Thanksgiving is upon us and for most people it is the one time a year they cook and eat a turkey. On its most basic level a turkey is a very simple meal to make. Season it and roast it until it is done. But it is also very easy to mess up. You don’t want underdone turkey and if you overcook it you will be left with some meat that no amount of gravy can save.
To complicate matters you have two very different types of meat with the light and dark meat. Any time you cook a whole animal you have multiple muscles that need to hit different temperatures of doneness. Take a whole pig for example. If you were cooking a whole pig you would want the tenderloin to hit 145 degrees but you want the shoulder to go to 200 or so. Same with a turkey. You need the white meat breast to hit 160-165 and the dark meat at 170-175.
And look at the odd shape of a turkey. It is round yet lumpy with parts sticking out everywhere. So a simple task gets complicated and is fraught with danger everywhere you look. Here are three quick tips to help overcome some of these issues.
Dry Brine your Turkey
You will see many places calling for you to brine your turkey. The idea here is to get more moisture and flavor into the meat. A brine is basically any salty liquid. Many times a brine has aromatics like herbs or vegetables or stuff like that as well. As you brine something the salt in the brine pulls out moisture and then since nature likes equilibrium the salty liquid makes its way back into the meat through the process of osmosis.
One problem with a wet brine is none of the aromatics or flavors go back into the meat. The turkey will only reabsorb the water and salt. All the aromatics stay in the brine. And since the liquid that was in the turkey was pulled out to begin with you have some great turkey flavored liquid being replaced with watered down turkey flavored liquid.
Also the few times I have had a wet brined turkey the texture ends up being almost ham-like which isn’t what I want from a turkey.
A better option than a wet brine is a dry brine. Rather than soaking the bird in a vat of liquid you basically rub the turkey down inside and out with salt. I like kosher salt for this and a half cup or so should be plenty. After you have salted the turkey just stash it in the fridge for 24 hours or so. The salt will do its work and pull the liquid out of the turkey and then that liquid gets reabsorbed into the turkey along with the salt.
Since the salt is in the meat it will hold on to more of the liquid during the cooking process. Rather than replacing the yummy turkey flavored liquid with plain water the dry brine helps the turkey hold on to more of its natural juices. The result is a nice, juicy, flavorful turkey.
Another advantage of using a dry brine is the skin is dryer which promotes browning and crisping. If you really want to take the crispy skin up a notch add in a couple teaspoons of baking powder to the salt. Chemistry magic happens and the skin will crisp up more easily.
So skip the wet brine (or no brine) and opt for a dry brine.
Read more about dry brining here:
Spatchcock Your Turkey
Remember the problem of an odd shaped hunk of meat? Well, spatchcocking is the answer. Rather than a round lumpy turkey you will end up with a nice flat turkey that will cook much quicker and much more even. The breast meat and dark meat will each reach their ideal temperatures at the same time.
What is spatchcocking? Spatchcocking is basically flattening out the bird. This is done by cutting out the backbone, breaking the breastbone, and then flattening the turkey. A nice pair of kitchen shears comes in handy for removing the backbone. Here is a picture from SeriousEats.com showing what it looks like:
Some advantages of spatchcocking are:
- The turkey cooks much faster. With a thinner profile the turkey will cook much quicker than a big round bird.
- The turkey cooks much more evenly. With the bird being basically the same thickness everything will cook evenly. Also the legs and thighs which need the most heat are now fully exposed and on the outer edges now. They will take a bit more heat than the breasts and hit their temperature when the breasts come up to their proper temperature.
- More exposed skin means more crispy skin. Since all the skin is exposed you end up with more crispy skin instead of the nasty, soggy skin on the bottom of a traditional turkey.
And don’t forget to use that backbone for your gravy! You might not have that Norman Rockwell looking turkey you can take to the table but honestly there is no good way to carve a turkey at the table anyway.
Skip the stuffing
Shoving a bunch of dried bread into the cavity of a turkey opens up a host of problems. First off, you are creating a salmonella sponge. Second, by the time the stuffing gets to the proper temperature to kill the salmonella the turkey will be overcooked and dry. Third, the turkey will take much longer to cook.
So skip the “stuffing” and opt for “dressing” instead. Assuming you spatchcocked the turkey you will have a great backbone. Use this to make some stock to season the dressing so you won’t lose any flavor.
If you twisted my arm for two more tips I would say get a good thermometer and don’t rely on inaccurate methods like twisting the bone or checking the juices or using one of those worthless popup thermometers. Also, give your turkey at least a 30 minute rest after cooking. Resting helps the meat hold in some of the juices.
I am not going to go into all the different ways and temperatures to cook a turkey. Dozens of different schools of thought exist when it comes to cooking turkey. I prefer either a higher heat method (start at 450 or so and then back the heat off to finish) or grilling/smoking/roasting on the grill at around 325 degrees.
With a dry brined, spatchcocked turkey you can get the whole thing cooked in 2-3 hours or less depending on the size of the turkey. Any recipe that calls for an 8 or 10 hour cook has some serious flaws. Alton Brown has a great recipe in his Everyday Cook cookbook that cooks a 12 pound turkey in just about an hour that is pretty sweet.
Like I said, turkey can be easy and trouble free. Dry brine it, spatchcock it, and avoid the stuffing.
If you are looking for some great side dishes to go with your turkey check out this post of 6 Side Dishes for Thanksgiving.