So, Thanksgiving is just two days away. And we have 6 inches of snow forecasted for Wednesday…which means any shopping or running around you planned to do that day is sure gonna be a bitch.
Suburban traffic and grocery lines are bad on a good day, but downright miserable on a holiday. I want to insert here that attitude is everything, just smile, be kind, make friends with the shopper next to you….but we all know that takes more time and energy than you will have on hand, so just paint on your best non-scroogey look you can muster and buck up.
So, you have your menu planned, your grocery list made, and your order for a fresh bird or prepared sides already in hand. You’ve read every trendy cooking magazine, you’ve gone online for recipes. Kudos!
I worked for many years in the food business, and recall well the number of folks who remember the most inane ingredients for their holiday meal, but rush into the market on Wednesday night looking for salt, cream and butter. I remember clearly one year when the Grocery Team Leader at Whole Foods Market, a friend of mine and a very smart gal, low-balled how much cream and canned whipped cream her department would sell on Wednesday, ran out of absolutely everything, and went hunting at Sam’s, Costco and every local grocery for a suitable product, just so her shelves wouldn’t be empty. That was bad. So say to yourself three times: the key to a successful Thanksgiving meal isn’t having the best recipe. The key is to be well-organized.
How to do this? The best way is to always go back to that first lesson in cookery: Mise En Place. Make your lists, check them twice, lay out every ingredient, dish, and utensil you might need, and then organize those things into the order you will need each. Have a sensical plan for what will flow in and out of the refrigerator and oven.
Mise en place
Mise en place is a French phrase which means “putting in place”, as in set up. It is used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift.
The fact is that every good (professional) chef I know is incredibly anal by nature. While this may not sound like a compliment, in fact, it is. (NOTE: I really shouldn’t refer to anuses, after all I tell #2 at least ten times a day not to put the words “butt” and “hole”, “face” or “head” together at ANY time and I am constantly telling #1 to not refer to people she doesn’t like as “poop heads” since this causes me to envision those running thistles in Tinker Bell as turds instead of thistles, and then of course the next step is to transpose the person’s face she is referring to over the Thistle’s and there you go…..
Professional chefs are a a bit puckered by nature. It’s OK. They have a little OCD going on, and it serves them well. I could learn a lot from them, and I do.
IN ANY CASE: Being organized and prepared is my first piece of advice.
Now: about that bird……
First, how much turkey should you buy? Whether you go with heirloom, fresh or frozen, you should cook between ½ and 1 pound of meat per person. A pound is a lot. But it provides for plenty of leftovers. When I used to advise people what to buy during my many years at Whole Foods, they would look at me like I was trying to up-sell. I wasn’t. That is what you need.
The turkey should be completely fresh, meaning unfrozen. Even so, try to buy it on Monday, or in tonight’s case, Tuesday, and start thawing it out in the fridge by Monday. “But I thought you said buy fresh”, you say. Yes I did. Grocery stores are required to keep the bird at a certain temperature. While technically it isn’t freezing or frozen, in fact most of the bird, unless it has been sitting out in the case for awhile, is pretty damn cold.
To Brine…or not
Many folks still go with what I politely call the mass-market turkey. It is comparatively cheaper, widely available, and injected with water, flavorings (and chemicals and additives) to keep it moist during cooking. Oh, and it also has that (somewhat useless) little pop-up timer. I REALLY don’t like that bird and I urge you to reconsider that purchase!!!
If you are buying a fresh, bare, nothing added bird, consider dry brining with salt (here is a great primer) or wet brining with concentrated chicken broth. A good 12-14 hour soak in a non-acidic liquid—never use cider–, salt and (any of thousands of completely optional) flavorings and spices will add tons of juiciness.
With wet-brining, there are three things to remember:
- the turkey needs to be completely covered in the brine and occasionally rotated.
- You’ve got to have a container (cooler, big bucket, garbage bag) big enough to hold the bird,and a fridge large enough to house them both,
- or in the case of the cooler plenty of ice, which could melt and disrupt your ratio of salt to water.
OK: actually, there are four things to consider: you don’t have to brine. I’ve made many a great turkey that wasn’t brined. Granted all were well-slathered with butter. But if you want a good bird, it is scientifically proven that you should brine. Here is a great primer on brining and also some good bringing recipes.
Set your (thawed) turkey out at least one hour before you plan to cook it. This way, it warms up a little for the big act, and it isn’t shell-shocked when it enters the hot oven. A hot oven will be a little surprise when a 36 degree bird is let in. So do them both a favor and let them warm up to each other.
Take a stick of pure butter out of the fridge. A compound butter is especially nice here, but not necessary.
OK, you have a big wet, possibly brined bird on your counter. The first thing you should do is…set your oven to 400°. Set our your roasting pan and V-rack and make sure no dead and dried up wolf crickets have taken up residency in it (What??? You don’t have wolf crickets in your basement? Well lucky you!)
Spray your roasting pan with non-stick spray so it is easier to clean later. Then wrap your v-rack with foil, piercing it all over with a knife tip so the juice can drip through. (Otherwise, what would be the point of the rack?)
Prepping Tom Turkey
Now you can move the turkey to a clean sink. Promptly un-truss the legs. I know! So many people say to truss the bird! This is so it will look pretty when it’s cooked. But when the drumsticks are tied, hot air can’t circulate through and around the bird to roast it evenly, so taste and presentation suffer. That yummy drumstick’s bit of meat and skin close to the breast doesn’t crisp up as nicely as do the sides facing the the hot pan, so one bit of the leg (that V where the leg meets the breast) ends up sort of flubbery and pale, while the other bit is brown and caramelized perfection.Bottom line: un-truss.
