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A Beautiful BIRD

Don't let anyone kid you. Cooking a turkey, one that's moist and flavorful anyway, is a big deal.

Oh, you've heard the confident boasts of veteran turkey tamers.

"A turkey is the easiest thing in the world to cook," they say. "Put it in the oven and wait. That's it."

There's more to it than that, and if you fall victim to the "it's-a-snap" sayers, your Thanksgiving feast may take a tumble, too.

Cooking a turkey requires methodical strategy, a plan of attack plotted with knowledge, time and the right tools. The procedure is not particularly difficult, but it requires more thought than nabbing takeout on a hectic weekday night.

How big a bird will you buy? How will you cook it? Do you have the equipment for the cooking method you've chosen? Do you have the slightest idea how to carve a turkey?

With Thanksgiving a week away, there is still time to tackle the turkey with aplomb. Today, we'll share with you the most simple method of turkey preparation: roasting. It's probably the least fussy and usually the most successful, especially for a novice cook.

And think about it. Aren't many of us novice cooks when it comes to preparing turkey? Can you count the number of times you've cooked a whole bird? Compare that with the dozens of eggs you've scrambled, cheese sandwiches you've grilled or salads you've tossed. The trouble with turkey is that we don't get much practice cooking it, and when it's time to do it, we've got a house full of expectant people.

Pressure is never a friend in the kitchen.

Every Thanksgiving, we hear about another wacky way to cook a turkey. In the new millennium, how you cook your turkey reveals a lot about you.

The rugged type drags the bird outdoors, then drops it in sizzling oil or smokes it over cherry wood for hours and hours. The pop-culture-loving Food Network watcher rubs it with chipotle paste and fashions a roasting rack from corn husks and cinnamon sticks. Devotees of instructional PBS cooking shows brine their turkeys because, you know, that's the way to ensure moist, flavorful meat.

The nervous cook asks Mom to make the turkey, and the first-timer forgets to defrost it.

The confident, back-to-basics cook simply roasts it low and long, basting with pan juices every now and then.

All methods have their advantages and disadvantages, fans and detractors. The results, though, should be the same: a moist, flavor-packed turkey and a cook who is almost calm, cool and collected. (After all, there are still side dishes to get to the table.)

Increase your chances for a perfectly roasted turkey with these tips:

THE TURKEY

First, you must consider the turkey. What kind and how big are the important factors.

Plan on 1 to 1{ pounds per person, which will be enough for seconds or leftovers. Larger toms have more breast meat, so you will get more servings from a bigger bird. There is virtually no difference in flavor between turkey hens (females) and toms (males); the difference is mostly in size.

For smaller groups, a turkey breast is plenty.

Frozen turkeys are the least expensive birds you'll find at the grocery store and will dip as low as 70 cents a pound as T-Day nears. Fresh turkeys will cost about $1.20 a pound.

Freezing a turkey dries out the meat and defrosting it drains more juices, writes Rick Rodgers in Thanksgiving 101 (Broadway Books, 1998). Most turkey producers inject turkeys to be frozen with a moistening solution of broth, flavorings and other ingredients. This solution helps replace lost fluid.

Many people swear by the flavor and texture of fresh turkeys, which have never been chilled below 26 degrees. However, they have a short shelf life and should be cooked no more than two days after buying regardless of what the "sell by" date is. Home refrigerators are warmer than commercial coolers. (The inside of a fresh turkey may still be icy, owing to the 26-degree storage at the store. The ice will melt when you rinse the turkey.)

Most supermarkets carry fresh turkeys, so it's unnecessary to order them anymore. A fresh turkey will require a trip to the grocery store two days before Thanksgiving; expect a crowd that day. However, a fresh turkey solves the defrosting problem.

Also available at butcher shops, whole foods stores and specialty delis are kosher, wild and organic, free-range turkeys. You'll pay more for all of them, and Rodgers says they all have their benefits. Some turkeys even come with an internal thermometer that pops up when the bird is done. It's a handy tool, but you still need to keep an eye on the clock to make sure the plastic gauge is working correctly.

EQUIPMENT

A heavy-gauge roasting pan and a meat thermometer are must-have equipment for oven roasting a turkey. There are other helpful tools, but you can make do if you don't have them. The pan and the thermometer are required.

The turkey should fit in the pan with plenty of room to spare to allow heat to circulate and evenly brown the skin. A 9- by 13-inch baking dish won't work for a 20-pound turkey, trust us.

Those aluminum pans so ubiquitous this time of year are flimsy, and their shiny surface reflects heat onto the turkey, causing overbrowning. Also, be very careful when you take aluminum pans from the oven, or your turkey might become the feast of Fido's life after it falls to the floor. Also, it's not a good idea to make gravy in the less-sturdy aluminum pan.

