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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Just put the f*ing turkey in the oven!"

Get in my belly!!
Ok, so that title is a reference to this hilarious video...

While it's hilarious, I can confirm that she is absolutely wrong. Most people dread turkey because they think it's dry, tasteless, bland and either under or overcooked. I'm here to tell you as a cook who's had a dozen fantastic turkeys in as many years (minus 1), there is an easy way to make sure your bird is the hit of the party.

How do you know if your turkey is delicious? Because people will eat it without gravy or cranberry sauce since it is delicious on its own. They're excited about having it as leftovers and are genuinely disappointed when it's all gone. For this reason, I always cook at least a 23 lb turkey because if I don't, there's never enough left over for the next day or to make turkey and dumplings the day after.

There's about a thousand different crazy theories on how to cook a turkey. Stand the turkey on end. Hang it from a noose. Stuff a beer can up its rump. Roast it in a trash bag. Baste it with the blood of the undead. Spritz it with Holy Water and goat urine. Hold a voodoo ritual. According to Abe Lincoln not everything on the internet is true. I'm beginning to believe him. Seriously though, all of them are far too involved and complex to be realistic, especially on Thanksgiving day with everything else you have to prepare.

Here's what you need to get turkey that's not only roasted beautiful brown but is so delicious that people will sneak in the refrigerator to pick at the leftovers... if there are any. :)

