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More Effort Doesn't = A Better Bird

November 21, 2017

T- day is coming up and if you are in charge of the big bird, you may be feeling a bit of anxiety.  Over the years, I have tried lots of different methods for producing a perfect turkey.  Somethings are worth doing, but a lot of things aren't.  Here are a some tips for producing a perfect bird with less stress. 

 

NOT WORTH DOING

  • Stuffing Your Turkey:  Here's four reasons why. 

1.  The turkey will cook more evenly if it's not stuffed.  

2.  Often getting the stuffing to a safe temperature, means overcooking the bird; so potentially you have an overcooked bird, or stuffing that may harbor bacteria not all that friendly to your post Thanksgiving life.  

3.  There's not a lot of room to make sufficient stuffing in the cavity of your bird and you may end up having to make an extra dish of it anyway.  Save yourself the hassle and do it all in one dish.

4.  Frankly, stuffing pulled out of a bird is just not all that visually appealing.  Dressing cooked in a pretty dish is much better in my opinion.      

 

  • Rinsing:  You will not kill any bacteria by rinsing your bird, but you will spread bacteria all over your sink.  It's better to rely on the heat of the oven to kill bacteria and save yourself the fuss of wrestling a big bird under running water.  

  • Trussing:  It's just not worth the effort and more importantly, it prevents air from circulating around the legs.  The legs take longer to cook than the breast and this just exacerbates the problem.  Go ahead and tuck the wings behind the turkey so they don't get over cooked and forget any about trussing and fussing.   

  • Wet Brine:  Forget the wet brine.  It just makes a mess and spreads germs everywhere!  

  • A big bird:  Bigger is not necessarily better.  A big bird = a dry breast.  Not to mention that it is a workout to wrestle a 20 pound bird.  If you desire a moist and flavorful bird, but have a large crowd to feed, it's better to purchase two smaller turkeys.  If you don't have the oven space, cook a small turkey, breast or parts in a slow cooker.    

  • Basting:  Every time you open the oven to baste your turkey, you lose heat.  This lengthens the cooking time.  Plus, who wants to babysit a turkey with everything else that has to be done?  Beyond that, is a tip most people are unaware of.  Personally, I think the best time to "baste" your turkey to get the most bang from your effort is after it when it comes out of the oven, as well as just after it has been carved and placed on a platter.  The warm turkey slices absorb the pan drippings or warm broth, producing wonderfully moist and flavorful meat.  In addition, not overcooking your turkey is much more important to producing a moist turkey than basting. 

WORTH DOING

  • Thaw completely:   An 8 lb. bird will take approximately 2 days in the fridge to thaw, 12 pounds = 3 days.  I wouldn't recommend a bird beyond that size unless you like dry and flavorless meat.  That being said, all is not lost if you have reached turkey roasting time and your bird is not completely thawed, estimate 50% longer cooking time for a frozen turkey and 25% longer for a partially frozen one.  Cooking a turkey that is not fully thawed is not recommended, as it will not cook evenly and it is difficult to season it well, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Using a thermometer will be even more important.  Check the temperature in several places including close to the bone as it may all be beautifully cooked except for meat that is last to thaw and close to the bone 

  • Dry:  I like to remove the turkey from it's package over a plastic trash bag lined trash can.  The excess juice is drained right into the trash can along with the discarded wrapper (make note of the turkey weight before discarding) instead of spreading germs in my sink.  I then place the turkey on a paper towel lined roasting pan.  I remove the giblets and neck to a pan to make broth for gravy while the turkey is cooking, or I store in a container in the fridge or freezer to make broth along with the carcass.  Dry one side of the turkey and flip it over and dry the other side.  Repeat as necessary. Place turkey on a roasting rack in pan to allow air to circulate around the turkey.  It's important to dry the turkey and let the moistness on skin continue to evaporate over the next hour as it comes to room temperature. This produces skin that has a better texture.  

  • Seasoning:  Spread seasoning on and under skin and allow to rest before roasting.  This will allow the skin to dry out resulting in better textured skin.  See RealTaste Seasoning for some yummy options for seasoning your turkey this year.  Hope, Amore and Nurture are all excellent options.   

  • Let come to room temperature:  For even cooking, it's important to allow the turkey come to room temperature before roasting.  I recommend about an hour on the counter.  It will still feel cold to the touch, but sitting at room temperature for longer than an hour is not necessary, or recommended.   

  • Temperature:  Too low of heat can actually act as a dehydrator in the dry heat of an oven.  I use to crank up the heat and then turn it down for more crispy skin, but I have more recently just kept it simple.  It takes the guess work out of the temperature adjustment.  Heat oven to 350 and cook for 15-20 minutes per pound.  Check turkey when it has cooked for 15 minutes per pound, then roast longer if necessary.  

