How To Prepare A Great Moist Roast Turkey For The Holidays
Most of us only prepare roast turkey once a year at Thanksgiving but we all want that turkey to be perfect. I've tried lots of methods for roasting turkey - breast up, breast down, cooked whole, de-constructed, fresh turkeys, frozen turkeys, organic free range turkeys and they all have their pros and cons.
Here are a few ideas I think will help anyone thinking of roasting a turkey this year.
Brining the Bird
One of the more popular techniques currently being recommended for serving flavorful and moist turkey is brining. It's not a new technique. Brining has been around for a long time as a way of preserving meat but today it is used to for much more.
Although some people will say brining makes the bird more moist by osmosis, it is really about the salt relaxing (denaturing is the scientific term) the muscle fibers so they squeeze less water out when heated up in the cooking process. Describing the process can get a whole lot more complicated so let's stop here for now.
Me, I often buy a Kosher turkey at Thanksgiving because by Jewish law, the turkey has to be brined to be considered Kosher. Other times I have bought non-Kosher birds that I've brined myself. Here are some helpful tips on how to brine a turkey at home.
1. You want to use a large plastic food container that is non-reactive. I have used large plastic buckets, coolers, and even plastic bags but be sure to double (triple) them up in case one bag leaks. You can imagine the mess.
2. It's important the turkey is submerged in the brine so in order to know how much salt you'll need to the water, you need to first know how much water.
Just place the bird in the container you are using, remove the turkey and measure out the water. Now you know how much water is involved and can figure out how much salt you'll need. Figure about 1 cup of Kosher salt per gallon of water. I would toss out this water and start with fresh.
3. Make the brine as described below.
4. Put the turkey in the container you've chosen and cover with brine. Make sure the turkey is completely covered.
5. Here comes the tricky part and why I don't like brining a turkey at home. Place the container with the turkey into a refrigerator for a minimum of 12 hours and up to a day.
How many of us have a refrigerator big enough for a large turkey let alone one in a container. And if you do happen to get it stuffed into your refrigerator, there won't be any room for pumpkin pies and all the other ingredients you need for the meal.
6. When you are done brining, remove the turkey from the container, rinse it off well with fresh water and let it dry overnight in the refrigerator so the skin will dry thoroughly. Just so you know, I have skipped this step and yes the skin may not be quite as crispy, it still turned out great.
A Simple Brine Recipe
There are lot's of brine recipes out there on the Internet and I'm sure some are much more creative than this one but this one is a good start. Basically a brine is water and salt. The ratio is approximately 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water but that is if you are using Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.
If you use Morton's Kosher salt, you are suppose to use only ¾ cup of salt per gallon of water. I guess Morton's salt is saltier but I really don't understand how that can be. I'm guessing the grains are smaller and less irregular shaped so they compact more than Diamond Crystal but that is a guess.
I like to add some sugar to the brine and I'm sure if you look, you'll find lots of other ingredients like juniper berries, fresh garlic and bay leaves you can add to your brine to give it its own distinctive flavor.
This basic recipe makes a little over a gallon of brine. Depending on the size of your turkey and container, you may need more or less.
Roasting A Turkey
There are so many ideas on how to cook the perfect turkey. They range from barding the bird with fat, placing ice packs on the breast meat and hour before cooking so the meat is substantially cooled down to watching and waiting for the red little popper to pop up (this last one is a bad idea by the way).
Then there is the question of roasting the turkey breast side up or breast side down. Hmm, I'm sure you've all heard the pros and cons for both ways.
I have done them all ways and I'm a huge fan of the ice packs to cool down the breasts before cooking but I"m also a big fan of de-constructing the turkey by removing the legs and thighs, removing the backbone and separating the breasts and cooking the white meat and the dark meat at different times. This way I have the carcass and backbone available to make stock for the gravy.
If you decide to cook the bird whole and don't want to chill the breasts with ice packs, then I would cook the turkey breast side down. This way the juices are forced by gravity to run down through the breast meat as the turkey is cooking.
Won't look as pretty but it should be a little more moist. Remember, even if you cook your turkey breast side down, if you over cook it by just a little, it's going to taste dried out.
Give It A Rest
My last tip for this post is to let the roast turkey rest when it is done cooking. It's been in that hot oven for hours and could use the rest so the juices can redistribute throughout the meat making them more moist.
This can take 30 minutes to an hour depending on the size of the bird. Not that you're going to get any rest at this point but at least you'll more time to run around and get those mashed potatoes ready.