  • Fresh natural turkey: Always order a fresh (never frozen) natural turkey. You can get this from any grocery store or butcher. Freezing the turkey makes the texture much tougher. Also, avoid "free-range" turkey. It's going to have much tougher meat because it's been running around exercising his whole life. The reason you want to get a "natural" turkey is you don't want one that's been injected with saline. First of all, you have no idea what all preservatives was in it. Second of all, if it's already full of salt your brining will be much less effective. And third of all, if it's full of saline you're paying for a lot of extra weight that isn't meat. I ordered mine from Publix grocery store in Orlando this year and it the cost for the fresh natural turkey was $1.99 a lb (vs $1.89 a lb for the frozen Butterball turkey that was injected with saline.) Ten cents a pound at 22 lb turkey is a $2.20 difference in cost for the entire turkey. Also, keep in mind that since the Butterball turkey was saline injected, at least $1.10 of that difference was water weight. :) As for an organic turkey, well - that's a personal preference. I don't find there's any taste difference but an organic turkey will denitely cost a lot more. Just make sure it isn't free-range!
  • Thawing: So, let's just pretend you're not ignoring my advice about the frozen turkey. Or your boss gave you a turkey instead of a holiday bonus because he's a total A-hole. Or you won it at a raffle. So, here we are. No reason to waste a turkey. It must be completely thawed before brining and roasting. There's no way around it. The FDA says you can leave it in your refrigerator to thaw depending on the size of the turkey it will take anywhere from 1 to 4 days. I keep my fridge pretty cold and back when I was using frozen turkeys found that very rarely if ever did the turkey thaw out in time for using it. The safest (and quickest) way to brine a turkey is to disinfect your sink really well (including the drain stopper), add the turkey and fill with cold water. As the water becomes extremely cold about every half hour, drain and refill. You can safely thaw an entire turkey in about 3 to 4 hours this way.
  • Brine: Brine, brine brine your turkey. I cannot repeat this enough. It is a ridiculously simple process and is absolutely critical to getting a perfect delicious turkey. This one step increases your odds of turkey stardom by at least triple. A couple of key points for brining:
    • Container: I just buy a new 5 gallon bucket and lid ($2.99?) from my local hardware store. They're food safe (it's the same thing pickles, etc are stored in.) You can clean it out with dish soap and bleach and rinse really well. You'll have no problems with it. Normally, I would just add the turkey and brine to the bucket then fill to the top with ice. This year, Bed Bath and Beyond had "brining bags" for $4.99. I placed the bag in the bucket as you would a trash bag, put in the turkey, added my cold brine, sealed the bag then poured ice on top and covered with the bucket lid.The bag was definitely convenient to work with. If using the bag, reduce the salt by half since there won't be melted ice dilluting the brine. I usually throw the bucket away after use just because I don't feel like fussing with cleaning it afterwards.
    • Solution: You need about 2 gallons of water and 2 cups of kosher salt. You should always use kosher salt because table salt has iodine and some other additives that at this quantity will give your bird a metallic taste. Some recipes say that you can boil only 2 cups of water with the salt then mix with cold water. I'm here to tell you that is totally ineffective. I'd question somebody's knowledge of 6th grade chemistry if they think they can dissolve 2 cups of salt in 2 cups of water. :) Even if you got most of it to dissolve, you really want the salt to be evenly distributed through the water. If it's partially sitting at the bottom, I promise that one side of your turkey will be extremely salty while the other side is bland and dry. Additionally, this is your chance to really kick up the flavor by adding herbs and a bit of sweetness to promote browning. For the brine to be effective, you need to boil a full 2 gallon stock pot full of water with 2 cups of salt, 1/4 cup of sugar (or honey or maple syrup), and some herbs. Whatever herbs you want. Usually, going with the herbs you're putting in the stuffing is a good idea. Dry or fresh really doesn't matter. If using dry, I'd put it about 5 tablespoons. Also very tastey is to add the zest of one or two oranges (just make sure to not get any of the white pith in it.) Let it boil until the salt is dissolved, turn off, let cool on stove until room temperature, then put in fridge to chill. I do this 2 days before Thanksgiving, then put the turkey in it the next day right about 24 hours before I'm planning to roast it.
    • Safety: Make sure to keep the brining turkey cold. If you have an extra refrigerator or room in a fridge, you're golden. Or if you live where it's cold. But whatever the case, make sure to have ice in it. As long as there's some unmelted ice in it, the temperature is food safe.
  • Oven: Clean your oven several days before you plan to cook the turkey. If your oven has the self cleaning feature, hallelujah! That's a huge score. Make sure to remove the racks before using and always clean up any larger spills to avoid excess smoke. Don't forget to do this ahead of time, otherwise your guests will think you're trying to smoke a turkey. And believe me, the smoke *will* be quite unsavory in the final product. Remember the "minus 1"? Yes... the year I forgot to clean the oven beforehand - that was the "minus 1". :) If you don't have a self cleaning oven, don't fret. The regular oven cleaners like "EZ Off" work great. Just follow the instructions.
  • Oil or butter?: Ah... the age old question. Do I rub oil or butter on the skin? Well... butter is delicious, no doubt. It's the food of life. But it's full of water and you'll end up with an incredible uneven ugly spotted turkey. Use plain vegetable oil. You'll need very little, evenly coat the outside of the turkey. Rub it on with your hands, don't be afraid. Just a little. Don't douse it like one of the Kardashians, you're just trying to help it evenly brown, not turn into a classless skank that represents everything wrong with society today.
  • Stuff it up your...: To stuff or not to stuff, that is the question. The answer? Do not stuff. It causes the cooking time to take much longer which results in dry turkey and it's also a huge risk of food poisoning. Plus - seriously - have you ever been able to stuff a turkey with enough stuffing that everyone got some? It's must better to stuff an onion, apple, herbs, whatever in there just to add some extra moisture.
  • Temperature: I don't care what anybody tells you, low and slow will dry your turkey out. If you want turkey jerky, go for it. "Low and slow" also increases the amount of time your turkey will be hovering in the food poisoning temperature range. You know what does not go well with a house packed full of people? Food poisoning. Start your turkey out at 500F degrees for 15 minutes, rotate it and roast for another 15 minutes, then stick a thermometer in it, reduce to 350F and leave the darned thing alone! No peeking in the oven to baste it, that lets out moisture and will dry it out. Just walk. away. When it's done, the thermometer will tell you. You brined it, right? Then it will be perfect. It should take somewhere between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 hours. It's hard to say exactly because it depends on the starting temperature of the meat and size of the bird. Don't worry though, the turkey will be extremely hot after sitting covered an hour on the counter. So I plan to put my sides in right after the turkey comes out, not before.
  • Thermometer: Can I use the pop-up thermometer? No, Virginia, you cannot. You must use an accurate thermometer. They're available at the grocery store for just a few dollars. Or, you can get one of those super fancy ones that has a long cord to a reader that magnetically sticks to the outside of the oven. Either way, those pop-up things are extremely inaccurate. 5 degrees one direction means your turkey is drier than Miley Cyrus's soul. 5 degrees in the other direction means your entire dinner party will spend the rest of their holiday fighting for a spot in the bathroom. Just. Say. No! By the way, the way to accurately insert the thermometer is to stick long ways through the breast until almost all the way inserted.
  • Covered vs uncovered vs "roasting" bag: For heaven's sake, if you're going to cook the turkey covered or in a bag, you might as well just boil the darned thing. Please don't do this, the bird will be perfectly delicious, juicy and have that signature roasted turkey flavor if you follow these instructions. Putting it in a bag or covering it is the best way to make sure your turkey tastes like it came from a can. *gagging*
Ok... so now that you've read the tips, here's 411.