After you have freed Tom’s legs, you have to reach in to pull out the giblets and neck. Yum! You can save these for gravy or toss them. Turn the big guy up to drain him, rinse him very well inside and out. Pat him dry all over with paper towels. Wet, raw poultry skin doesn’t hold dry seasonings or rubs and doesn’t crackle up as well in the oven.
Now for the Butter
Once you’ve cleaned, prepped and dried the turkey, spread a couple of tablespoons of softened (compound) butter throughout the cavity. Below is a nice mix of FRESH herbs you can mix with unsalted, good quality (NOT MARGARINE) butter in your stand mixer to make a compound butter. I’ve included some other compound butter ideas at the end of this post. Use some on the bird, then the rest you can mold into a log, refrigerate, and put out for dinner. Just make sure you separate out what you want for dinner, because you will be spreading the butter on a raw bird, and folks that’s just gross and never the twain should meet.
Herb Butter Recipe
- 1 stick butter, softened
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 tbsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
- 1/2 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- 1/2 tbsp fresh sage
- 1/2 tsp fresh tarragon
- 2 tsp maple syrup or honey
- Pinch of sea salt
- Pinch of finely ground pepper
It’s nice to add some sprigs of fresh herbs to the cavity as well.
Now for the fun part!
Starting with the loose skin on the breast end of the bird–that flappy, yucky stuff all bunched up where the head used to be– use your fingers to carefully separate the skin from the meat, being careful not to tear it. Move your hand back as far as you can, gently walking your fingers as far down the legs possible, without ripping holes.
The bird is raw and slippery, I know. But you just have to make friends with it.
Take a nice scoop of butter in your hand, and ease your hand back under the skin. Yep, you’ve got to do this twice. Spread the butter into that nice space you made under the skin, all over the bird. This works best if you have small (clean) hands and short (clean) nails, but anyone can do it. You might have little lumps of butter under the skin when you are done. Smooth these out from the outside while you spread more of the butter all over the bird.
You can add mirepoix (and handful of two of carrots, celery and onion) to the cavity for some nice flavor. Then tuck the tips of the legs under the skin near the tail, and tuck the wingtips behind the back of the bird if you want a traditional look at the table (as opposed to a very yummy, however splay-legged bird). If not, simply wrap the wing tips and drumsticks with foil to prevent burning, and set him on the V-rack.
Roast the big guy on the lowest rack of your oven for 30 minutes. Then open the oven, quickly insert a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and reduce the oven temperature to 350°F. Roast until the thermometer registers 165°. How long this takes will depend on your bird. When he reaches temp and his outside is roasted to a perfect brown, take him out of the oven. Ooh and aah over your efforts, then cover him loosely with foil, and let him rest before his inevitable demise, at least 15 and preferably 20-30 minutes before carving.
A note on basting- opening the oven to baste your bird immediately lowers the temperature of your oven, and once gone, you can’t get it back. So keep basting to a minimum. Brining and buttering will remove the need to baste.
A note on stuffing in the bird- you shouldn’t do it, but you probably will, so invest in a good thermometer, calibrate your oven, and get that bird to temp!
Lastly, a note on that little pop-up thing. It is completely unreliable. Don’t count on it!
- GET A THERMOMETER
- CALIBRATE YOUR OVEN
- COOK TO TEMP (165°)!
World’s Simplest Compound Butter
Combine 2 tsp minced garlic and 1 TB minced fresh parsley with a hefty 1 TB salt and about 2 tsp. pepper. Mix these into 2 sticks softened unsalted butter (not margarine or shortening).
To keep the butter, mound it in the center of a 6 inch square of parchment paper, wax paper or plastic wrap. Fold one side of the square over, and mold the butter into a short log. Roll the paper up entirely, cinch the ends and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour. PS: These make a very nice hostess gift, with a warm baguette.
Combine 2 tsp minced garlic, 2 TB sea salt and 2 tsp cracked black pepper with 2-3 TB minced herbs, such as oregano and basil, sage and thyme, rosemary, sage and savory or cilantro and green onion. Add a little dash of flavor, such as tequila or vodka, lemon zest or juice, lime or orange juice, Dijon or Chinese mustard, maybe even chipotle chile, curry powder, or sciracha. A dash-meaning 2-3 tsp at most, less for the spicy things. Mix these ingredients into 2 sticks softened butter. Wrap, Roll, Refrigerate.
Spiced Butter from www.Gourmet.com
- ¼ tsp coriander seeds
- ¼ tsp cumin seeds
- ¼ tsp caraway seeds
- 5 TB unsalted butter, softened
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- ½ tsp dried red hot red-pepper flakes
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 tsp finely grated fresh lemon zest
- 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
Finely grind coriander, cumin, and caraway seeds in grinder, then transfer to a small bowl. Add butter, cilantro, red-pepper flakes, salt, zest, and lemon juice and stir until combined well. Mound butter in center of a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap. Using sheet as an aid, form into a 3 ½ -inch log. Chill, wrapped in wax paper, until firm, at least 1 hour.
Indian Compound Butter from Bon Appetit
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
Process all ingredients in a food processor until smooth.
DO AHEAD: Butter can be made 5 days ahead. Wrap tightly and chill, or freeze up to 1 month.
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