Don’t brine it or butter it. Don’t smoke it or grill it or deep fry it. Just buy the best turkey you can find and step aside.
That’s the simple secret to a really wonderful main course at Thanksgiving dinner.
Yes, you will spend a lot of money for the bird. But think of it this way: this is the dinner that will be talked about for a whole year and its repeat will be anticipated until the following November. Just amortize the cost over 12 months and divide by the number of people who will rave about your effort. It won’t seem so expensive.
Each year at this time the food magazines we receive in the mail and see in the super market racks scream the same thing: THE BEST WAY TO A SUCCESSFUL THANKSGIVING DINNER, or something close to that. The covers are adorned with photos of luscious looking turkeys, plump and golden. Fact is, however, a year ago that same magazine offered a recipe for a different “best way” and next year there will be yet another “best way”. And if you look at six current magazines you will find half a dozen different “best ways”.
Another fact: their intent is to sell magazines more than to help you win accolades on the fourth Thursday of November. Otherwise they would pick what really is the best and reprint that recipe each year.
One more fact: you can dress the feast with all the side dishes in the world and they all can be prize winners, but if the turkey itself is anything less than wonderful it’s all for naught.
So, let’s talk turkey.
The quality of the turkey on your table depends more on the quality of the turkey you buy than on any other factor. So, buy the freshest bird you can. If there’s a turkey ranch nearby, even if it’s a bit of a drive, and if they sell free range organic birds that never have been frozen and are killed according to kosher law, that’s where you want to be. In other words, you want an unaltered turkey as close to fresh killed and dressed as you can get. If you can’t get to a quality turkey farm, keep these things in mind when shopping at your local butcher shop or market. If you have to compromise away any of these factors you can let go of the koshering.
There are those, including the National Turkey Federation, who claim there is no difference between fresh and frozen turkey. But consider that freezing meat, any meat, disrupts the cell structure. Ice crystals form around the cells and can cause fluid loss, which results in drier meat. Flash freezing can cut the cell damage by reducing the size of the ice crystals. But many turkey purveyors inject a high-in-sodium mixture of water and oil into the turkey before freezing. It aids in the freezing but also adds a foreign flavor to the turkey. Marketers have decided to tag these turkeys as “self-basting.” The difference between fresh and frozen turkeys may not be great enough to concern you, but why chance it if you don’t have to, when the goal is perfection.
Commercially packaged turkeys labeled “fresh” may actually be partially frozen because health laws require that they be stored at 26 degrees Fahrenheit or above. Frozen turkeys must be stored a zero degrees or lower. Turkeys between one degree and 25 degrees often are sold as “refrigerated,” “chilled,” or “not previously frozen.”
My mother used to insist on buying only hens. They were more tender than toms, she would say. She was right, even though a butcher told me a couple of years ago there no longer is any difference. He may be correct when it comes to commercialized turkeys. But the whole idea here is to serve up something better than that.
Hens are smaller than toms and smaller turkeys tend to be more tender. That presents a challenge if you are having a large gathering for the holiday. Two smaller birds might be the answer if you have a double oven and don’t need one of them for the side dishes. Otherwise, you have a decision to make and the answer might be to buy a larger turkey and compromise a bit on the tenderness. Just don’t compromise in other areas that might have a greater impact on the taste.
If you can’t get to a turkey farm and your super market is anything like mine, there will be a list of at least half a dozen different turkeys on offer.
You’ll find birds listed as “basted” or “self-basting.” These have been injected with what the USDA specifies as “butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water; plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances.” These birds will have higher moisture content in the meat, but the natural flavor will be masked.
If the turkey is tagged as “free range”, “free roaming”, or “cage free” it must have access to and be able to move around the grounds. These birds will have more developed muscle, which means a more flavorful meat. Birds with these tags are not necessarily organic or naturally processed. The tag applies just to the bird’s freedom to roam and not to what it is fed or how it is processed.
For that you will need a turkey labeled “organic.” To carry this label there can be no chemicals, antibiotics or roughage in feeding the birds. All feed must be raised without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. In other words, organically. You’ll pay more for these birds but you will get the best tasting turkey on the market.
You can kick the flavor up a notch by buying an organic bird killed according to kosher law. The meat will be denser. But be prepared to pay more. Koshering involves applying a heavy coating of salt to the inside and outside of the bird. It may leave just a trace of extra sodium in the turkey meat and I can live without that although my cardiologist might object.
A non-organic turkey can be labeled “natural” if no artificial flavors, colorings, chemical preservatives or artificial ingredients are involved to process the meat. But the bird can have antibiotics. And “no hormones” on the label means nothing because hormones are never used in poultry or eggs in the U.S.
From there it’s all downhill. As the price point for the bird drops, so will everything else about it.
Once you have the best bird in hand, there are things you can do to diminish it. Here are a few dos and don’ts.
In the last several years, brining a turkey has become a rage. I’ve seen magazines that suggest heavy applications of salt under the skin of the turkey if you don’t have a vessel large enough for actual brining. I wouldn’t do this on a bet. Yes, it draws some of the moisture out of the bird, but it also will increase the sodium content of the meat.