Other tools that help are a roasting rack, a bulb turkey baster, a good-quality carving set and a heatproof plastic paddle or whisk to help dislodge drippings when making gravy. If you are unsure about the temperature calibration of your oven, buy a standup oven thermometer. This is used in conjunction with the meat thermometer, which measures the internal meat temperature.

"A turkey is one of the largest things that you will ever cook in your oven, and a few degrees' discrepancy can make a big difference," writes Rodgers. "Never trust your thermostat dial."

This is especially important advice if you are cooking at someone else's house.

PREPARING THE TURKEY

Questions about thawing turkeys are the No. 1 queries to the Butterball Turkey hotline. Unfortunately, many of those calls come on Thanksgiving Day, when it's more difficult to remedy the situation.

Remember to defrost the turkey, and remember it takes a long time. For every 5 pounds of turkey, allow 24 hours of thawing time in the fridge. A frozen 24-pound bird should be in the fridge by Saturday, a 15-pound turkey by Monday.

Food safety experts recommend against thawing turkeys out of the refrigerator because of the danger of contamination. Do not plop the bird in the sink for 24 hours.

On Thanksgiving Day, give yourself about an hour to get the turkey ready for roasting. That may should like a lot, but after watching turkey diva Karen Pryslopski, an editor in the Times photo department, prepare the turkey we used for this edition's photo shoot, we were persuaded to take our time.

Karen, who consistently turns out beautifully burnished and moist turkeys, rinsed the bird thoroughly after she removed the neck and giblets from the body cavity. (Don't forget to remove these! They are wrapped in oven-safe material but are rather unsavory to see after the bird is cooked. Butterball also reports that this a common mistake.) Karen gave her 20-pound "big boy" a shower, sans soap. She let cold water run all over it, inside and out, for five minutes or so, to clean the bird and flush out any ice.

Experts suggest removing the lumps of fat from both sides of the tail area. Karen did.

Then she ran her hands over the turkey's skin, feeling for any hard bumps, the remainders of feathers that were not completely plucked at the processing plant, the same way her father prepared the family turkey. With a little pressure, the feather remnants can be removed. It's not the most appetizing idea, but Karen doesn't think anyone wants to eat feather shrapnel. Or pin feathers, for that matter. She hunted those down, too, mostly in crevices between the body and the legs and wings, and plucked them.

She rinsed the turkey again.

Karen likes to sprinkle her turkeys with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper and rub them with a stick of softened butter (some people use olive oil) before roasting, so the turkey skin must be bone dry or the butter will slide off. To ensure this, she let the turkey sit in a colander for about 15 minutes and then placed it gently on a dish towel and patted it dry. (We think she gave it a little massage to make it more tender!)

She didn't stuff the turkey, which has fallen out of favor these days, but resecured the drumsticks into a slit in the neck skin.

(The drumsticks must be taken out of the slit to remove the bags inside the cavity. Rather than a cut in the skin, some poultry producers use a metal "hock lock" to secure the drumsticks; don't throw it away, because you can put it back on after the bird is rinsed and dried.)

Some people tie back the wings so that they stay close to the body and are protected from burning or overbrowning. Karen didn't do that, but she did fashion a very cool 3-inch wide, 2-foot long aluminum foil lifter that she slid under the turkey, where it remained during roasting. When the turkey was done, she used the foil to lift the bird from the pan. Many turkeys come with a string lifter and instructions on how to use it.

SET A SCHEDULE

Timing is of the essence on Thanksgiving Day and the days leading up to it. After you've selected a turkey and know when you want to serve dinner, construct a time schedule.

For example, you have an 18-pound frozen turkey and you want to eat Thanksgiving dinner at 3 p.m. Do the math. The turkey should be put in the refrigerator to thaw Sunday afternoon. The bird will take 2{ to three hours to cook at 325 degrees, and it needs to rest for about 20 minutes before serving, so the juices draw back into the meat and it's more firm for carving. That means the turkey needs to go into the oven by about 11:30 a.m., and by 10:30 a.m., you should start cleaning the bird.

It may sound like the word problems you hated so much in elementary school math class, but, believe us, many a Thanksgiving feast has been thrown completely off balance by the turkey not getting into the oven on time.

(Turkey roasting times are all approximate because of a number of factors, including differences in oven temperatures, heat loss when the door is opened for basting, temperature of the turkey when it goes in the oven and how big the bird is. It's important to read the instructions that come with your turkey. It will give roasting time guidelines.)

ROASTING

Toward the end of cleaning up the turkey, preheat the oven. There are a couple of popular roasting methods. One is to cook the turkey at high heat, 450 degrees, for the first half-hour and then lower the heat to 325 degrees for the remainder of roasting. The initial high blast sears the turkey and keeps moisture in.

