Thanksgiving Files: Perfect Turkey

Test Turkey1

Reposted from 2011 Thanksgiving:

Okay, let’s jump into the cooking a turkey debate.  And acknowledge that a perfect turkey is in the eye of the beholder…or cook.

Last year I had my very first deep fried turkey – I know, late to the party as usual – and I really enjoyed it.  But considering deep frying of any kind terrifies me, you will not see me attempting that anytime soon.  There’s a reason only JeffreyW has deep frying recipes on the blog.  I will, however, enjoy the labors of anyone who wants to deep fry one for me (I’m looking at you little brother).

Traditionalists seem to like to roast their turkeys, basting and slaving over a hot oven for the perfect bird.  I’m not a traditionalist by any means.  Have I mentioned I’m lazy?  Yes, I do believe I have.

There is nothing wrong with this and for expert cooks, the perfect bird is attainable.  But for the rest of us mortals, traditional roasting can be a challenge.  It’s too easy to over cook or under cook, leaving your white meat dry or your dark sections pink and unsafe – sometimes in the same bird.   But in case you want to roast, here are step by step instructions:

World’s Simplest Roast Turkey

And here’s everyone’s favorite Alton Brown with a video demonstration:

Alton Roasts a Turkey

Next up are the briners.  I have to tell you I do not understand brining a turkey.  I’ve had brined turkey, it’s not my favorite.  But if you have a desire to brine, here’s our trusty Alton again (seeing a theme here?):

Alton Brine’s a Turkey

One thing you’ll see in all these examples is no one stuffs a turkey with stuffing.  In my humble opinion this is the easiest way to dry out your bird or accidentally poison your guests.  Stuffing needs to reach a temperature of at least 165 degrees to be fully cooked, at this point your bird will be completely dried out.  If you are looking for stuffing that tastes like it has been cooked inside the bird, do what my friend Alton does (no not that Alton), he buys and cooks turkey thighs and legs in chicken broth (or you can use the neck and giblets) and then uses that broth to season both his stuffing and gravy.  And both are wonderful.  Cook the stuffing in a casserole dish, covered for really moist stuffing.  If you like a crunchy top, take the lid off once the stuffing is warmed through and bake until golden brown on top.

So what do you do with that big cavernous space in your turkey if you’re not going to stuff it?  Fill it with flavor.  I use a spice infuser or a spice bag and fill it with all kinds of wonderful spices, depending on my mood.  I’ve also added a whole onion or citrus fruits (all should be disposed of after cooking), to infuse the bird with intense flavor.  Citrus bird is one of my favorites after the traditional rosemary-garlic-sage spices.

This recipe for a citrus bird sounds wonderful and I may try it this year (yes, I do cook a turkey even if I’m having Thanksgiving elsewhere – how else are we going to have leftovers?):

Perfect Citrus Turkey

So how do I cook my bird?  After many mishaps, I’ve decided that the easiest and most foolproof way is to use a cooking bag.  I usually roast at a higher temperature than on the instructions (375 instead of the 325 they recommend) and the last 15 minutes or so, I open the bag, pull it back and let the skin brown nicely.

Whatever spices I decide to use in the infuser I also mix with butter and put under the skin of the bird at the breast and thighs.  I then coat the bird in olive oil and spices to get a nice browned texture.  This gives me a perfectly flavored bird that I don’t ever have to worry about, so I can then concentrate on all the sides.  It’s never failed me.

So if you are a novice, or even a seasoned cook, but don’t want to take any chances on  disappointing your guests, I say go with a roasting bag.

Are you cooking the turkey this year?  How are you preparing yours?  Want to share a favorite recipe?  Nervous about pleasing a house-full of hungry company?

I may have a few more sides to share or we’ll head straight into desserts.  Until then…

7 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Files: Perfect Turkey

  1. Hi. I’m Kirk and I’m a briner. (grin).

    More seriously, I either brine or salt dome the turkey, depending on whether I’m going to eat the skin. I’m not as fond of Alton’s brining though I understand the reasoning. Instead I use a basic 12% brine for between half an hour and an hour per pound. I put seasonings under the skin, oil the skin, and cook. Oh – I do use his temperature and foil trick. I’ve found they do the best to my taste. Again, assuming I want the skin.

    That said, my family isn’t all that fond of the skin. As a result I can salt dome it. Use a couple of pounds of salt and flour and enough water to make a stiff dough. Roll it out to about half an inch thick. Wash and dry the turkey, put aromatics in the cavity, and then wrap it in the dough. (If you’re using a probe thermometer put it in and wrap around it, too.) Bake in a medium oven till the white meat is 160. Pull it out and let it rest 20 to 30 minutes — the temp will climb between 5 and 10 degrees during rest. Break the dome, toss the pieces and the skin (which will mostly stick to the dome), slice and serve.

    If you’re using an instant read thermometer on the salt dome, reserve some of the dough/clay. Punch through, check the temp, patch the hole with reserved clay. Time for an 8 pounder is around an hour and a half.

    Final and most significant point – the biggest thing I’ve found that makes or breaks turkey being good regardless of method is temperature control. I learned the pierce for juices trick when I was young, but the thermometer is much easier. Regardless, temperature control (and sloppiness thereof) is the reason brining is so popular. It tends to keep the meat closer to moist even when the bird is overcooked.


  2. Hee-hee, I knew this was going to be fun. Thanks for the tips Kirk. Always good to hear from you. I hadn’t even thought of salt domes – though I’ll admit I’ve never done it on anything but fish.


  3. just fish?

    OK, take any meat you roast and, once, try it with a salt dome. It think it’s my preferred way to do a prime rib, and it’s my second favorite pork tenderloin method.

    Oddly, not as good for goose or duck. I think it’s for the same reason salmon doesn’t do as well – the oils of the meat don’t work well. Not to say it doesn’t work, just not as well.


  4. So when you use it with something like prime rib, can you still have your meat med-rare? I’m tempted to try it, but I’m a rare to medium-rare kind of girl.


  5. Yes. It’s a matter of temperature. Cook to 5-10 degrees short of “done”, remove, let rest for about 20 minutes, serve.

    Rare’s about 120F, medium rare about 130F. So use a sensor thermometer if you have it and set it for 105F. Leave it in while resting and you can use that to tell when it’s “done” resting.

    Timewise it cooks about 10% faster in a salt dome due to the trapped heat.


  6. So it’s a repost, I’m gonna re-comment, except different. For a number of reasons the crowds we expected could not come. Since none of the handful left are skin lovers I decided to try something a bit different. I braised the turkey. Turkey in the deep roasting pan, an inch and a half of liquid, a good tight lid, and a few hours in the overn at medium low temperature. Since this was a test AND I’m in a house with dietary restrictions the liquid was just water and there were no – zero – spices of any kind.

    Turns out that except where the liquid climbs the sides the skin still gets deliciously crisp. And braising is becoming my go-to cooking method because it’s tolerant of timing ‘errors’. Even so the result was a moist and delicious turkey with wonderful broth, since the slight overcooking means the cartilage and such broke down a bit and lubricated the meat.


    • I bought a fresh, local turkey this year. Last year I took a risk and actually roasted my bird and it turned out ok. But because this was a fresh bird and I’d been warned they can dry out easily (no added liquids) I bagged it again with minimal spices (just a little olive oil infused with spices under the skin and a bit in the cavity. Turned out great. Amazing how good turkey tastes when fresh.


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