Juicey Roasted Turkey

  • A new 5-gallon container from a hardware store, disinfected and rinsed well (see Tips above)
  • A turkey brining bag (optional - available at places like Bed Bath and Beyond for about $4.99)
  • A stock pot large enough to hold 2 gallons of water (you'll need to make a spot in your fridge to hold this stock pot overnight, unless you live somewhere that's really cold outside)
  • A pan and rack large enough to hold turkey (a lid is not necessary)
  • 1 fresh natural turkey (not frozen, not free range and not injected with saline)
  • 2 cups kosher salt (reduce salt to 1 cup if you're using a brining bag because the melted ice won't dillute it)
  • 1/4 cup sugar (or maple syrup or honey)
  • 2 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 5 tbsp dried herbs (a mix of whatever you're putting in the stuffing)
  • zest of 1 orange (optional)
  • 1 apple
  • 1 onion
  • fresh herbs (optional)

Tuesday (2 days before Thanksgiving):
  1. Add all ingredients except the turkey to the 2 gallon stock pot and fill with water.
  2. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes.
  3. Let cool completely to room temperature and put in the refrigerator to chill overnight. (If you forget to do this two days before, you can sit this in a sink of cold water to cool it quickly. Keep adding ice to the sink or changing the water when it warms up until the brine is cold.
    Smells like the holidays!
Wednesday (the day before Thanksgiving):
  1. Line the bucket with the brining bag if using.
  2. Remove the giblets and gizzards from the turkey. Usually, there's two bags, one stuffed into the neck end and one up the rump. You can save these for something else or throw them away. (I'm not a fan of giblet gravy).
  3. Add the turkey, breasts down.
    Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!
  4. Pour the cold brine into the bag (if using) or bucket (if not using the bag). (If you use warm brine, you risk food poisoning. Don't do it!)
    This must be how Kim Kardashian feels!
  5. Seal the bag if using.
    Unfortunately, this is a turkey and not one of the Kardashians. But practice makes perfect!
  6. Fill the bucket with ice to the top.
  7. Put the lid on the bucket tightly.
  8. Store the bucket where it is about 33 to 38 degrees. If you're in a cold climate, this could be on your back porch or in your garage. If you have room in your fridge, that's perfect. If you live in a warm climate like I do in Florida, you can pray for a cold night and then just keep making sure to keep some unmelted ice in it.
Thursday (Thanksgiving Day): The turkey will take between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours to cook, but will need to sit on the counter to settle for at least 30 minutes. It will be extremely hot even after sitting on the counter for an hour, so I usually start this process about 3 hours before we'd like to begin eating.
  1. Preheat the oven 500F (hopefully you cleaned the oven the day before as mentioned in tips. Otherwise, you're in for a surprise!)
  2. Cut the onion and apple in half and place in a bowl with some water. Steam in the microwave for about 3 minutes.
  3. Clean and disinfect the kitchen sink.
  4. Remove the turkey from the brine and place in the sink.
  5. Rinse the turkey inside and out well. This is important as the salt on the outside of the turkey will drip off and make the drippings too salty for making gravy! (If it has one of those ridiculous pop-up thermometers, leave it in even though we will be ignoring it. Otherwise, you'll have a gaping hole where juices will run out.)
  6. Place in a roasting pan and stick the steamed apple, onion and fresh herbs (if using) inside it.
  7. Roast for 15 minutes at 500F.
  8. Rotate the pan 180 degrees and roast for another 15 minutes at 500F.
  9. Place a large piece of foil folded into a triangle on top of the breasts. This will slow their cooking time while allowing the legs to cook more.
  10. Stick a thermometer horizontally lengthwise through the breast (from head to booty) until almost completely inserted. If the temperature gauge is the kind that stays in the oven, make sure it is oriented where you can read it through the oven without opening it.
  11. If you have a convection oven, orient the turkey so that the feet are pointed to the fan if possible. That's where most of the heat will be and it will help them to cook faster than the breasts. If it isn't possible, rotate the turkey about an hour into cooking.
  12. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 and walk away.
  13. The rest of the time the turkey is roasting, do not open the oven to peak, do not pass go, do not collect $200! Just leave it alone.
  14. When the temperature reaches 161F, remove the turkey from the oven, cover completely with foil and bake your sides. The turkey should sit on the counter for between 30 minutes and 1 hour while the juices redistribute. You'll be surprised at just how hot it still is after an hour.
  15. Once everyone is impressed with how perfectly roasted your turkey looks, carve into pieces and let them be impressed with how tastey and delicious it is! The best video I've seen on how to carve a turkey is by our favorite felon, Martha Stewart. If you have an electric knife, it definitely makes the turkey carving process more beautiful because it doesn't tear any of the skin.
And for Heaven's sake, do not throw away the carcus! While someone else is cleaning up, pick as much meat off the turkey as you can get, hack the carcus into pieces that will fit into that 2 gallon stock pot. Throw in a tablespoon of kosher salt, a few carrots, a few sticks of rinsed celery and an onion cut in half and maybe some herbs if you have some leftover. Don't even bother to peel anything. Fill pot to about 2" from the top, then bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Remove solids and pour through a strainer. Use within a few days or pour into 1/2 cup muffin containers to freeze for future use. (I use mine the next day to make "chicken" and dumplings!) :)

One turkey coma, coming up!


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. Do you use any particular kind of orange?

  2. Hi Carly! Any variety of orange will work, but I like to use an organic orange for this since I'm using the skin and want to make sure there's no pesticide.