Another “absolutely never” for me is the application of fat to the outside of the turkey. Suggestions include large amounts of butter, bacon or pancetta, rendered turkey fat, or any number of other substances. Proponents offer this as a way to moisten the turkey and point out that the fat will help crisp the skin. How about just buying a good bird and not having to ingest all this fat. In what could only be called ironic one year, the same day the World Health Organization issued its advisory regarding bacon as a carcinogenic, I saw a magazine that suggested all but wrapping the turkey in bacon before roasting it.
Grilling, smoking, deep frying… these and other unusual cooking methods are not for me, either. They change the flavor and the texture of the meat.
If you buy a great turkey, something like those described above, none of these gimmicks is necessary. Just pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees and get out of the way. I have been turning out praise-worthy turkey dinners for decades with this simple approach.
I allow about 1 pound of turkey per person. I’ll add a few extra pounds because I want plenty of left overs.
Remove the heart, liver, gizzard and neck from inside the bird. (Save them for other uses. I’ll get to that later.) Wash the bird inside and out with cold tap water. Cut away all large chunks of fat, including the butt, which you should throw away. (In less fat-conscious times my mother would roast the butt to crisp and then eat it.) Cut away excess flaps of skin. Pat the bird dry with a paper towel.
Place the bird on a rack in a shallow roasting pan breast side down. Tent the bird loosely with tin foil, being careful that the foil doesn’t touch the bird. Put the tented bird into the pre-heated oven. One hour before the turkey is done, remove it from the oven. Place it on a large platter. Pour the drippings from the pan into a wide saucepan. Return the turkey to the rack, this time breast side up. Place the tent back over the bird and return it to the oven. When the bird is done, remove it from the oven, leave the tent in place and allow the bird to set for at least15 minutes before carving; 30 minutes would be better. This allows the juices to set in the meat.
I never stuff a turkey for three reasons. First, it’s easier not to have to unstuff the bird when you take it out of the oven. Second, I use the carcass for making stock and I don’t want the residue of the stuffing sticking to the inside of the carcass. And third, I’ve heard so many stories of people getting ill from stuffing cooked inside the turkey that it scares me. Anyway, if you insist on stuffing the bird, remove the stuffing as soon as you take the bird out of the oven; put the stuffing in a warmed casserole and return it to the oven until ready to serve.
The times shown in this chart assume an ideal bird and a well-calibrated oven. I’ve used this chart dependably for decades. Instant read thermometers would be more dependable, but I’ve never found the need for one. There’s also the shake-a-leg method to test the turkey for doneness. Wiggle the turkey leg and if it feels like it could be pulled off easily, the bird is done.
Roasting time chart (325 degrees)
Weight Stuffed Unstuffed
12-16 lb. 3-4 hrs. 3½ – 5 hrs.
16-20 lb. 5-6 hrs. 4½ – 5½ hrs.
20-24 lb. 5½ – 7 hrs. 5 – 6½ hrs.
24-28 lb. 6½ – 7½ hrs. 6 – 7 hrs.
3 cups turkey stock
Turkey pan drippings (fat skimmed)
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup butter (or fat from turkey drippings)
½ cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Herbs of your choice (oregano, thyme, marjoram, fines herbs)
Remember the turkey pan drippings we poured off above. There are two ways you can skim the fat from the drippings. The best way I have found is to use the fat skimmers sold in many kitchenware shops. A 2-cup size will be enough for a smaller turkey. Otherwise you will need a larger one. After pouring the drippings into the skimmer, put the skimmer in the freezer until you are ready to use the drippings. Otherwise, you can pour the drippings into a wide saucepan and put the pan in the freezer. After 15 minutes or so, drop in a few ice cubes to help congeal the fat.
About 1 ½ hour before you will start carving the turkey, place the turkey stock on the stove and heat it (don’t boil) over a medium-low heat. When the stock is heated, turn the temperature down to low.
Make a roux using the butter or fat drippings and flour. Stir some of the warmed stock into the roux. Then slowly pour the roux into the stockpot, stirring constantly to incorporate fully. Bring the stock to a very slow boil and stir occasionally until thickened. Stir in the fat-skimmed turkey drippings and heat through. Stir in some salt and pepper. Taste the gravy and adjust the salt and pepper until you have it the way you like it. Crush some of the dried herbs in the palm of your hand and stir them into the gravy. Bring the gravy to a very slow boil and keep it warm until you are ready to serve. Don’t boil it too long or too vigorously or the gravy will thin.
Now, for the heart, liver, giblets and neck we took out of the turkey. While the turkey is roasting, put them in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Quarter a brown onion and add that to the pot. Drop in a couple of bay leafs. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat and let it boil slowly for about 30 minutes. Remove the heart and liver and let the giblets and neck boil for another half hour. When they are done, cut the heart, liver and giblets into small pieces, allow them to cool, strip the meat from the neck. Give the heart, liver, giblets and neck meat to the cat for dinner. You will have a friend for life. If you don’t have a cat or know someone who does, throw away the meat. In either case, save the broth for use in your gravy.
(this feature was originally published Oct. 30, 2015. it has been re-published each Thanksgiving season since.)