The great beast, the top of the food chain, and yes, the centerpiece of Thanksgiving: the turkey (what?). There’s a plethora of ways to prep the holiday bird out there, each with their own ups and downs that strike fear in the hearts of millions every year: you could smoke it, deep fry it, roast it, overcook it, and so on and so forth. As the host for Thanksgiving this year, I picked up a medium sized bird (~18 lbs) and opted to brine and roast it.
If you’ve never brined a turkey before or have never heard the term, the idea behind it is simple: before you sit the turkey in the oven for several hours of heat, you want some assurance that the end result will still be moist, flavorful meat, not just some cooked-to-cardboard turkey. The solution is to prepare a spiced, and more importantly, fairly salty solution which you’ll soak the turkey in overnight. By exposing the turkey meat to all of this, you have something of a high school chemistry experiment: the salt will try to establish an equilibrium, going from the highly salty water into the not salty turkey, and in the process (to really gloss over things), opens up a channel for your tasty brine to get all up in the turkey meat, trapping a lot of moisture and flavor inside–and you haven’t even done any cooking yet! All of the ingredients aside though, the most important ingredient is the salt or else none of your brine is going inside of your turkey.
Once brined overnight, I stuffed the turkey with an assortment of fruits, herbs, and vegetables to perfume and flavor the turkey while it roasts in the oven. It is also common to coat the skin of the turkey with butter or oil, but I had something better planned: to slather the outside of the turkey with duck fat to achieve the same oily effect while adding a really rich flavor to the turkey. Unfortunately, poor planning amounted to no duck fat, so I instead opted for a sage butter and slices of pancetta, as I was set on employing a flavorful animal fat where merely oil or butter should be. The end result: a tasty, juicy bird that made for a proud centerpiece at my Thanksgiving table.
- Whole Turkey (mine was 18 lbs)
- 1 quart vegetable broth
- 3/4 cup salt (if it weren’t for the pancetta, I would have used ~1 cup)
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup apple cider
- 10 cardamom pods
- 2 star anise
- small handful of whole cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 bay leaves
- ground nutmeg
- whole peppercorns of ground black pepper
- enough water to ensure the turkey is covered
- a container large enough to hold the turkey
- Not stuffing
- 2 celery stalks
- 1 carrot
- 1 apple
- 3 shallots
- 6 garlic cloves
- handful of sprigs of thyme
- handful of sprigs of rosemary
- Skin treatment
- 1 stick of unsalted butter
- a handful of sage leaves
- 1/4-1/2 lb sliced pancetta (duck or goose fat would be better!)
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup flour
- Turkey pan drippings (I used 3 baster squeezes worth–this is entirely to taste)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 3-4 cups broth (I used 2 cups chicken and 1 cup of mushroom broth–the water reserved from reconstituting dried mushrooms. Yum!)
- Ground black pepper (to taste)
So cooking the turkey takes some planning. First, get a turkey and ensure that it is defrosted if you bought one that was frozen (or partially frozen). I’ll assume that your turkey is defrosted by now (that was quick!).
So a day in advance of cooking the turkey, you want to prepare the brine. In a saucepan, combine all of the broth ingredients (short of the water) and get to a boil, mixing to get the salt dissolved and the flavors from the spices seeped into the liquid. Take off of the heat and let the mixture cool down (ensuring that it is not at all hot before it touches your turkey!). You can speed up the cool down by mixing in some ice water if you’re impatient.
You should take this opportunity to remove all of the packaging from the turkey as well as any brackets, braces, or whatever that might be holding the legs shut. Now, you want to place your turkey in whatever large container you have and then carefully pour in the brining mixture, adding enough water to ensure that the entire turkey is covered. If you have a large cooler and cold weather, you could brine the turkey outside or in a basement (adding ice to the water if you need to ensure that the turkey stays fairly cold, but not frozen). If you’re not so lucky, you could always use an unscented, sturdy garbage bag (or two, just to play it safe), being very careful to tie it tightly shut and supporting the sides (e.g. in a large bucket) so that it doesn’t spill over and make a royal mess of your kitchen. This isn’t hard–just awkward given the size of the turkey and the volume of liquid. Making enough room in the refrigerator is also a lot of fun so plan ahead for where you expect to put this awkward parcel.
Once you’ve managed to submerge the turkey in brine, let it sit and keep cold (as in refrigerator cold) for about 12 hours or so. Now, like the turkey, you too should rest.