  • Add liquid to the bottom of roasting pan:  This counteracts the dry environment of the oven and keeps the drippings from burning.  It can be water, broth or a mixture.  I like to add 4 cups of liquid, but this will depend on your pan size and roasting rack.  You don't want the bottom of the turkey to poach in water.   If you don't have a roasting pan with a rack, prop your turkey up on onion halves and carrots.  

  • Cover Breast:  As soon as the breast is nicely brown, cover the breast loosely with parchment paper or foil.  This protects the breast from over-cooking.   

  • Let Rest:  Cover turkey and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving, to allow the juices to re-absorb.  

  • Keep Safe:  Refrigerate turkey left-overs after dinner, don't leave them on the counter until you are hungry enough to make a turkey sandwich.  No one wants to get sick from T-Day dinner.  On that note, make sure to keep sink, counter, cutting boards, and knives sanitized. 

 MORE TIPS

 

  • We all want a beautiful, picture perfect turkey, but the reality is, few people bring the turkey to the table and carve it like in the Norman Rockwell painting.  Who would want to sit around witnessing the carving of a turkey?  It's not exactly a visually appealing ordeal, not to mention a little logistically awkward for a crowd.    

  • Don't worry so much about having perfectly crisp skin.  By the time the turkey rests, gets carved, and sits on a plater, perfectly crisp skin is a bit of an improbability.  The most important thing for crisp skin is to dry your turkey, as covered above.  The mere sliver of skin, if any, adorning your turkey slice will be delicious:  stop stressing.    

  • Spooning pan drippings, or broth over warm sliced turkey is one of the best ways to ensure moist turkey meat.  Do I need to repeat this?!  Because this might just be one of the best tips on this page!  I also like to spoon drippings over the whole turkey when I remove it from the oven, before resting and carving.  While this might affect the crispness of the skin, I prefer juicy meat to crispy skin.    

  • When you buy your bird, pick up a back/wings etc, and make some broth earlier in the week.

  • Use this broth and the fat from the broth to make gravy a day or two before.  Who wants to fuss with making gravy after the turkey is done?  This gravy will be just as delicious with a lot less stress.  Save the drippings and carcass from your turkey to make delicious stock (bone broth.)   

  • Reserve the neck and giblets to make broth along with the carcass.  If you won't get to it right away, throw the giblets and neck in the freezer, as they go south really quickly.  

  • Place any of the following around the turkey, instead of in the cavity to impart flavor the drippings:  lemon, onion, herbs, garlic, apple.

 COOKING TIME

 

  • My basic roasting guideline for a whole chicken or turkey is 15-20 minutes per pound at 350 degrees.

  • Organic, heritage turkeys can cook faster.

  • Brined turkeys cook faster.

  • Fresh turkeys cook faster than frozen-de-thawed turkeys.  

  • Altitude also affects cooking time.  I cook at an altitude of about 4,775 above sea level, so adjust your cooking time accordingly.  Higher altitude will cook a bit slower and lower will cook a bit faster.    

  • Ovens vary as well, some cook hotter than others.

  • Avoid opening your oven as the temperature drops each time and affects your cooking time.  Remove the turkey, shut the oven door and check your turkey when it has been in for 15 minutes per pound at 350 degrees.  If you don't have a thermometer, cut into the thickest part of the breast and thigh to make sure it's not pink and juices run clear.  Return to the oven and cook a bit longer, if necessary.        

  • Temperature, not time, is your best gage as to when the turkey is done, so thermometers can be helpful, but not necessary.  Again, you can cut into it like described above.  See below for some thermometer tips.  

 

Thermometers  

  • The magic number for Turkey is 160.  This is the minimum temperature at which nasty pathogens are killed.  The temperature will continue to rise a bit initially as it rests.  

  • Plastic pop-up thermometers are inaccurate.  A better option is an instant-read thermometer, or an in-oven thermometer.  Check the temperature in the thickest part of the breast and thigh with an instant read thermometer like this one, or this one.  In addition, I would recommend taking another one close to the bone in a couple places. The breast will be done first and the thigh will take longer. Taking the turkey in and out of the oven to check the temperature can be a hassle, not to mention losing heat, adding to your cook time.  

  • Here's a couple good options for an in-oven thermometer here and here.  See this video and this article to make sure you get either your in-oven probe, and/or instant read thermometer in the right place. An in-oven thermometer should be placed in the thigh, as it will require the longest cooking time.

  • Using an in-oven thermometer; as well as an instant thermometer to double check the temperature is can be helpful, as occasionally thermometers can be off, or the thermometer can be inserted incorrectly.  Personally, even though I have both, I usually just cut into it to make sure it's done.      

Happy Turkey Roasting and Thanksgiving to All!

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