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My Turkey Rules

Holiday turkey ready for the oven

Holiday turkey ready for the oven

I have found that food blogging with a seasonal focus repeatedly faces a particular question: If I wait until a particular food adventure is finished and I have taken pictures and can comment on final results will it be too late for others to benefit from my experience until next year?  In other words how do I balance the two interests of fully recording my experiences against guiding others with timely information?  This problem seems particularly acute with holiday recipes, after all who wants to read about Christmas pudding in January?  Fortunately, with Canadian Thanksgiving a week away I feel comfortable writing a post about turkey based on my past experiences before I cook this year’s bird.

I have developed (through adapting the advice of Alton Brown and Cook’s Illustrated and intense, yet not-very-scientific experimentation) three major rules for cooking a perfect turkey.  Here they are presented in order of the increasing level of difficulty I had convincing die-hard traditionalists (also known as fans of over-cooked turkey):

  1. Use a thermometer not a minute-per-pound recipe.  No one needs to get up early “to put the bird in the oven”.  I’m not even going to quote the ridiculous formulae that result in five hour cook times for fear that someone will fail to read the context.  Please just get a proper meat thermometer–serviceable instant read thermometers cost less than fifteen bucks.  We’ve had as many as two dozen people for Thanksgiving dinner and usually cook a turkey between 17 and 23 pounds.  Even that twenty-three pound monster (millimeters separated it from the oven walls) didn’t go into the hot box until three p.m., came out at six and was ready to eat after a thirty to forty minute rest.  I knew it was safe to eat because the temperature of the white meat had reached 165 degrees F while the dark meat was up to 185F.  Dark meat is more palatable at 185 degrees F but is still safe after it reaches 165.
  2. Brine the turkey overnight in a 3% brine which is 30 grams of salt per litre of water (or a generous 1/2 cup salt per gallon of water but the metric, and by-weight measures are strongly preferred).  It really is amazing how much juicier turkey is after spending a night in a saltwater bath.  Food safety is important, especially when dealing with poultry and the strictest guidelines state that poultry should never be held at a temperature above 4 degrees celsius but I have managed with the help of a cold back porch and several ice packs to avoid the logistical nightmare of trying to get a bucket full of twenty pounds of turkey and several more of water into the fridge.  See if you can do the same.  Sugar (I use half as much sugar as salt, by weight) and salt are essential brine ingredients but I’m quite skeptical of how much difference anything else (bay leaves, garlic, black peppercorns, etc.) makes to the eventual taste of the turkey.
  3. Don’t stuff the turkey.   Stuffing drastically changes the physics of cooking a whole fowl.  An empty (or very loosely filled) cavity will allow hot air to circulate and cook the bird from the inside while a stuffed turkey will act more like a roasted piece of meat (beef, lamb, etc.) and by the time the centre is cooked to temperature the outside layer–in this case the white meat–will be dry and overdone.  To my tongue dressing tastes just as good as stuffing especially with liberal doses of chicken stock, butter, and pork fat (sausage).  If you really can detect a lack of turkey taste (I can’t) just add some of the fat that is separated during gravy making to the dressing.
Sneak peek inside the oven door

Sneak peek inside the oven door

Follow these three guidelines and you will likely have the best turkey you have ever tasted.  All of these I am willing to vigorously argue in favour of and have used them all many times.  There are some other tips, or minor rules, that I think are useful but not absolutely essential.  These are:

  1. Move the turkey from the brine to the refrigerator five or six hours before it goes into the oven and from the fridge to the counter an hour beforehand.  The time in the fridge dries the skin to help with browning.  The (somewhat controversial) hour on the counter warms the turkey a bit, cuts the cooking time and I think makes for a more evenly cooked bird.
  2. Start the turkey breast side down on a v-rack, in an oven preheated to 450F for thirty minutes.  Reduce the oven temperature to 325F.  After 20 to 30 minutes at the lower temperature flip the turkey breast side up and cook until the breast is 160F at its deepest and the thigh is between 170F and 175F.  While you have the bird out the oven also rotate it so that the thigh that was previously facing the back of the oven is now facing the door.  A flip and rotation can confuse some so pay attention.  Flipping is optional for truly large birds but if you don’t flip you’ll likely have to fool around with aluminum foil breast plates to keep the white meat from overcooking before the dark meat is ready.
  3. Don’t baste.  Basting is another turkey activity that sacrifices the possibility of delicious, moist meat on the altar of dark, burnished, crispy skin.  Basting  pours the two components of pan drippings–melted fat and flavourful water-based juices–onto the outside of the bird.  Turkey skin is not water permeable so the juices either pour right off or evaporate, they can’t moisten the meat.  The redistributed fat marginally contributes to browning the skin but this doesn’t outweigh the negative.  Specifically, opening the oven door allows heat to escape, that extends the cooking time, and allows the meat to dry out.
  4. Rest the cooked turkey for 20 to 45 minutes after it comes out of the oven.  This step really is essential but I put it down here because I figure by now it is a given that meat needs to be rested.  I’ve used both extremes of the wide resting time range without problems and that helps with the time uncertainty of throwing away the minute per pound silliness.  Ideal resting conditions include a rack over a platter to keep the turkey out of any juices that it sheds and a loose tent of aluminum foil to keep in some heat but a tight cover will rob the skin of any crispness.
  5. When carving the roasted turkey remove the breasts from the turkey whole and then slice them across the grain.  This is another case where the imagery created by that [american artist] painting and Butterball commercials runs counter to flavour because cutting pieces from the bird in the same direction as the turkey’s length is with the grain of the meat and therefore makes it tougher to chew.  Carving is a process better demonstrated than described so I searched what youtube has to offer.  First a little comedic relief Cosby style–don’t follow Theo’s example, please.   This youtube video from cooking.com is probably the best but ignore the first, “traditional” breast carving technique.  If table-side presentation is important parade the bird through the dining room (bagpipes and giant symbals optional), return to the kitchen, and carve it properly
Gloriously juicy, carved turkey works just as well at Christmas.

Gloriously juicy, carved turkey works just as well at Christmas.

My two principal sources for inspiration over the years have been:

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2 Comments

  1. [...] menu is a running debate in my family.  To me turkey seems like just a repeat of Thanksgiving and cooking the big bird is no longer really a challenge.  I would like to try cooking goose or duck but have been [...]

  2. [...] be cooking roast beef for Christmas this year.  For those of you who are sticking with turkey here is the post that I put up before Thanksgiving with my guidelines for roasting the chicken’s must-larger [...]

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