I know. You’ve been inundated with “Tips for the Perfect Turkey” online, in the papers and on TV for weeks – since before U.S. Thanksgiving. But I’ve yet to see any one such submission that embodies all the points I consider critical to producing the perfect bird.
A lick of salt
If you watch food shows on TV, you’ve probably already heard of “brining”, the simple technique of immersing lean poultry of any sort (mainly Chicken or Turkey) in a salt solution for 24 hours before cooking. This is supposed to tenderize the meat and ensure through-and-through cooking while guarding against dry-out.
I’ve tried it.
I don’t know if it tenderizes (I don’t really think so), but I suspect that additional water may be drawn into the meat with the salt, and this may help with moisture retention while cooking. I do know that cooking any meat low and slow in the presence of ample moisture will tenderize it. (More on slow and low cooking in a minute.) The technique is called “braising” and it’s usually employed for “tough” cuts of meat, in dishes such as Pot Roast and stews. One way or another, I can attest that brining definitely produces a moist bird.
I also know that enough salt infuses into the meat to ensure that it is properly seasoned without adding any in the roasting pan. And a well-seasoned bird is a tasty bird.
The Golden Rule
While you want your holiday bird to be tasty, juicy and tender inside, many cooks place almost as high a priority on creating a crispy, golden brown skin.
The best way to ensure a crispy skin is to dry your Turkey – brined or not – thoroughly before committing it to the oven. Use old tea towels or paper towels – anything clean and absorbent.
A little Butter or Cooking Oil rubbed onto the skin will help the browning process. Use Olive Oil if you like the flavour.
If you start your Turkey off under aluminum foil, be sure to remove the foil 45 minutes to an hour before the end of cooking to optimize your chances for a beautiful, brown crisp finish.
‘Tis the “season”
In the culinary world, the term “seasoning” refers specifically to the addition of salt and pepper to a dish. Salt and pepper are not technically flavourings. Salt is fundamental to our physical well-being and as little as a pinch can help us taste the wonderful flavours in our food better. If you can actually taste the “salt” in a dish, the cook added too much. Likewise, Pepper is not meant to be tasted for itself. Instead, just a pinch or so can really perk up the taste buds, further enhancing our dining experience.
Other ingredients, such as Herbs and Spices, are meant to add to the flavour profile of a dish, complementing its own basic taste.
For light-meat Poultry (such as Chicken and Turkey), good old “Poultry Seasoning” is still the go-to standard for many home cooks. It’s basically a blend of Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. You can’t go wrong. But there’s so much more you can do to elevate your holiday bird from “good” to “amazing”!
First, you can try using fresh herbs rather than the powdered stuff in the little bottles from the supermarket. This makes a tremendous difference in your Turkey, the Gravy that proceeds from it and even the Stuffing, if you cook it inside the bird. (More on Stuffing in a minute.)
Tarragon is a great Herb to use with Poultry, though it’s more commonly used with Fish and Veggie dishes. A little Ginger, Nutmeg and Lemon go well with this under-appreciated flavour, in place of Poultry Seasoning.
Want to give your bird a little Mediterranean zing? Try using Basil, Oregano and Thyme in place of “standard” poultry seasoning.
You can even go deliciously wild and marinate your Turkey in a mixture of Light Soy Sauce, Sesame Oil, Lemon Juice, Turmeric, Cinnamon, Ginger, Cumin and Coriander. This combo will produce a bird as tender and juicy as brining with a definite hit of exotic Asian flavour. Just be sure to wipe off the bird before roasting. Don’t remove all the marinade, though, and DO NOT rinse under cold water. You’ll want some of the salt and spice to remain during cooking, especially inside the cavity. And the oil in the marinade will help crisp the skin.
Let your imagination run free!
Stuff and such
You can base your Stuffing on starches other than Bread Crumbs. Rice, Wild Rice, Bulgur or even Lentils are all in play, these days. Just be sure they are fully cooked before putting your Stuffing mixture together. I have evolved from a straight-Bread Cubes girl to a Rice-Wild Rice-Bread Cubes person over the past few years. Still heavy on the Bread Cubes (and often something like Light Rye or Sourdough rather than plain White Bread).
I never stuff the cavity of my birds with bread or other starch-based Stuffings. As we’ve been told repeatedly over the past few years, stuffing which is undercooked can cause food poisoning. And cooking the dickens out of the bird to make sure the stuffing is done will dry out the meat. I’ve taken to cooking stuffing in a casserole and I’ve found that it generally turns out better than the old way.
For one thing, I used to find that the stuffing from the cavity of the bird was usually moister than I’d have liked. Downright soggy and gummy, sometimes. You can control the moisture content of your casserole Stuffing by amending the amount of stock or fruit juice or other liquids you add and cooking it covered or uncovered. Covered gives you steamy, very moist Stuffing. Cooking it uncovered gives you drier Stuffing. I usually cook mine in the oven covered for an hour, then uncovered for another 15 to 25 minutes, to get a nice moist (but not soggy) stuffing inside with a nice crispy crust on top.
As for flavouring, I always use the same spices and herbs that I’ve used on the bird, plus finely diced (or food processed) Carrot, Onion and Celery. You can also use other root veggies if you want to. The crowning glory of my Stuffings, though, I credit entirely to my to my sister. Where she got the idea, I don’t know… But just once try adding one small can of diced Smoked Oysters to your savoury Stuffing. Really! Your stomach will love you for the rest of your life. Or, at least, until next Turkey feast holiday!
Again, the Stuffing provides an opportunity for you to play with complementary flavours to your heart’s content!
