Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Holiday Prep: The TURKEY (part 1, the how-to)

Turkey is by far the most popular and traditional of Thanksgiving meats. Most of us can't remember a Thanksgiving that didn't feature turkey. But how long has it truly been since your turkey was the star of the meal? Have you ever eaten a turkey that wasn't dry and bland? Have you ever filled your plate with everything else and taken one tiny slice of turkey, then covered it in cranberry sauce or gravy just to get it down? Have you ever had food poisoning from an improperly cooked turkey?

Well--NO MORE! It's high time the turkey took center stage of your Turkey-Day meal again! The most fail-safe, juicy, tender, and flavorful turkeys I've ever made were from the following recipe/tips. So here are my suggestions. I hope it helps you make the best turkey EVER.

Brined Turkey

1) Procure your Turkey. Depending on the size of the crowd you'll be serving, you'll need bigger or smaller. I usually buy frozen for several reasons: -It doesn't bruise during shipping -They're far cheaper -There isn't a major difference in flavor -Typically better selection at the store. But you can also buy "fresh" or thawed turkeys at a premium... if you run out of time or forget, this is the route you'll want to go. I avoid ones that are "organic" or "hormone free" or "free range" or any other fancy name that in my opinion, equates to price and price alone. But by all means, it is your money--spend it how you will! Just don't be fooled into thinking that "organic" turkeys are SO much better... In some ways, organic products are worse, because they don't use pesticides or antibiotics. That means you're going to have more disease on the farm, which raises prices because of lost product. And all pesticides and antibiotics in the USA are perfectly safe to use. Just be a smart shopper, okay?

1.5) Procure any other equipment/items you'll need. Make sure you have salt, sugar, a large brining vessel (see notes below), an adequately sized cooking pan (also notes below), a good sharp carving knife, and most importantly, a dependable thermometer--either probe-style with an oven-safe cord and digital readout, or an instant-read.

2) Thaw the turkey. Place it carefully wrapped and in a leak-proof container (either lots of plastic, or a pot, or a sheet pan, or something) IN THE FRIDGE. It will take between 3 and 7 days to thoroughly thaw in the fridge (bigger turkey=longer thaw time). Give it plenty of time. Check it daily with your fingers to see how frozen it still is. You want this puppy completely thawed at least the day before you cook it. *If for some reason you forget, run out of time, or just plain can't use the fridge or something strange like that, the ONLY OTHER METHOD you can safely use for thawing is putting the turkey by itself in a clean sink or water-tight container and filling it with cold water. (not hot, not lukewarm, but cold.) You can run the water over it in a very small stream, or you can drain and replace the water every 20 minutes. This method will take several hours and a lot of water, so be prepared. But it works.* Be cautious while thawing your turkey: those turkey juices can contain salmonella. If possible, thaw the turkey on the bottom shelf of the fridge, and don't let the juices drip. If they do, clean it up ASAP. Please, no contamination and sickness this year.

3) Night before cooking--Time to brine.

General recipe per 10 lbs of turkey: (if it's a 15 pounder, one and a half the recipe. etc.)
1 cup salt
1 cup sugar-like substance (honey, molasses, brown sugar are my favorites. think flavor!)
1 onions, peeled and quartered
1 tbsp garlic
1 tbsp whole peppercorns
1/4 cup various dry herbs (or about 2 cups fresh, if available): sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano
Other flavor enhancers: sliced oranges, lemons, limes, apples, 4 cups apple juice.

*About 1 gallon cold water.

Instructions: in your brining container, put all your dry ingredients and add your cold water. Mix and mix and mix until all the salt and sugar are dissolved. If you are doing a larger turkey, still start with just 1 gallon of water. We will add more water at the end.

Unwrap the turkey and remove all giblets, neck, string, and whatever else the turkey might have been packed with. Keep what you want, but be very careful to do this in a sink or other clean surface, and clean it afterword. Remember: everything that turkey touches, or everything your hands touch, or anywhere juice spills could potentially make you very sick. NO sickness this year!

Place turkey in the container with the brine and nestle it down in. If you need to poke some of the vegetables/fruit inside the cavity, do it. Let the turkey get all full of brine. Lastly, add enough water to cover the whole turkey and kind of stir as much as you can so that it is mixed. Refrigerate in the brine overnight.

