I don’t do lists. They go against everything I believe about reading and writing. But in this case, I want to be helpful and cognizant of the schedule of my readers during this very busy week (and holiday season). So here we are and without further ado.
- Don’t make a turkey.They’re the least delicious and most difficult poultry to make. Instead, try your hand at duck (which is richer and pairs better with a more diverse selection of wine and beer), cornish hens (which are still mildly flavored, but much more juicy and may be served one to a guest, thus remedying the problem of allocating white versus dark meat) or just plain chicken (which, especially in its humanely treated, organic, cage free form, is the perfect poultry with the perfect balance of richness and volume of flavor). If you must go turkey for the sake of tradition or some such thing, try a heritage turkey, which are pre-industrialized farming breeds with a deeper character of flavor and are generally humanely treated, free range and naturally bread. Luckily, even if you choose to go with an industrially farmed, grocery store turkey, you can still benefit from all of the advice below.
- Brine your bird, don’t baste it.Brining meat is the process of soaking it in salt water to add moisture and season it deeply with salt (as opposed to just the surface) to best bring out the flavor. In general, you should brine between one and three days depending on the size of your bird in a solution of 60 parts filtered water to three parts kosher salt to one part white cane sugar, by weight. So, in one liter of filtered water, you should add 50 grams (about three tablespoons) of kosher salt and about 18 grams of sugar (1.5 tablespoons). If you do this, you can skip the basting. In fact, there is no evidence basting works at all to moisten the meat or crisp the skin. If you baste entirely with fat (such as rendered animal fat, vegetable oil or butter), you will get better crisping, but most use pan drippings for basting which only works to moisten and cool the skin, which slows browning and prevents crisping.
- Grease your bird.Coat your bird with a thin layer of lard mixed with a pinch of salt and pepper. This will help crisp up and brown the skin. And it also works better than basting. While in the oven, the lard melts and basically deep fries the skin of your bird. It’s magnificent.
- Don’t stuff it.In fact, don’t make stuffing. It’s kind of gross. If you must, make stuffing in the pan (finishing a bit in the oven) with the gizzards and pan drippings from the bird. Be sure to brown it just right, which is deep reddish-brown, but not burned. Crispy, browned stuffing is always way better than the soggy stuffing from inside the bird which no one likes in the first place. Instead, stuff the bird with a fresh herb bundle of rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, bay leaf and basil. Just one full sprig of each. The herbs will delicately infuse the breast meat, bringing out sweeter flavors.
- Make the skin extra crispy.If you like really crispy skin, start roasting your bird at a higher temperature, around 225°C (437 °F) for about 30 to 45 minutes before reducing the temperature and cooking through the bird. This will get the skin dry, hot and ready to crisp better over the duration of roasting.
- Roast low and slow.That is, roast at a low temperature, I recommend 165°C (329 °F), for a longer duration. Keeping your oven at a low temperature will cook the bird over a longer period of time, which allows for the heat tenderization of the meat. Basically, connective tissues in muscles begin to break down at temperatures over 60°C (140 °F). At over 70°C (158 °F), meat starts to substantially dry out, however. If you can hold the meat within this critical tenderizing, but not drying range for longer, you will end up with tender, juicy meat. So by setting the oven at a lower temperature, your bird hangs out in this critical, tenderizing range for longer.
- Don’t overcook your bird.Get an instant read, probe thermometer to measure the internal temperature of your bird. The United States Department of Agriculture suggests that you cook poultry to an internal temperature of 74°C (165 °F). The reason that they suggest that temperature is that it reduces the concentration of certain harmful bacteria below a threshold dangerous level. But if you parse the specifics behind that recommendation, you can achieve the same results by holding the temperature of the bird at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. This is why I suggest cooking the bird to 65°C (149 °F) at the deepest part of the breast and then resting the bird on the counter for about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the bird.
- Rest your bird the right way.To keep the meat moist and the heat in, rest the bird in a sealed tent of foil, constructed over the pan, after removing from the oven. This will hold the temperature inside the bird around 68°C (155 °F) for a sufficient amount of time to kill off the same amount of the harmful bacteria as at 74°C (165 °F), but at a lower temperature. The lower temperature will help keep the meat juicy and fuller flavored, giving you a tastier, more impressive bird in the end.
- Torch that sucker.Use a culinary blow torch to do a final crisping of the skin after resting. In the foil tent, the skin may have gotten a little moist due to the steam in there. Be sure to use a low setting and not sear the skin. You just want to complete the browning, dry out and crisp the skin for the final presentation. If you don’t have a culinary blow torch, buy a culinary blow torch. Good Japanese ones only cost around $25 and last forever.
- Learn how to carve.But if it’s crunch time, just make sure you have the sharpest knife available to you, cut each breast down the center and along the breast bone to separate it and the thigh and leg at the joint, perpendicular to the thigh and leg bone, where they will come apart more naturally. Do not carve up the bird piecemeal while the breast and thigh are still attached to the carcass, this is how you end up with a hacked off mess job and confused guests when it comes time for seconds. For additional help, check out this video.
Have a question? Ask me anything!