It’s been many years since the proverbial torch was passed on to me to host the Thanksgiving family dinner. Each year I get a shot at the big bird and an opportunity to perfect my skills at cooking the feathered beast. I’ve probably tried the same recipes everyone else has and I’ve had my share of successes and failures. These are some of the things I’ve learned and the things I always come back to year after year:
- It pays to procure the best bird you can afford. No matter where you live, there’s probably a turkey ranch or grocer that sells fresh, unadulterated, naturally grown turkeys.
- Brining your turkey has become trendy but not necessary if you have a good bird. Seasoning the turkey with salt and freshly ground pepper a day or two in advance (very important!) is simpler and will produce a tasty, succulent turkey. When you return the turkey to the fridge after seasoning, leave it uncovered. This will allow the skin to dry out which helps it to crisp while it’s cooking.
- Always take the turkey out of the refrigerator several hours before you plan to start cooking. This will drastically reduce the cooking time and produce a juicier bird. If you plan to stuff the turkey, do so just before it goes in the oven.
- I always season the cavity with salt and pepper and place a few sprigs of thyme in as well.
- Before the turkey goes in the oven, massage it with soft butter and, if you like, some chopped sage or thyme. To go one step further, separate the skin from the breast meat. Start near the neck and wishbone area using your fingers. Rub soft butter directly on flesh under the skin. If you like you can add a clove or two of pounded garlic, chopped herbs, etc.
- The greatest challenge in cooking turkey is to get the leg and thigh meat cooked enough before the breast becomes dry. I always turn the turkey breast side down during most of the cooking. Start with the breast side up for the first 30 minutes or so, then using washable oven mits, turn it breast side down. 20-30 minutes before it’s done, turn it breast side up and baste frequently to brown and crisp the skin.
- I start the cooking at 425 to get the juices flowing. After 30 minutes or so, I turn the oven down to 325. If your oven has a convection setting, use it. It helps crisp the skin.
- Most recipes suggest a cooking time between 12-15 minutes per lb. In my experience, it’s almost always less than this, especially if you’ve allowed your turkey to come to room temperature before it goes in the oven. Start checking well before the allotted time.
- Remember that the internal temperature will continue to rise after the turkey is removed from the oven. And the bigger the bird, the more carry over there’ll be. Plan on 10-15 degrees of carry over cooking.
- Letting the turkey rest before carving is essential. I’ve waited an hour or more before carving and have never had a problem with cold turkey.
- When making gravy, I always pour off most of the fat and add some flour to the roasting pan to make a roux. I add turkey stock that I’ve made from the neck and wing tips and, for added depth, I add some dried porcini mushroom liquid. To make this, place a few dried porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and add hot water to cover. Let soak for 20-30 minutes, then strain.
- I make gravy that’s on the thin side. That way I can sauce the carved turkey that I’ve plattered without it getting goopy or having a skin develop on the surface. I like to garnish the carved turkey with something just picked from the yard: branches from one of our Japanese maple trees, fresh herbs, a branch from the kumquat tree, oak leaves….