So we're in a new place and for the first time in six years we're not cooking thanksgiving dinner. We're far from family and on top of being sad, it is also much harder to acquire 12 guests without them. So what is one to do? How about attend two different dinners, cooking close to the same number of dishes, but no turkey. One of the dinners is a newlywed couple's first foray into cooking the turkey, and I was asked for my two cents. The problem is that over the years I've stripped down my recipes removing all the narrative elements and explanations. I can totally understand how over a lifetime a recipe can turn into "season to taste, cook till done." Again faced with a dilemma, I figured it would make sense to write a nearly 2,000 word treatise on cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. Seems logical, right?
Note to the reader: Read all instructions before starting, I've never written this all out and I'd hate for someone to be going step by step and then realize they have to go to the hardware store with turkey all over their hands and their in-laws ringing the doorbell.
1. Search. Take the innards out of the turkey cavity. If there is a plastic piece holding the legs together, leave that, its handy for lifting.
2. Acknowledgments. My thanksgiving is brought to you, and me, by Alton Brown, my culinary and puppet hero (well, one of my puppet heroes). Watch this video to understand brining (but use the simpler recipe below, Alton has simplified over the years too).
3. Brine baby, brine. You can even do this in the bucket (you have a brining bucket, right? I use a 5 gallon bucket, just brush out the sawdust and spackle. (Just kidding, it was new, I washed it out, and use it only for brining). Add 1 cup kosher salt + 1/2 cup brown sugar. Then add enough hot tap water to dissolve (stirring helps this). We're needing this to be cold sooner than later so you can probably get away with around 4 cups hot water. This can be done well ahead of time.
4. Thanksgiving eve. Anywhere between 12-18 hours before oven time (Wednesday evening at some point) put the bird in the bucket, breasts down (possibly using that handy plastic bit). Then start filling the bucket with cold water until it just covers the drums of the drumsticks. The bird might start to float, thats why we're leaving some room at the top. Find a plate or pot lid that fits inside your bucket and place it on top of the bird, and then fill the rest with ice. Oh, you'll need a small bag of ice (unless you have a prolific ice machine). Top it all off with cold water. Put a lid on the bucket. Place it either somewhere cool (outdoors in a snow drift if possible) or just out of your way (second best). The ice will hold the plate and therefore the turkey in the brine and as the ice melts the cold water goes down and keeps everything chilly. If you peek in and the ice is melted and you're worried about it, take the water temperature, the USDA danger zone begins at 40 degrees F. Add more ice if so.
5. Timing: part 1. Figure out when the bird has to go in to said oven. Last year I started the process of putting the turkey in the oven a little over 5 hours before meal time. This is the one time a year that you need two ovens, because the turkey takes up one for the whole morning! Doesn't the turkey know it's Thanksgiving, we need our oven space! How inconsiderate. Factor this into your overall oven plan. Luckily it takes a ridiculously long time to sit and cool before it reaches a temperature that doesn't melt your hands and then there's the final decathlon that is making gravy (Does that sports metaphor hold? Apparently there are sporting matches on Thanksgiving) Take a stick of butter out and leave it on the counter and go to bed! There's only so much you can do, and being delirious is not the way to start turkey day!
6. Morning of. Take the bird out of the brine. Where's it going? Best to figure this out while holding a heavy slippery hunk of raw meat that is dripping all over your floor. I normally have a prep plate, it's one more dish to do but I like to keep my roasting pan clean for this part. Line the plate with a few layers of paper towels. I am also gloved at this point and for some time to come. Now we blot, we need the bird to be dry, inside and out, top and bottom. Don't rinse! We just spent all that time chemically injecting it with salty goodness, don't mess with it, um, because science (?).
7. Now we're cooking with gas, or electricity. We can preheat the oven at this point, good ol' 350 degrees F. Okay, back to our heros...
8. Getting under the skin. Remember that stick of butter? Take 5 Tablespoons of it and add it to a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon each chopped fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme. You're still wearing gloves, right? Smoosh that all together and, working from the neck end, slide your fingers under skin until you reach the end of the breast, being careful not to tear the skin, but forceful enough to get your whole hand in. Yeah, it's gross, get over it, you're serving a higher power. You'll be happy you did when you have turkey breast that isn't gray cardboard.
9. Skin in the game. Lest you think I'm shunning the skin lovers, next is the dry rub. Normally I just rummage through the spice cabinet and make some concoction but I'm writing this down so, I'd say garlic power, smoked paprika, cayenne, pepper, Old Bay (don't have any? stop everything and go get some. Local store doesn't carry it? I'd suggest moving). Hmm, amounts you ask... maybe start with a teaspoon of each and see if thats enough. This gets rubbed over the whole surface of the bird, all the nooks and crannies, really get in there, again, you'll be happy you did.
