Thanksgiving is almost here. Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce…PIE! I love the traditional Thanksgiving meal. I’m always surprised by the number of people who say they don’t like turkey because it is probably my favorite meat. Even during the year that we ate virtually 100% vegetarian, we made an exception for Thanksgiving turkey. Now, I must say I’ve had some pretty dry, awful turkey and if that was my only experience, I wouldn’t much care for it either. But a nice, juicy turkey? Yum!
Everyone seems to have their own method of cooking turkey and if you’re happy with the way you do it, that’s great. Do that. But if you’re not satisfied with your previous attempts or if this is your first year to cook a turkey, why not give my method a try?
First of all, let’s consider the turkey itself. If you have access to and can afford a fresh, not frozen, organic, pasture-raised, heritage turkey – go for it. It will set you back a pretty penny but will also be worth it. This year I bought a fresh, organic, humanely-raised turkey at Whole Foods and will also buy a regular turkey breast at a local grocery store to make sure we have enough leftovers for sandwiches (my favorite part!). Everyone’s situation is different so just buy the best you can afford and then enjoy your meal. Many years I’ve just purchased a frozen turkey at the grocery store (Butterball or Honeysuckle) and they’ve tasted fine. No, I’m not going to lecture about meat-buying practices on Thanksgiving. We’ll talk about that later. 😉
Next up is the thawing, assuming you’ve bought a frozen turkey. There are all these guides out there about how many days it takes to thaw in your refrigerator based on the number of pounds. Unless you just happen to enjoy seeing a massive bird taking up all your refrigerator space for several days, let’s try something else. Go out to your garage and get that ice chest you use for summer outings. If you happen to have one of these, even better:
Put your frozen turkey (still in it’s original wrapper) in the ice chest and fill with cold water and some ice cubes. Make sure the turkey is fully submerged – you may have to place something heavy on top to hold it down. Close the lid tightly and put it somewhere out of your way but easily accessible. How long? Well, that depends on the size of the turkey. I wish I could give you an exact number of hours per pound but in my experience, a 5-10 pound bone-in turkey breast will thaw in about 10-14 hours. I put mine in overnight and it’s usually pretty well thawed by the time I need to put it in the oven mid-morning. I’d suggest over-estimating the first time you try this but keep checking to make sure it stays icy cold. If the turkey is completely thawed but you aren’t ready to cook it yet, just keep adding ice cubes to the water so it stays at a safe temperature (be very careful about this!). Or I suppose you could move it to the the refrigerator but that defeats the purpose of keeping your refrigerator space free for other items, not to mention avoiding any chance that raw turkey juices might leak in there.
Now what about brining? I’ve done it and it’s wonderful. I’ve also cooked many a turkey without that step and they are just fine. There are many recipes out there for brining a turkey so I’m not going to get into that here. If you want to do it, find a recipe that sounds good to you. Thaw your turkey as described above but allow enough time following the thawing to do the brining. If you have the sort of ice chest I show above, that is absolutely perfect for this. After your turkey is thawed, set it aside, dump out the ice water, wash well and refill with iced brining solution. Put the turkey (minus innards) back inside, screw on the lid and wait 8-16 hours. Again, make sure it stays cold and fully submerged.
Okay, now we have a thawed, possibly brined turkey ready to cook. In both cases, *rinse the turkey well, inside and out, with cold water. Do make sure you’ve removed all the “stuff” if you’ve got a whole turkey rather than just a turkey breast. Helpful hint: There’s “stuff” in both ends of the turkey. My mom didn’t realize this when she cooked her first turkey as a newlywed.
Now here’s where my method differs from all those cozy scenes of Mom in an apron checking the turkey every little bit, basting it faithfully and generally doting on it like a newborn.
Get yourself a box of these:
That’s right. Me, the person who doesn’t buy sandwich bags, plastic wrap, paper towels, paper napkins, or most other disposable items, is telling you to cook your turkey in a disposable oven bag. Come on, folks. It’s ONE bag for ONE meal. Unless you are very nearly perfect about avoiding disposable stuff, I don’t want to hear any complaints about this. I have cooked a turkey in these every year for over 30 years and have yet to have anything less than a perfectly moist and delicious turkey. They take far less time to cook (saving energy!), don’t require basting and fussing, and cleanup is much easier.