More Tips To Roast A Perfectly Moist Turkey
A whole turkey, perfectly cooked, juicy in thigh and breast and richly caramelized all over is a thing of beauty, but it is, indeed a rare bird. Turkeys are large, they have a big hole inside them.
They are thick in some places and thinner in others. They have appendages that dangle about and can burn.
The Rockwell picture of the happy family gazing at the perfect bird is just that - Rockwell picture, an idealized view of Americana. If you can let go of that picture, there are a couple of ways that you can cook your turkey that almost ensure the perfect bird.
It just won't be a perfect whole bird. Open yourself up to the possibilities and let go of the iconic roast turkey. You and your guests will be glad that you did.
These techniques work especially well if you normally carve the turkey in the kitchen and plate it before bringing it to the dining table. Everyone knows what a classic Thanksgiving bird looks like but I'm sure they will be much happier to have carved moist turkey meat in exchange for a gorgeous looking dried out bird.
Option 1 - Spatchcocking
To spatchcock a turkey (or a chicken, for that matter), lay the turkey breast side down on a stable surface, and using heavy duty kitchen shears, cut along either side of the backbone, through the rib cage. This will take a little muscle.
Once you have the backbone out, save it for soup or stock. Now, turn the turkey back over and press down hard on the breast bone. This will crack the bone, and you'll be able to press the turkey flat.
What good does this do? Now, your meat is a much more even thickness. The legs and thighs will now be nicely exposed to the heat, and the breast meat will be a little protected.
Now all you have to do is lay him out in a roasting pan - I usually set him on a "raft" I create by laying carrots and celery stalks in the roasting pan. This keeps the bird off the bottom of the pan and helps build wonderful flavor for your gravy.
Roast your bird at about 375º F, until the breast meat registers about 155ºF and the thigh reads about 175-180º F. Don't worry; the temperature will continue to rise once the bird is out of the oven.
The roasting time will be much less for a spatchcocked bird than for a whole bird. This is good, because your oven will be freed up for other items that need to be baked.
Start checking with an instant read thermometer at one hour for a 14 pound bird. Once the bird is done, take it out of the oven, remove it to a platter and cover with foil to rest for 20 minutes to half an hour while you make the gravy in the roasting pan.
Option 2 - Removing the Thighs and Drumsticks Before Roasting
Usually, the first cuts you make once the turkey comes out of the oven are the cuts to remove the thighs and drumsticks. Make these cuts before roasting, and roast the dark meat and white meat separately.
Yes, in two different pans. (Again, the temperature will continue to rise while the turkey is resting).
You can build a vegetable raft, as above, or you can put a 1-2 inch layer of stuffing underneath the meat (if you don't want the drippings for gravy-making purposes). With the two pan method, you can remove the white meat from the oven at 155ºF and the dark meat at 175ºF.
Once the meat is done, cover and let it rest while you continue to cook the stuffing to a safe internal temperature and a crisp, brown crust.
Option 3 - Classic roasting of Bird With Protective Layer
If you absolutely can't bring yourself to present anything other than a whole bird at your Thanksgiving table, help to protect the lean white meat by adding a layer of compound butter under the skin.
While the turkey roasts, the butter will melt and keep the meat moist (not to mention add flavor to the pan for gravy) while the herbs will stay put, giving you a wonderful green layer of flavor between the caramelized skin and the white meat.
It looks beautiful, and it is tasty, too. This is the compound butter you might try, but of course, you can use any combination of flavors that you would like.
- 1½ sticks butter unsalted, slightly softened
- 1 small shallot roughly chopped
- 1 handful flat leaf parsley
- 3 sprigs fresh savory leaves removed, stems discarded
- 3 sprigs fresh marjoram leaves removed, stems discarded
- Kosher salt and white pepper to taste
- zest of 1 lemon
- ½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoining or to taste
- Spin everything in a food processor until all the ingredients are blended and the herbs are finely chopped. The butter should be a nice mostly-uniform bright green.
No matter how you choose to cook your bird, the number one reason people end up with dry turkey is that they wait until the white meat reaches 165°F before taking it out of the oven.
So, whether you spatchcock, cook the white and dark separately or roast whole, don't forget that the temperature of the meat can rise another 10 to 15 degrees once it comes out of the oven. Don't forget to compensate for carry over cooking, and you will be rewarded with a juicy turkey this Thanksgiving.