Monday, December 7, 2009

How to Roast the Perfect Turkey

Well, folks, now that I've successfully made a turkey, it's time to share a guide that I wish had existed when I was doing all of my research. Because I obsessed over every single step, I've boiled down my final recipe to the 3 essential steps that you need to know to ensure a perfect turkey. I, for one, find it comforting in hindsight to know that there are only three major things that I really needed accomplish correctly in order to tame my turkey, as opposed to the laundry list of items (3+ pages!) that I encountered while preparing. So, here are my 3 major steps to a great turkey, with tips on how to jazz up each step for an even more decadent turkey (but I promise, none of it is time consuming or difficult). First will come a quickie cheat sheet with your basic steps, followed by a detailed description of exactly how to do all of the steps, and the science behind why they work. I hope this helps out fellow novices, or those looking to pare down their roasting routine.

Turkey Roasting Cheat Sheet
3 easy steps to a perfect turkey--every time

1.Wash and Brine:
Remove all innards stored in the turkey's cavity (check large and small cavity openings) and wash turkey with cold water inside and out. Fill a bucket lined with heavy duty garbage bags or a large stockpot halfway with cold water. Add 2 cups of kosher salt and stir until dissolved. Add turkey to container and more cold water to cover. Cover with a lid a refrigerate for 8-18 hours.

2. Dry: Remove turkey from brine 2 hours prior to roasting. Drain all liquid from cavity and dry turkey thoroughly inside and out. Place it on a roasting pan or large platter and set in the refrigerator uncovered for a minimum of an hour or until you're ready to roast.

3. Roast: Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. Season your turkey with salt and pepper and any herbs or spices you'd like (additional fat like oil and butter is also optional). Place turkey in a roasting pan alone or with 2 cups of the liquid of your choice if you'd like to make gravy (chicken broth will do). Roast it in the 500 degree oven for 30-45 minutes depending on the size of your bird, then lower the heat to 375 degrees and continue roasting for 1 1/2 to 2 hours (again, depending on the size of your bird). Once the time has passed, place a meat thermometer in the turkey's thigh (try to avoid touching the bone). You're looking for an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees and juices that run clear. If it's not ready, roast at 15 minutes intervals until you get 165 degrees and clear juices. Once you do, pull turkey from the oven and allow to rest for 25-45 minutes before carving. Enjoy!

Now that you know the fundamental steps to roasting your turkey to perfection, read below to find out exactly how it all works, along with a few tips from me on how to make it extra tasty.

Step 1: Wash and Brine

The first step to preparing ANY type of poultry is to remove the neck and gizzards from the cavity. It sounds gross and feels grosser, but make sure to look in both ends of the turkey. The neck bone is typically closer to the large cavity opening, and the bag of innards is usually closer to the smaller end, so make sure to take a look everywhere. Then your turkey is ready for washing. Run it under cold water, inside and out, giving him a good shower. When you're done, take a quick look and make sure there are no rogue feathers or quills sticking to the skin (most come pretty well picked over, but it's worth a check--I've always found at least one), just like you would a chicken.

Now you're ready to brine. The dirty truth about brining? It's just water and salt. Even if all you did was to toss your turkey into a lobster pot, covered it with cold water and 2 cups of salt and left it in the fridge overnight, you'd be brining, and your turkey would be all the better for it. It's that simple! You don't need to boil anything or use fancy ingredients. If your turkey is large like mine, use a very large lobster pot or a bucket lined with 2 heavy duty garbage bags. If it's smaller (under 15 lbs) you can probably fit it in your largest pasta pot. Fill it halfway with cold water, add 2 cups of kosher salt and stir until the salt is dissolved. Then add your turkey and more cold water as needed until it's fully submerged. That's it! Cover with a lid and let it sit for 8-18 hours in your fridge (if you don't have room in there, a cold porch or basement will do just fine). If you'd like to experiment as I did, add handfuls of your favorite spices and ingredients. I used peppercorns, bay leaves and brown sugar, but feel free to add anything from ginger to jalapeƱos.

Step 2: Dry

This step may seem too simple and silly to warrant it's own section, but you wouldn't believe how many people forget to do it (and do it well) and end up with a limp bird. Moisture is the mortal enemy of crispy skin, and as such, the only wetness that should ever come into contact with your turkey while roasting should be a fat that will help it crisp (this includes NOT basting...but more on that in Step 3). Remove your turkey from it's brine 2 hours before you intend to put it in the oven. Dry it thoroughly with paper towels inside and out, making sure to drain all liquid from the cavity. Place it in a roasting pan or large platter uncovered and back into the fridge for an hour to dry. The cold will help the skin tighten back up and dry it by pulling out any moisture. Think about how your face reacts to winter cold--the same science is at work here, only in a positive way!

Step 3: Roast

Once your turkey has dried you're ready to roast it. Another dirty secret? You could sprinkle it with salt and pepper, toss it in a roasting pan and throw it in the oven and be fine. There's enough fat in the skin to get it crispy and keep the turkey moist, so technically you don't even need a rub. And since you've brined, the meat has been plenty tenderized already. But, if you're a skin junkie like me, you might want to add some extra herbs and butter for some extra dark browning. Start by preheating your oven to 500 degrees. It's high, but it'll come down later. Then add whatever you'd like to your turkey. I used a little canola oil for added crispiness and some dollops of butter where I really wanted to see some darkening (a little food styling trick to help you get that Norman Rockwell turkey). I sprinkled the whole thing with chopped herbs (thyme, sage and rosemary) and filled my pan with a cup each chicken stock and apple cider. This way I'd have a delicious gravy that cooked itself without any effort on my part. Juices and herbs from the turkey would add flavor and salt and the heat from the oven would help it reduce and thicken slightly.

Once you've doctored your skin however you see fit, put your turkey into the 500 degree oven for 30-45 minutes (this depends on the size of your turkey), then lower the temperature to 375 and roast for 2 hours. The high temperature will again help shock the skin, helping it to brown and crisp. It's too high to continue roasting at that temperature because the skin would burn before the inside was cooked, which is the reasoning for lowering the temperature. Try to avoid opening the oven if possible, which would allow all of the built up heat to escape, and DO NOT baste. By wetting an already crispy skin, even with delicious juices, you are softening it and ruining it's chances of crisping. The mythology that basting will help keep meat moist is just that--a myth. Turkey skin is a waterproof barrier to meat just like your skin is to your flesh, so trust me when I say that none of that basting liquid is getting anywhere near the turkey meat. It's being absorbed by the skin and softening it the same way your skin absorbs lotion. Not to mention that it washes away anything you've rubbed on your turkey skin for added flavor.

If the turkey breast is browning too quickly, cover it with foil. Start checking in at about 90 minutes for doneness. Using your meat thermometer, poke the thickest part of the turkey, like the thigh, careful not to touch the bone, which can give you a false read (the bone conducts heat more easily than the meat and will therefore be significantly hotter). Once you reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees, lightly push the spot where you've inserted the thermometer (I just used a spoon). If the juices released run clear, remove the turkey from the oven and cover lightly with foil so the meat can rest for 25-30 minutes and all of the juices can redistribute. Your turkey should rest (as any large piece of meat should) so that the internal juices have a chance to settle within the meat, keeping it juicy. If you cut into it immediately after pulling it from the oven, all of those juices will come streaming out of the meat and onto your plate instead of keeping the meat moist. If you've put any juices for gravy in your roasting pan, I recommend letting the turkey rest in a separate dish or carving board so you can put your roasting pan directly over the stove (I let mine reduce naturally over the flame to really concentrate the flavor). Once the resting time has passed, all that's left is to carve and serve and you're done!


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