10. Timing: part 2. My culinary bar mitzvah was ushered in by weighing ingredients (for baking specifically) and cooking things using temperature rather than time. I'm now on my second probe thermometer, I've upgraded to one with 1) a heavier duty cord and 2) a wireless base so I can clip the receiver display to my apron and pretend like I'm Buzz Lightyear, but I'm getting off track. Cooking a turkey until it's the proper internal temp (155 degrees F, which rises to 165 while resting) makes all the difference. Stick the probe in the fleshiest part of the thigh. If your turkey has a plastic pop thermometer, congratulations, your turkey had a rebellious moment and got a useless piercing. Leave it in and ignore it like a good parent.
11. Stuff. You know all those other recipes that called for three sprigs of this and half of that? The old hotdog/bun conundrum? Well I take everything left on my counter and stuff it in the cavity. Apples, celery, herbs, onions. The only thing I've had bad results with is citrus, makes better garnish anyway.
12. Tying up an animal or The one thing I might have learned from the boy scouts. Luckily Alton has another video, here. This is normally where I need a set of not gloved gross hands to press play and pause while I do it, luckily this is what love is about. Video watched? Turkey trussed? Good, moving on.
13. Confessions. Ok, here where my whole "I find it easier to grow your own wheat to make bread" facade gets a little thin. I use Reynolds oven bags. Yes I put my food in a thin plastic bag in a hot over for hours. I'm going to go with the naive anecdotal belief that a cell phone in my pocket every day is probably way worse. And if I'm taken down, death by thanksgiving is pretty high on my list. It makes cooking time reasonable and it keeps all of the drippings for the gravy train. Ok, shame revealed. Moving on. Open the bag in the roasting pan and get ready for lift off. Follow the directions on the box for prep and make sure to leave the probe's cord sticking out the back. I've read to put the turkey in the oven legs towards the back. I can't find the reference so I'll just go with "so it doesn't run away" or some other nonsense.
14. Cook 'til done, or 10 degrees of done. I set my thermometer's alarm (fancy huh?) to 155 degrees F. When it hits that I take it out of the oven. Now hurry up and do nothing!! I don't touch it for at least 30 min, while the temperature of the bird continues to climb to a USDA approved 165 degrees. If you leave it in the oven until 165 you're not going to be happy. I may slice the bag open part of the way through but it is still at melt your face temperatures. You have a preheated oven, make the rest of your meal, stat!
15. Are we there yet? Probably the same answer that normally follows that question. At around 30 minutes I test to see if I can handle the bird. If it's tolerable I move it to an assembly of cutting board on top of a towel inside a baking sheet with sides. and I let it sit, longer!
16. Gravy train. With the bird evicted form the roasting pan, I can remove the bag and dump all the liquid gold into the pan. And then I watch this Alton video. The main difference is that since we used a oven bag we are lacking crispy bits (it's okay, we are not in need of more flavor), while at the same time we have more than enough juice to not need stock or wine (more for you to drink during all this, or so I'm told). Sometimes I add the herbs other times I don't, again, with all the beginning steps we don't need to do much of anything now to get an awesome product. And by this time you might be very thankful for one or two less steps, your honored guests and loved ones have surely breached the perimeter. Have a gravy shot for me.
17. Carving. Okay, we're careening close to some deeply held traditions, so venture at your own pace and familial obligations. I did not grow up with a Rockwell-esk table side carving so my forebears are resting peacefully and not preparing to haunt me. And after the morning we've had, who the hell wants that pressure?! To add to that, doing it right isn't pretty. Back to you in the studio Alton. Keeping the skin on the slices and successfully transporting them to the serving platter was a bonus level I didn't know existed until I went down that pipe last year. Remember, plating is 5 points.
18. Carving P.S. Oh, you got your knives sharpened a few weeks ago right? Duh, of course you did. No? Well, for next year it is way easier and cheaper that I ever thought before it became an annual occurrence. Check to see if there's someone that comes by a local hardware store, or better yet, go to your local fabric mart and ask them who sharpens their scissors.
Ta-da! Turkey mastered! Novella complete. As a kid Thanksgiving was my favorite non-gift-giving holiday and as an adult it is my favorite overall. Also, most of the aforementioned gifts now go to supporting the Thanksgiving effort (helps to have a birthday a week before). From my experience, the difference between a happy holiday and a not-so-happy one is time (and therefore stress) management. I sincerely hope this helps with that and, if for nothing else, add a little levity in this possibly trying time. A very happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and family!