’re reading this at the last minute, file this advice for next year. The meat does make a difference, and no matter what a smoking deal those $8 turkeys at Safeway are, they taste like $8 birds.  Here’s why:  most of those birds are injected so that they will be “tender and moist,” but the injection carries with it a taste and must do something gross to the meat. Let’s not think about it.  Avoid at all costs.  Unless, of course, you are planning a party with turkey sandwiches only (the kind with cranberry mayo and maybe stuffing on dinner roles)–then, I say go for it.  Cheap, great way to entertain.
Step #2:  Thaw the turkey slowly in the fridge
If you bought a ice-cube turkey, this step is necessary.  It can take days to thaw in the fridge.  Your alternative is to put it in the sink in cold water that you change out every few hours.  This step takes a long time, too.  Be patient.  Trying to quickly thaw the bird will make it tough.
Step #3:  Prep the bird (wash, season, stuff and butter)
Wash the bird in cold water, remove innards and pat dry.  Then liberally salt (coarse kosher) and pepper  (cracked) the bird on the inside.  I stuff my turkeys with granny smith apples, chunks of yellow onion, and some fresh thyme for flavor.  (What you stuff the bird with will flavor the drippings–so keep this in mind–and avoid over-stuffing!).  Then I take soften unsalted butter and gently separate the breast skin from the meat.  You can do this by running your finger inside the breast skin very gently until you’ve made a kind of pocket up there.  Mash the soften butter with some thyme or other herb, and gently push it up under the skin. 

Then, rub the rest of the bird liberally with soften butter.  Salt and pepper and sprinkle with more fresh herb of choice (more thyme, for me).  

When this is done, turn the wings under, and put tin foil, shiny side down, securely over the breast. (The shiny side of tin foil reflects heat, so reflect it toward the bird).  You want the breast to cook a bit more slowly, without drying, to give the thighs time to cook.
Step #4:  Preheat the oven and know your roasting time.
Turkeys should cook at 325.  I let mine sit out for a few hours to let it begin to come to room temp before roasting.  If you have salmonella nightmares, you can skip this step.  But I’ve never had a problem  Meat does better when it does not go from icy to hot in one step.
When you’re ready.  Pour about 2 cups of stock (or wine or half of each) into the bottom of the pan.  I don’t use a rack.  Roast using the following times, basting the turkey all over every 30 minutes.  Make sure you put the foil back on the breast each time. If the pan goes dry, add more stock.
File:Oven roasted brine-soaked turkey.jpg

For stuffed birds:
Plan on 20 minutes per pound.
For unstuffed birds:
15 minutes per pound is fine.

You can use the “juices run clear when the thigh is poked” method, or the “leg shaking method,” if you’re comfortable with those.  If not, get an insta-read thermometer (not any other kind), and check the thigh temperature and the internal temperature if you have actually cooked dressing in the turkey.  The internal temp should be 165 and the thigh should be 180 when done.  I take the bird out about 5-10 degrees before this temp because it will continue to cook out of the oven.  If the breast has not browned, you can take the tin foil off for the last 15 minutes and turn the oven up.  And BTW–all those lovely chocolately roasted turkeys on Bon Appetit and other magazines have motor oil rubbed on them!

Step #5:  Rest the bird

This step is important and not to be over looked.  Put the bird on a platter and tent with foil.  This step allows the juices to reabsorb and makes the meat more tender.  In the meantime, you can make the gravy from drippings and cook the stuffing if you didn’t put it in the bird.

How to make yummy, not gummy gravy:
Carefully drain about half the fat from the roasting pan and then put the pan on a burner (or two) on the stove.  Turn the heat to medium high.  When the drippings begin to stick, deglaze with cup white wine.  Stir with a wooden spoon, loosening whatever is stuck to the pan.  Turn down to medium and let reduce until thick.  This step concentrates the flavors and starts to build the gravy.  Then add 2 cups stock, bring to a simmer, and let reduce again until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and stay there when you swipe your finger across it (your finger will leave a trail that stays in place).  Trust me, this gravy is much more flavorful than the kind made with milk and a roux.

Step #6: Use a sharp knife to carve
Nothing ruins meat faster than a dull knife.  

So get out the sharpener and make sure your carver is ready to do the job.

Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy the turkey!

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