*Notes on brining containers: Depending on the size of your turkey, you may or may not have a pot large enough to fit it, the brine, and still fit in the fridge. Test the size of your pot before you get started if you're not sure. Make sure the turkey can fit in there with just a bit of breathing room, and make sure it will fit in the fridge. But if it doesn't, don't despair! A water-tight cooler can also work. Make sure it starts really clean, and clean it really well when done. Obviously, a cooler won't fit in the fridge. So replace the end water with about 2 to 5 pounds of ice, poured right on the turkey. Then keep in a cool-ish place (outside, basement, etc), closed and sealed tight, overnight.

4) Day of: time to cook!

First of all, the turkey won't take as long to cook as you might think. Any old instructions you have that say "bake x amount of minutes per pound"--throw away right now. We will be using a far better method: temperature! The largest birds can be done in about 3 to 4 hours; small ones only 2. Read through all these instructions, and don't start it too early.

*preheat oven to 500--yes, 500 degrees.
Drain off the brine, preserving the herbs (if fresh) and fruits/veggies that were floating in the brine. Tuck those into the cavity of the turkey. Tie the legs together and tuck the wings behind the back of the bird so that nothing is flopping around. This will also assist in even cooking. Place the turkey in your cooking pan (aluminum? large non-stick? up to you.) Drizzle the outside with olive oil and rub it all over.

Bake Turkey at 500 degrees, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Set your timer. This will start the beautiful browning that you want.

After 30 minutes has passed, lower oven temperature to 350 degrees. If you will be using a probe thermometer that stays in the turkey, insert it now in the crevice between the thigh and the breast (the hip). Our goal temperature is 150 to 155 degrees. If using an instant-read thermometer that doesn't stay in the turkey, then wait another 30 minutes to 1 hour before checking the temperature. Also at this time, cover the breast of the turkey with a piece of aluminum foil.

Let bake at 350 until it is done. If you notice the temperature climbing way too quickly, lower the oven to 325. If it is going super slow, you can raise it to 375. But try to stay within that range. In my experience, the whole process takes about 2 hours for 10-15 pound turkeys, 3 hours for 15-20 pound turkeys, and no more than 4 hours for the MONSTROUS ones above 20 pounds. But this is not a guide! Watch the temperature! The last 25 degrees go up very fast (about 30-45 minutes), so get your potatoes on, your other foods done, table set, stuff like that.

Once internal temperature has reached 150 to 155 degrees, evacuate the bird from the oven and wrap in foil (and maybe a towel too). Let it sit this way, untouched, for exactly 30 minutes. This is called the rest period, and will allow that glorious juice to stay in the turkey during carving. It also gives you 30 minutes to use the oven to bake rolls or warm something up last minute. If you want, you can carefully remove the turkey to a separate tray, giving you access to the drippings to make gravy. But keep it covered. Don't poke it, cut it, or anything.

5) Once rested, the turkey is ready to carve. I'm not a professional turkey carver, but Alton Brown is. This is a great demo.

6) At last... EAT!

Wow... you really read all that? I can't believe I actually typed all that... really, it's not as scary as it seems. The brine perfectly flavors the meat and keeps it so juicy. Using the thermometer instead of a timer insures against over-cooking. For myths dispelled, see part 2 of The TURKEY.


Kathy said...

I wouldn't completely discount organic or free range turkeys. Yes, they are more expensive, but sometimes the "regular" turkeys are "pumped up" with saline (aka salt water) or other additives (not always gluten-free!) to increase the weight and volume of the bird. This leaves the meat with a grainy texture that is gross in my opinion, and you're paying for water not meat. So while I don't usually splurge for the really expensive turkeys, if you're only feeding a small crowd, and cost isn't as much of an issue, you may want to consider it.

Lisa said...

Good point, Kathy. I guess the ultimate thing is to read the label, to know the terminology, and to be a smart shopper. You find that saline thing also in ham a lot.

Melanie said...

I'll be honest--I hope I never have to cook a turkey. But if I do (and I'm sure I will some day) I know I'll manage. I just don't like turkey that much...

Anyway, this post reminded me of stuff my colleagues have put together:

Here's a cool publication on cooking turkey: http://extension.usu.edu/fsne/files/uploads/Turkey%20Talk.pdf

And another: http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/FN_FoodSafety_2009-04pr.pdf