Follow the directions on the box regarding oven pre-heating, temperature and cooking time. As directed, put about a tablespoon of flour in the bag first (if you are gluten-intolerant you may use corn starch, any other flour such as rice or potato, or matzo meal), hold the open end closed with some air inside and shake well to coat the bag. This will allow the fats and juices to blend in the bag and prevent bursting. Now place your thawed, rinsed and dried turkey inside the bag. Okay, so I do have one roll of paper towels tucked away in the back of a cupboard and I use one or two sheets to dry the turkey.
Rub the outer surface of the turkey with some type of fat (NOT margarine, though). I generally use olive oil because it’s handy – I have a dispenser bottle sitting out on the counter at all times – but melted butter or coconut oil would be good choices. If the turkey was not brined, I then season with garlic salt (or garlic powder and salt separately), pepper and a little Creole seasoning, rubbing into the oil to spread evenly over the surface and season the skin. You can also use whatever herbs you like. Rosemary, Herbs de Provence, parsley and/or thyme would be good choices. If you have fresh herbs, even better, and you can tuck them under the skin if you like. I personally don’t think turkey needs too much extra seasoning but do whatever sounds good to you. Then put *something* inside. No, not stuffing/dressing. I cook that separately. But put something like a sliced apple or onion (or both) inside the cavity.
Following the directions for the oven bags, close the bag and puncture as directed. Insert meat thermometer through the bag and into the inner thigh, near the breast but not touching bone. The turkey is done when the temperature reaches 180 degrees and this will occur significantly sooner when using a bag so pay attention to the suggested times on the directions and begin checking before that. When it is done, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 15 minutes before carving. Use that time to make the gravy from those delicious juices in the bottom of the bag. Please, please don’t use gravy mixes. Real gravy isn’t hard to make and it tastes SO much better. Here is how I make mine.
This method will yield a delicious, juicy turkey with nicely browned skin and is totally worth the effort. However, if you don’t care about the skin and simply want the juiciest turkey breast ever, cook it in your crockpot. Yes, I’m serious. You won’t have a nice presentation or crispy skin but the meat will be incredibly moist, even the next day for turkey sandwiches. And many of us think that’s the best part. Just put the thawed turkey breast in your crockpot along with a stick of butter and whatever seasonings you want (don’t overdo the salt – for some reason it seems to taste saltier in a crockpot). You can add a little chicken broth and/or white wine if you’d like. If the lid doesn’t quite fit over the turkey, cover the crockpot tightly with foil and place the lid on top. You can remove the foil part way through the cooking as it cooks down in size. I can’t tell you how long it will take because it will depend on the size of the turkey and the settings on your particular crockpot. You’ll just have to cut into it and check or use an instant read thermometer if you have one. I can tell by the smell but that’s a skill that comes from many years of cooking turkeys. 😉 If you are cooking for a huge crowd and/or want lots of leftovers for sandwiches, why not use both of these methods? Cook a whole turkey in the oven and an additional breast in the crockpot. Best of both worlds.
And now I’m hungry!
Click here for a link with some “turkey tips”. While their cooking tips assume a different method than I use, it does give good information regarding how much turkey you need per person and how long you can safely keep the leftovers.
It is now recommended that poultry NOT be rinsed prior to cooking. I don’t with chicken but I find it hard to avoid with a whole turkey because I’m usually left with a slightly icy interior which I finish thawing under cold, running water. It’s also necessary if you’ve brined the turkey. The important thing is to make absolutely certain you don’t contaminate other surfaces/foods. Be sure there is no food or clean dishes nearby before rinsing. After the turkey is in the oven very, very carefully wash your sink and the counters on either side with soap and hot water. And scrub your hands very well. We don’t want post-Thanksgiving food poisoning because ain’t nobody got time for that.
A version of this post was originally posted on my former blog, Dee’s Kitchen, November 16, 2011.