Friday, November 26, 2010

How to Roast the Perfect Turkey

So last night marked a milestone Thanksgiving for us. We actually managed to make a turkey that was pretty much perfect. Seriously, there was nothing about this bird that could have been any better or that anyone who ate it wished was different. It was tender. It was moist. It was flavorful. It was cooked perfectly and finished right on time. As a major turkey lover, I naturally feel it's my duty to tell everyone how to duplicate this. I also really want to record this for myself so I can remember what we did the next time life calls for a kick-ass roast turkey. (These proportions and cooking times are for a 16-pound bird, just FYI.)

First of all, lets talk about stuffing. I know a lot of people still like to stuff their turkey with bread stuffing or something else to that tune. I'm personally not a fan of that... at all. I find that it not only sucks all of the moisture right out of your bird, but that it makes the stuffing itself soggy and practically inedible. There is also a chance that your stuffing all full of dead bird juices isn't going to cook up to a temperature that is safe to eat, so there's food poisoning to worry about. 

Instead, try filling up the cavity of your bird with fruits, vegetables and spices that will only add to the flavor and moisture content of your turkey (as well as your gravy) instead of sucking it away. You're not going to eat them, so you don't have to worry about the dead-bird-juice-factor so much. They're there specifically to lend flavor and moisture. That's it. Above are the things we used to stuff our bird. (Ignore the stuff in the bowl for now. We'll talk about that in a minute.) 

  • 1 medium-sized white onion (peeled)
  • 1 medium-sized Granny Smith apple (unpeeled)
  • 1 lemon (unpeeled)
  • 1 tangerine (unpeeled)
  • Several scallions
  • Several sprigs of fresh rosemary (from our garden)
  • A cinnamon stick (there's only one in the pic, but we actually wound up using two)
Cut the fruits and veggies into quarters. If the onion is small enough, you can probably get away with cutting it in half, but you can quarter that as well if you like. The scallions are probably good cut in half. Whatever size fits best into your individual bird is fine though. As for the cinnamon sticks, just shove 'em in there somewhere.

Now for the stuff in the bowl! It's a compound butter for inserting in between the turkey's skin and flesh for extra flavor and moisture. If you haven't experimented much with compound butters, you should really think about doing so. They're easy to make and really lend a special touch to your food... even for just spreading on rolls or bread. For this particular one, you will need:

  • 1 stick softened butter
  • Fresh chopped tarragon
  • Fresh chopped thyme
  • Fresh chopped basil
Add the herbs to the butter in whatever proportions you like. If you like more basil and less tarragon, make it that way. This isn't an exact science or anything. I'd say I probably used maybe a couple of generous tablespoons of each though. Mash it all together with a fork until it looks like it does in the picture where I have all the other garnishes shown.

If you don't feel like duplicating my exact ingredients, you can experiment with other herbs or spices as well. We just find that this combination of herbs suits poultry especially well -- especially tarragon. You can preheat your oven to 500 degrees while you do this, too. I know. It sounds high, but it will all make sense later. Just do it.

Rinse your turkey off a little bit in the sink first and get it in the pan. Then start stuffing. Don't worry if it doesn't all fit exactly into the cavity. Just stick it in between the turkey's legs like we did. Then gently insert your fingers in between the skin and flesh of the breast to separate it a little bit. Don't pull it off or anything... just separate gently. Then start inserting bits of the compound butter in between until it's all in there. 

Next, take a couple of teaspoons of olive oil and rub it all over the outside of the turkey. If you want to, you can finish up by sprinkling extra seasoning on the outside. We used regular recipe Mrs. Dash. When you're done, it should look a lot like the picture! See the butter under the skin of the breast?

Put your turkey into your 500 degree preheated oven on the lowest shelf and let it roast for 30 minutes. No foil or anything over the top yet. That will come later. After the 30 minutes, lower your temp to 350 degrees and make a nice tin foil tent to place over your turkey and protect it throughout the rest of the cooking process. Don't wrap it tightly or anything. Just make sure it covers your entire roasting pan tent-style and holds in all the moisture. 

Every hour and a half or so, take your turkey out and baste it with all those awesome juices that will accumulate in the bottom of your pan to keep it moist. Keep an eye on your turkey, too. Every oven is different, as is every turkey. However, you can probably count on about 4 - 4 1/2 hours of total cooking time. Just avoid opening the oven any more often than you really need to so that you don't let all your heat out. It takes it a while to build back up again and extends your cooking time. 

Your turkey is done when you insert a meat thermometer into the deepest part of the turkey and get a reading of 160-165 degrees. We prefer to insert the thermometer a couple of different places -- into the deep part of the thigh, as well as into the thickest part of the breast. Try not to let the thermometer touch bone when you're doing this. Flesh only! If you like crispier turkey, you can remove your tin foil altogether for the last 20 minutes or so of cooking. That's what we did. Once you take your turkey out, don't slice it right away. Let it rest and settle for 40 minutes or so while you finish up the rest of your cooking. It will stay warm. Just keep it covered with the foil. 

There is our turkey all carved up and ready to eat. You can also see the gravy we made with the drippings, as well as our stuffing. We simply made our stuffing separately in a pot and them transferred it to a baking dish later on to get a nice, crispy top on it in the oven later while the turkey was resting. It was tasty and fluffy instead of soggy, just the way we like it.

Here are some of our other sides. We elected to grill our potatoes and vegetables outside since we live in California and get to take advantage of year-round grilling weather. The bowl in the upper left hand corner is a medley of grilled yams, yellow potatoes, and purple potatoes garnished with a little chopped parsley. The other large bowl is a collection of grilled vegetables -- yellow squash, zucchini, sweet onions, and portobello mushrooms. There was also some grilled white corn on the cob and some asparagus on another plate. There were San Francisco sourdough rolls served with another compound butter (homemade garlic-herb butter) as well!

We decided to Sandra Lee the crap out of our cranberry sauce. It's the chunky kind you get in the can, but we added some mandarin orange, as well as some fresh mint we had leftover from making falafels earlier in the week. You need to try that at least once!! The mandarin oranges went really well with the tangerine note that was present in the gravy and turkey meat. As for the mint, it really made that sauce. I expected it to be good, but I didn't expect it to turn out to be a stroke of genius or anything like that. Well, it was... and you owe it to yourself to try it sometime.

And that was our Thanksgiving! Everything was perfectly delicious and I honestly can't wait to dig into the leftovers. In fact, I think I am going to get on that right now. What are your favorite turkey cooking techniques? Do you have any tips of your own that you swear by?
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