Let's Talk Turkey

Monday, November 23, 2009

With turkey day just days away, I thought I'd post a blog with some tips for roasting a great bird.

1. Temperature Controls Everything
The biggest mistake people often make when roasting anything is keeping it at one constant temperature. A roast, no matter if beef, pork, chicken or turkey, needs to have a crispy outside and moist, tender inside. The only way to achieve this properly is with temperature. No need for ridiculous plastic bags or basting every ten seconds. The trick is in the heat. No matter how big or small your turkey is, you always need to start if off in a 450 degree preheated oven. Not 400, not 375, but 450 degrees. This higher heat will help give the turkey a nice browning to begin with on the outside, which will help lock in the juices inside, creating a moist bird. This is why frying a turkey makes such a tender bird; it's cooking from the outside in. You need to start your turkey at 450 degrees for 30 minutes, then without opening the oven door, set your oven temperature back down to 350 degrees and finish roasting your turkey until an internal thermometer reads 165-175 (about an hour and half). Obviously, the bigger your bird, the longer it will need to cook, but you must do the different temperatures if you want a moist bird with a great skin.

2. Basting
Basting the process by which you take liquid and dredge the roasting turkey during the roasting process in order to keep remoisting the skin and evenly distributing seasonings. The basting process helps give the turkey (or chicken) a nice even brown color. If you didn't baste, then half of the turkey would be golden brown and the other half would still be pale. That is not appetizing to look at. To baste, you use an aptly named baster -- a squeeze tube with which you suck up any drippings that have collected at the bottom of the roasting pan or some broth or even juice you have ready on the side. Never baste with just water -- you'll water down the flavors. Always use the turkey's own juices, chicken or turkey broth (store-bought is ok), or even apple or orange juice if using those flavors. The general rule is you want to baste every 10-15 minutes during the first 45 minutes. And make sure you baste the entire turkey, even on the sides and bottom so you can get a good overall and even browning.

3. To Stuff Or Not To Stuff?

I am not a huge fan of bread stuffing in the turkey cavity. First of all, it's not that healthy. The turkey is raw and you'll have to make sure that stuffing inside is also well cooked before you serve it to your guests. If the stuffing is not cooked all the way through, it can carry semonilla and you'll give your guests a parting gift of food poisoning, which I supposed is a good strategy if you wan to avoid cooking the dinner the following year. Assuming you don't want to get your guests sick, my vote is to skip the stuffing the turkey all together and just bake it off in a side dish seperately. Instead, use the various fruits, vegetables and herbs available to stuff the cavity of the turkey that will both flavor as well as give a wonderful smell to your turkey. Turkey is very slightly gamey in smell, which puts some people off. The use of herbs and especially citrus fruits completely takes that away. I love thinking of different combinations. My favorites are:

  • lemons, orange, whole heads of garlic cut in half crosswise, rosemary and oregano
  • apples, garlic, leeks
  • pears, thyme, marjoram, onion
  • pomegranate (whole, cut in half lengthwise), garlic, sage
  • garlic, herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano)

The general rule is if using a fruit, then make sure it's one that can hold shape -- grapes will probably disinegrate in the roasting process and be a mess to remove. If using garlic, onions, shallots or leeks, you can peel off one layer (no need for garlic) and give it a good wash and then just cut in half or thirds to fit inside. For herbs, you want to use wood-stemmed herbs that are heartier and won't burn in the roasting process.

And I like to use these same ingredients to decorate the platter when presenting the turkey. If I'm doing a citrus and herb turkey for example, I'll put some large bunches of sage and rosemary around the turkey and then some lemons or clementines or whatever I used. And obviously, discard whatever you used to stuff the turkey.

4. Gravy -- 2 Schools

Where do you come down on the gravy scale? Please don't use powdered gravy. Ever. All it is is flour, salt and msg. That's it. It has no flavor and zero nutritional value and after all the work you did to make this gorgeous turkey full of flavor, you'll kill it with this limp gravy. My School Of Thought on gravy breaks down in two main ones:

1. Gravy Made Ahead Of Time: saute onions, carrots and celery until very soft, add garlic, add herbs you're using for your turkey (thyme, rosemary, sage), salt, pepper, 1 Tbs flour, then chicken broth and let cook until reduced and thickened. If you dont' want lumpy gravy then drop it all in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Reheat the next day for turkey.


2. Gravy From The Pan: when roasting yoru turkey, it will leave some drippings. This is akin to gold and should never be thrown away. Instead, use these flavors as a base for your gravy. While the turkey is resting, pour the pan drippings through a sieve and into a small saucepan (this way it collects any big pieces of herbs or fruit that may have fallen out). Add some chicken broth until the drippings dissolve and bring to a boil. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tsp cornstarch and 1 Tsp water until the cornstarch is dissolved. Add the cornstarch mixture to the gravy and cook on low until thickened about a minute. Taste for seasonings and add salt or pepper to taste.

In both instances we're using a thickening agent: flour or cornstarch. Main difference is constarch thickens almost immediately without taste while when using flour, you need to cook the taste of flour out for a minute or so before adding the liquid.

5. Seasoning

And finally, the flavors on top of the bird. I've seen recipes call to rub the turkey with olive oil before applying seasonging. Which is fine, but I still prefer butter. I take one whole stick and leave it out at room temperature. It needs to be pretty soft and spreadable. Then using my fingers, I massage the butter all over the bird, making sure to concentrate more butter on the breast side. The butter will also help give the turkey a nice brown color and great flavor. Then I season liberally with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and my favorite seasoning for turkey is herbs de provence. But you could make your own herb combination. Since the outside of the turkey is going to be exposed to the heat the entire time, I like using dried herbs which won't burn; if you use fresh herbs then they'll be morely likely to burn because they contain more moisture in them. Of course, your turkey seasoning can go as far as your imagination wants to go!

I hope these tips help you in your turkey roasting process. If this is the first time you're making turkey or if you're a seasoned vet, these are some trick of the trade I've found to get me a successful main event for a wonderful feasting day.

And Happy Thanksgiving!

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