The other method is to roast the turkey at a constant 325 degrees. Higher temperatures tend to shrink the turkey over a long period, and anything lower is unsafe, writes cookbook author Rodgers.

Most recipes call for placing the turkey on a roasting rack to prevent it from sticking to the pan during cooking. If you don't have a rack, you can lay the turkey, breast up, on aromatic vegetables such as celery stalks, carrots and/or sliced onions. Karen didn't use a rack because she likes the flavor of the dark meat that's been cooking in the melted butter and pan juices. Well, who wouldn't?

Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the white meat, without letting it rest on bone, before the turkey goes into the oven.

A Rockwellian turkey, perfectly golden and plump, can be produced only if it's covered during part of the cooking. Karen kept her bird tightly tented with foil for the first three hours of cooking and uncovered for the last two. A foil tent helps trap steam and keeps the white meat moist. The turkey should be tented for more than half the cooking time; it will brown nicely in about an hour.

Baste the turkey about every 45 minutes with pan juices. If you don't coat your turkey with butter, it's likely you won't have much to baste it with. If that's the case, add stock to the pan, about 1{ cups at a time.

Every time you baste, take note of the meat thermometer that you inserted before the bird went into the oven. (You can use a plastic instant-read version, but it can't stay in the bird or it will melt.) The turkey will be done when the gauge reads 180 degrees. Don't fret if the turkey is done earlier than you expected. It must rest for 20 minutes, but it will remain hot for an hour after it comes out of the oven. Tent it loosely to keep heat in until it's time to carve.

See? There is a lot to know about cooking a turkey, but it's not rocket science either.

Keep in mind the phrase "to each her own," which is never more applicable than on Thanksgiving Day, when every household has its own way of creating the meal. For every stuffed turkey, you'll find one unstuffed. For everyone who sprinkles kosher salt, you'll find two who use table salt. For every cook who ties back the wings, there'll be one who lets them fly.

With a little care, the end justifies all these different means and a perfectly cooked turkey will be the best-looking, best-tasting imaginable.

Roasting times

The following roasting times are for unstuffed turkeys cooked at 325 degrees:

Whole turkey

8-12 pounds: 2}-3 hours

12-14 pounds: 3-3} hours

14-18 pounds: 3}-4\ hours

18-20 pounds: 4\-4{ hours

20-25 pounds: 4{-5 hours

Whole turkey breast

4-6 pounds: 1{-2\ hours

6-8 pounds: 2\-3\ hours

Source: Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 2000 edition.

Perfect Roast Turkey With Best-Ever Gravy

1 18-pound fresh turkey

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Salt and freshly milled black pepper

2{ quarts turkey (or chicken) stock, or as needed

Melted unsalted butter, if needed

} cup all-purpose flour

cup bourbon, port or dry sherry (optional)

Position a rack in the lowest position of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees.

Reserve the turkey neck and giblets to use in gravy or stock. Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water. Pat the turkey skin dry. Turn the turkey on its breast. Using a thin wooden or metal skewer, pin the neck skin to the back. Fold the turkey's wings akimbo behind the back or tie to the body with kitchen string. Place the drumsticks in the hock lock or tie together with kitchen string.

Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in the roasting pan. Rub all over with the softened butter. Season with salt and pepper. Tightly cover the breast area with aluminum foil. Pour 2 cups of the turkey stock into the bottom of the pan.

Roast the turkey, basting all over every 30 minutes with the juices on the bottom of the pan (lift up the foil to reach the breast area) until a meat thermometer inserted in the meaty part of the thigh (but not touching a bone) reads 180 degrees, 3}-4\ hours. Whenever the drippings evaporate, add stock to moisten them, about 1{ cups at a time. Remove the foil during the last hour to allow the breast skin to brown.

Transfer the turkey to a large serving platter and let it stand at least 20 minutes before carving.

Pour the drippings from the roasting pan into a heat-proof glass bowl or large measuring cup. Let stand for 5 minutes, then skim off and reserve the clear yellow fat that has risen to the top. Measure } cup fat, adding melted butter if needed. Add enough turkey stock to the skimmed drippings to make 8 cups total.

Place the roasting pan on two stove burners over low heat and add the turkey fat. Whisk in the flour, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, and cook until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the turkey stock and the optional bourbon. Cook, whisking often, until the gravy has thickened and no trace of raw flour taste remains, about 5 minutes. Transfer the gravy to a warmed gravy boat.

Source: Adapted from "Thanksgiving 101" by Rick Rodgers (Broadway Books, 1998)

Turkey help

If you've got a question about cooking turkey on Thanksgiving Day, help is a toll-free call away from the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, 1-800-288-8372. Phones will be staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the holiday. Web site, www.butterball.com.

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