So fast forward to tomorrow. Time to cook the turkey. Try to plan when you’d like to serve the turkey because you can’t rush cooking it in the oven and this can take a few hours. To get an idea, figure you’ll need an hour to let the turkey warm up and dry off a bit once removed from the brine, 15 minutes in the oven per pound of turkey (a crude estimate), and then 20 minutes of time sitting outside of the oven for the turkey to reabsorb its juices before you cut it and serve it. When you add all of that up, you could be looking at something like 5 hours, so try to plan accordingly before you throw the turkey in the oven as soon as you wake up or an hour before dinner.
So anyways, now that you have a rough idea when it comes to a schedule, take the turkey out of the brine and pat it dry. Let it sit and warm up a bit for about an hour. Towards the end of the hour, preheat the oven to 400?F and prepare all of the not-quite-stuffing ingredients by coarsely chopping the veggies. Remove the neck and giblets if they’re inside the turkey’s body cavity (which they probably are) and stuff all of the veggies and herbs in their place.
Now, with a piece of string, tie the legs tightly shut so as to keep all of those stuffed veggies and herbs inside of the turkey. All of this is going to help flavor the breast meat, drippings, and enhance the overall delicious aroma of your turkey. This isn’t really about making a stuffing, this is just about flavoring the turkey (and for what its worth, I never cook my stuffing inside of the turkey).
Its almost time to put the turkey in the oven, but we need to pay attention to the outside just like we did the inside. Make a small puncture in the skin in a discrete location (e.g. where the thigh meets the breast) and work your finger in under the skin, being careful not to cause any additional holes in the skin. Work your finger around, separating the skin from flesh as far as you can reach, giving you some wiggle room over the breast, drumsticks, and so on.
At this point, you want to try to squeeze as much of the (chopped) sage, butter, and pancetta (or duck/goose fat!) as you can into the skin punctures, massaging the turkey to try to spread it somewhat further in and under the skin then your finger might allow. You probably won’t manage to cover every square inch, so then just slather your leftover mixture on the outside of the skin.
So now, you’re finally ready to put the bird in the oven. Ensure you have a sturdy setup in the oven (e.g. roasting pan with a rack, large enough pan to catch all of the drippings, maybe a make-shift large tinfoil funnel to ensure no drippings miss the pan–I discovered that one about 45 minutes into things 😉 ) and carefully transfer the turkey to the oven, breast side down (this way, all of the drippings have to pass through the breast–the part you want to stay moist!).
After roasting at 400?F for 30 minutes, drop the oven temperature down to 350?F for the next 2 hours or so. Then, drop the temperature down to 225?F for the remaining time, amounting to about 1-1.5 hours. Given how every turkey and oven is different, a meat thermometer is probably a good idea and you should keep an eye on things about an hour before you expect the turkey to be done. Measure one or two different thick points on the turkey, such as the thighs, ensuring that the turkey reaches about 170?F inside, at which point, you should take it out of the oven. Cooking longer might give you peace of mind, but it will dry out your meat. During all of this, you can baste if you so desire, but you really don’t need to and you’re probably already busy enough, so save yourself the trouble.
Once you’ve removed the turkey from the oven, cover loosely with a foil tent, and let it sit for about 20 minutes. You don’t want to dive right in, or else you’ll cut the turkey and all of the juices will spill out. By letting it sit, the turkey will relax and reabsorb those juices, allowing you to get them on the plate rather than the cutting board. Also, if you used pancetta, remove any pieces you left on the outside of the turkey–they’re probably pretty dried out right now and won’t impress your guests. It has served its purpose nobly and you could use a little nibble by now.
Anyways, this down time gives you just the time you need to prepare the gravy (you weren’t going to use a jar or pouch, right?)! You can’t really prepare this in advance and you want to do it as close to meal time as possible. Luckily, this is really easy.
First, in a saucepan, prepare a roux. If you’ve never done a roux, this is a fancy name for something simple: cook some flour in butter. Yup, just get medium heat going, melt down some butter, and add in the flour, whisking together and allowing it to cook for about 4 minutes or so.
Once the roux has cooked, pour in some white wine for an uplifting flavor. Then pour in some broth (I used chicken broth and the water from reconstituting dried mushrooms for added, interesting flavor), whisking everything together well over medium heat. Finally, add small amounts of turkey drippings (mmm, flavored fat) into the gravy, whisking and tasting with each scoop until you think it tastes right. For me, this took about three or four basters worth of drippings. Keep whisking and add in some ground black pepper, lowering the heat to low until you’re just ready to serve. Pour into a gravy boat and present your turkey–its been a long day, but time to enjoy it!