Special Occasion Turkey

By • October 13, 2011 39 Comments

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Author Notes: The only times I cook a whole turkey are for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Preparing and cooking such a big bird is truly a labor of love (or a pain in the keister). Over the years, I've tried a variety of options for the bird: different brines, different herb or spice rubs, and different cooking techniques. Last year I used a recipe from the Food Network by Chris Cosentino that called for separating the breast from the legs of the turkey, and applying an herb compound duck butter under the breast skin. The legs are placed in the oven long before the breast. I was hoping I'd struck gold with this technique. When I roast a whole bird, I start it out breast down and then flip it during cooking to prevent overcooked white meat. If I could eliminate the turning, it would save me some hassle while preparing the rest of the meal. Unfortunately it did not work as well as I'd hoped. The breast meat came out superbly juicy and flavorful, but the cooking times recommended did not work for me. The legs were done long before the breast, which is not a great situation with a crowd of hungry people clamoring to eat.

I did not want to abandon the idea so rather than figure out timing for 2 different pieces, I decided to butterfly the turkey so it would cook at a more consistent rate. I've butterflied many a chicken, so figured it wouldn't be too different. I was very wrong. It's much, much harder! The pelvic bones of the turkey are too hard to cut through with kitchen shears. A combination of kitchen shears through the ribs, and a cleaver through the pelvic girdle worked the best for me. This is a good illustration of the technique: http://thefrugalchef.com/2009/11/how-to-butterfly-a-turkey/ An even easier technique is to ask your butcher to butterfly the turkey and crack the breast bone.

To season the bird I did a dry brine with a paste of salt and honey under the skin of the legs and breast. I generally do a combination of salt and sugar for my wet brines, so why not try the same for the dry brine. I made a shallot confit using duck fat, and added some herbs and spices to slip under the skin after the turkey finished brining. The hard work up front really paid off in the end! The resulting turkey was finished cooking in about 2 hours, the breast and thigh meat were done at the same time, and even the notoriously dry and bland breast meat was succulent and flavorful. An added bonus is the shallot confit becomes like a built in gravy!

(Note: The backbone, plus neck and giblets make a fine stock that can be combined with the drippings to make gravy. Or just freeze the pieces to make stock later.)

Food52 Review: This was the best turkey I've ever had. I was surprised at how many of the individual flavors came through in the meat -- to date, I don't think I've had a turkey this flavorful. I spooned a bit of the drippings onto each serving, which highlighted the flavors even more, and I made an amazing gravy out of the drippings the next day. A few make ahead notes: you can make the confit ahead of time, and you can even prep the rest of it in advance and then just assemble and plop in the oven for a short amount of time (2 hours!) the day you plan on eating. One of our testers had difficulty finding duck fat, so be sure to call a few places ahead of time to see if it's available. For not much work, the reward (taste and accolades) is too great not to make this recipe! Dawne Marie

Makes a 12 to 14 pound turkey

Seasoned Shallot Confit

  • 1 pound shallots
  • 1/2 cup duck fat (or unsalted butter)
  • 3 tablespoons water (or 2 tablespoons if using butter)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Diamond kosher salt
  • 3 large oranges
  • 2 tablespoons minced thyme leaves
  • 1 tablespoon stone ground or dijon mustard
  • 4 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Roast Turkey

  • 1 12 to 14 pound turkey
  • 4 tablespoons Diamond Kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 Medium onion
  • handful Thyme
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
  1. Remove skins from shallots. Dice the shallots by hand, or in two batches in your food processor. Heat the duck fat (or butter) in a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat. Once melted, add the shallots and toss to coat. Add the water and salt, and toss again. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook stirring occasionally until the shallots are softened, about 20 minutes. Remove the cover and cook until most of the water has cooked off, about 3 to 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then transfer to a tightly sealed container and refrigerate until you are ready to cook your turkey.
  2. While the shallots are cooking or cooling, butterfly your turkey (unless you've had your butcher do it for you). Using a sharp kitchen or poultry shears cut along each side of the backbone starting at the neck. You will hit a point where you cannot cut any further at the pelvic area. Use your cleaver to chop and hack through the pelvic bones, being exceedingly careful not to cut yourself. (See video link in Cook's notes above.) Once the backbone has been removed from the turkey, turn the turkey over and push down on the breast to break the keel bone. I had to wrap the turkey in plastic wrap and bash it with my cast iron skillet a couple of times to make it happen. (Phew! The hardest part is now over.)
  3. With the turkey breast side up, gently separate the skin from the breast meat using your fingers or the end of a wooden spoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the skin over the legs. Be careful not to tear the skin. Flip the turkey over again, and make your salt paste.
  4. In a small bowl combine the kosher salt and honey, mixing together into a homogenous paste. Rub about 1 tablespoon of the paste under the skin over each breast, massaging out any clumps and trying to get an even coating. Rub about 2 teaspoons of the paste under the skin over each leg, again massaging out the clumps and aiming for even dispersal. Rub the remaining paste on what would've been the cavity of a whole turkey. Wrap the turkey in plastic, and place on a platter, then refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours to let the brine work its magic.
  5. About 3 1/2 hours before meal time, remove the turkey from the refrigerator. Unwrap it, and pat it dry with paper towels or a clean tea towel. Transfer the turkey to a cooling rack (set over a pan to catch any juices,) and set aside. Preheat your oven to 425ºF with a rack in the lower middle position.
  6. Remove your shallot confit from the refrigerator when you pull the turkey out. Transfer it to a medium sized bowl.
  7. Zest the oranges, and add zest (about a heaping tablespoon) to the confit. Set the oranges aside, you will be using them shortly. Add the mustard, minced thyme, coriander, cumin, and pepper to the confit. Stir to combine. (Note: the duck fat is soft enough at refrigerator temperature to mix into a smooth paste. Butter will need to warm up a bit to mix well.)
  8. With the turkey breast side up, insert about 1/4 of the seasoned shallot confit under the skin of each breast, attempting to cover the entire surface of the meat evenly. Flip the bird over and work about 1/3 of the remaining paste under the skin of each leg. Rub remaining paste onto what would've been the cavity of a whole bird.
  9. Slice the ends off each orange, then slice the oranges into thirds. Remove the skins from the onion, slice the ends off, then cut 2 slices from the onion about the thickness of the orange slices you have. Separate each onion slice into 2 or 3 groups of rings. Arrange the orange and onion slices on a rimmed baking sheet; you are creating a "rack" for the turkey to rest on to keep it elevated from the pan. Scatter thyme sprigs over the orange and onion slices.
  10. Place the turkey breast side up over the orange and onion slices. Tie the drum sticks together so the legs rest on the narrow portion of the breast -- this helps to protect the breast from cooking too quickly. Tuck the wings under the breasts. The turkey should essentially be in a single thickness layer. Rub the skin with the oil. Set aside until about 2 1/2 hours prior to mealtime.
  11. Place turkey in oven, and set timer for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes lower the oven heat to 325ºF. Cook the turkey until the breast meat registers 165º F on an instant read thermometer, about 75 to 115 minutes. Rotate the pan from front to back at about the halfway point. Monitor for excess browning of the bird, and cover with aluminum foil if needed.
  12. Remove from the oven and allow turkey to rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving and serving.

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