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Everything you wanted to know about turkey, but were afraid to ask.
‘Tis the season to brush up on turkey techniques—to discuss the merits of brining, wax poetic about the deconstructed turkey or the simplicity of an elegant stuffed breast, and lament the lack of small, family-sized fresh birds at the grocery store on Thanksgiving weekend. Most of us only roast a turkey once or twice a year, if that, and the pandemic has forced many who were never in charge of the Big Bird to roast theirs at home for the first time. If you’ve in need of a refresher, or could use a few tips beyond time and temperature, here are some thoughts.
When determining how big a turkey to buy, the general rule of thumb is about one pound per person. It may seem like a lot, but that’s the pre-cooked weight, including bone. If you’ve a fan of leftovers, round up—go big and go home.
To thaw a frozen turkey in the fridge, set it in a pan (to catch any drips) and allow five hours per pound (10 hours per kilogram). This isn’t an ideal method for larger birds—a 20-pound turkey could take four to five days. To thaw a larger turkey, or to do it more quickly, place it (still wrapped) in a sink or large container and cover it completely with water. Allow one hour per pound (two hours per kilogram).
The debate has raged for generations: do you pack stuffing into the turkey, or bake it alongside? You can do both, if your holiday table is chronically short of stuffing… or fill a roasting pan with stuffing and set a deconstructed or spatchcocked bird (see right) on top to roast. If you decide to stuff it, pack the cavity loosely right before you slide your turkey into the oven. If you bake it alongside, expect an unstuffed bird to cook more quickly.
And if you’ve nervous about ensuring the stuffing is sufficiently cooked, spoon it into an oven-safe baking dish, cover with foil to prevent it from drying out and return it to the oven while your turkey rests.
While some are ardent believers in a wet brine, it can be awkward and messy. A dry rub is simpler, and will infuse the meat with flavour long before it goes into the oven. Use your favourite herb or spice blend, plus salt if the blend doesn’t already contain it, and rub the mixture generously all over your turkey up to two days before you plan to roast it.
If the thought of a dry bird, or timing your turkey just right, stresses you out, you can cook a whole smaller turkey in a six-quart slow cooker. You won’t get crisp skin, and you’ll have to do your dressing in the oven, but It’s impossible to not wind up with incredibly moist, fall-apart meat. Bonus: the turkey mess is contained, there’s no pressure to carve it, and you’ll also wind up with some stock in the bottom of the slow cooker.
To do it, season your bird with salt, stuff it with a lemon half and a handful of fresh herbs (if you like), put it in your slow cooker with one cup water or stock, cover (if there are gaps, seal them with aluminum foil) and cook on low for six to eight hours.
Spatchcocking—or butterflying—your bird will reduce roasting time by about a third, and because partially deboning it and lying it flat will create a more even thickness, a spatchcocked turkey is easier to cook on the grill. Spatchcocking is something you can ask your butcher to do, or do yourself: place your bird breast-side-down on a cutting board and use heavy duty kitchen shears to cut along each side of the backbone—through the ribs—to remove it. (Save the backbone for stock.)
Flip the bird over and push down to break the breastbone so it lies flat. You can then roast it on a rimmed baking sheet, on the grill or on a bed of stuffing in a large, shallow roasting pan so that the stuffing absorbs the turkey juices, much like it would inside the cavity.
If it’s crispy skin you’ve after, make sure you pat your bird dry with some paper towel before rubbing it with oil, soft butter or other fat—moisture is the enemy of crispness.
Dark, rich gravy depends on good drippings—ensure a solid starting point by roasting the neck, and perhaps the wing tips and a few extra chicken wings, in a small pan or skillet alongside the turkey. If you wind up with lumps in your gravy despite aggressive whisking, don’t sweat it—put it through a sieve to make it perfectly smooth.
Most of us know to let our turkey rest for 15 minutes or so before carving it—just enough time to put the roasting pan over the burner and whisk up the gravy—but It’s not as commonly understood that you can actually let a roasted turkey rest for an hour or so. Tent it loosely with foil and it will hold onto its heat—an extra-long rest frees up even more time to roast a pan of veggies or bake another side, and eases up that last-minute crunch to get dinner on the table.
Originally published October 7, 2021