Cooking time and Doneness
We’re talking your Mom’s standard “30 minutes per pound plus 30 minutes for the pot”, here. At 375 F. You can tell when it’s done properly when a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast or thigh reads at least 170 F and the juices run clear. If you cook Stuffing in the bird, make sure the thermometer reads at least 180 F.
But, if you want to vary things a little, you can go down to 350 F or even 325 F and cook the bird longer. Believe me, a little patience goes a long way, especially with a bird that’s bathed in interesting Herbs and Spices and lots of moisture in the pan. Cook the bird covered for at least 45 minutes per pound, uncovering it for the last hour to get a nice golden skin. And, again, be sure the thermometer reads at least 170 F.
Other Tips and Tricks
Basting: You should not have to baste a properly prepared bird if you cook it covered for at least three quarters of its total roasting time. Conversely, if you baste during the last part of cooking, the skin may not brown the way you want it. I like to use a plain, unadulterated fresh (not frozen) turkey. But they make self-basting ones (eg.- “Butterball” brand) for a reason! I prefer to mix a quarter pound of softened salted butter with a teaspoon or so each of the main Herbs and Spices I’m using on the bird and a couple of pinches of Pepper, place it in a zipper freezer bag, and cut off one corner to make a crude piping bag. I use this to squirt the butter mixture into the folds of skin between the thigh and breast and under the skin over the breast.
In the cavity: I like to place any or all of the following in the cavity of the bird, in lieu of Stuffing: a celery stalk, a small carrot, half a small onion, a couple of lemon slices, or a couple of twigs of fresh Rosemary or Thyme. Whatever complements the main Herbs and Spices you’re using and comes in big pieces that won’t break down too quickly leaving a mushy mess.
In the pan: You can always use a wire rack in the roasting pan to facilitate the removal of the finished bird. But all you really need is some Celery and Carrots cut in large pieces or even whole, a couple of small Onions (or one large) quartered (or eighthed) and some other root veggies, such as Parsnips, Turnip, Fennel Bulb or Potatoes cut in suitable-sized chunks. You can serve the resulting roast Veggies as a side dish! And they’ll add immensely to the flavour and richness of the pan juices that will form the basis of your Gravy.
R & R: You may also have heard about the benefits of “resting” the bird for a while after removing it from the oven and before carving and serving. I recommend this technique. Remove the bird from the roasting pan and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Let it stand that way for at least 20 minutes, larger birds for up to 45. (Use this time to make the Gravy and finish off the side dishes.) The water molecules in the meat, moving around frantically under the influence of the heat of the oven, will settle down as the bird cools a little and the bulk of the natural juices still in the meat will stay there when you cut into it, rather than gushing out onto the cutting board and into the bottom of serving platter. Resting the bird also lets the meat consolidate and firm up, so it will slice more evenly and in thinner slices without falling apart.
Carving a masterpiece
You may also have heard of the following technique for carving the bird on TV or elsewhere. It’s a great way to present the centrepiece of your Turkey feast to it’s best advantage. And it’s easy.
Using a sharp thin-bladed knife, like a boning knife, carefully slit the loose skin between the thigh and body of the bird. Bend the thigh and leg, as one piece, out away from the body until you see the joint up under the bird where the thigh bone joins the abdomen. Insert the knife point into the joint to separate it and cut the leg and thigh loose. Repeat on side two. Now remove the drumstick from each leg by bending it away from the thigh until you can see the leg joint. Separate it with the knife point and then cut the leg free. Follow a similar procedure to remove the wings from the body of the bird.
Okay, now. This next part is important: CAREFULLY remove the skin from the breasts and body of the bird, in one piece if you can, and set aside for later.
Next, run the knife blade down either side of the breast bone, from the front (neck) cavity to the back (main) cavity. Run the knife blade repeatedly down the rib cage front to back releasing the breasts whole on both sides. Place the breasts side by side on the serving platter and slice each across the grain. Use a carving knife for slicing for best results.
Finally, reassemble the legs, thighs and wings around the breasts in as close an approximation as you can to a complete (albeit flattened) bird. Place the skin you removed from the body of the bird back over the sliced breasts completing the illusion of a complete bird. Garnish with Roasted Veggies from the Turkey pan. Wow! What a great platter to bring to the table!
You’re not done, yet!
Put the stripped carcass of the Turkey, plus the bones from the legs, thighs and wings (after the feast), into a big plastic bag and stick it in the fridge. Your Boxing Day mission, should you decide to accept it (and you should!), is to simmer up the bones and meat tidbits left on them into a big pot of Turkey Stock.
Refer to Cooking 101 – Sauces Part II – Stocks for the details. Why pay $2 per litre at the supermarket for boxed Poultry Stock when you can make your own for next to nothing? Oh, yes… There is that one-time cost for a large stock pot. Get one that can hold at least 16 L of liquid and you’re ready for even the biggest Turkey carcass! You’ll pay yourself back in savings in no time!
And for your Encore…
There are many, many ways to use leftover Turkey and side dishes!
You’ll probably make Sliced Turkey Sandwiches, and Turkey Salad, and Turkey Soup, and Turkey Stir Fry and Turkey Pot Pie, and Turkey Á la King, and who knows what. But…
What about Shredded Turkey Tacos with a little Chili Powder and Cumin and a dab of Tomato Paste, topped with Pico de Gallo Salsa and grated Monterrey Jack Cheese? (Refried Beans and Guacamole are optional but wonderful!)
What about Turkey Samosas with Garam Masala or Yellow Curry flavours?
What about Turkey Tajine with diced Dried Fruits and a Moroccan Ras Al Hanout spice blend? Rice is nice, on the side!
How about Turkey Tetrazini on Linguini?
How about Turkey… The list is endless!
Good eating for all, and for all, a good night!
~ Maggie J.