Many people suffer from Turkey Anxiety this time of year. There is a deluge of conflicting advice about how to cook the perfect turkey, and the spectre of that heavy, raw, unwieldy bird looming on the horizon can be intimidating.
If your brain is a jittery swirl of turkey buzzwords like brine, baste, and spatchcock, then please read the following advice to simplify your life and take the anxiety out of the turkey-cooking process.
First: Remind yourself that a turkey ain’t nothin’ but a bird. If you do nothing but throw the turkey in the oven and cook it until it is no longer raw, your turkey will taste good. No basting, no brining, no nothing—just a raw bird transforming into a cooked bird with heat.
Start cooking the turkey at 425°F, then lower the heat to 350°F when the skin looks nice and brown. Rub the outside of the turkey with canola oil before it goes in the oven for an extra golden skin. Don’t worry about seasoning the turkey with salt before it goes into the oven; the seasoning will happen later. Just make sure that you remove it from the oven when a thermometer reads 165°F at the thigh, and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving. Cover the wing tips with aluminum foil if it looks like they are starting to burn before the rest of the turkey is fully cooked
To turn your zero effort turkey into something truly noteworthy and delicious, carve it and add a pinch or two of salt and a small squirt of olive oil to the sliced turkey meat while it is still warm. Pour some of the roasted turkey drippings over the meat, too. Toss the meat with the salt, olive oil, and drippings. Taste the turkey and add more salt as necessary. You will have achieved turkey nirvana with little-to-no effort.
And if you still want to go farther, you can—here are my tips for success with a more-effort bird:
There are only three factors that truly matter when it comes to turkey:
- The flavor.
- The presentation.
- The meat’s juiciness.
When it comes to flavor, I believe a brined bird tastes better than a non-brined bird (and I am a fan of either wet brine or dry brine). As we previously noted, you can skip the brine and turn an unseasoned roasted turkey into something delicious by tossing the cooked meat in some salt, olive oil, and pan drippings. But brining will give your turkey a baseline level of flavor and moistness that is noticeable. Brined turkey meat, tossed with salt, olive oil, and pan drippings, will taste slightly better than an identical serving of non-brined turkey meat. The decision to brine or not comes down to personal preference.
What if you want to brine but you feel anxious about having enough space in your refrigerator? Well, that brings us to presentation. If you don’t care about presenting a whole roasted bird on thanksgiving day, then you should consider cutting your raw turkey into pieces before cooking it. When the turkey is broken down into pieces (legs and thighs, breasts and wings), it will store more easily in your refrigerator, which makes brining easier. Another advantage: You can roast the leftover bones and make stock and/or gravy ahead of time, which makes life easier and less stressful on Thanksgiving.
The meat’s juiciness.
The main problem everyone faces on Thanksgiving is that when roasting a whole bird, the white meat cooks faster than the dark meat. This means when the white meat is perfectly cooked, the dark meat is dangerously undercooked.
If you’re set on cooking the turkey whole, you’re in a tough spot. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an agreed upon technique for perfect white and dark meat. Some theories include icing the breast (so the cold will prevent it from cooking as fast) or starting your turkey upside-down in the oven, but I’m not sure this is worth the effort. In this scenario, your best bet might be to cook the whole bird until the thigh meat reads 165°F on a thermometer, knowing that the breast meat will be slightly overcooked.
My ideal turkey scenario, however, is to butcher the raw bird, separating the legs and thighs, wings, and breasts (keeping the breasts attached to the breast bone). These pieces then get brined for 24 to 48 hours. Each individual piece of turkey can then get optimally cooked, eliminating the problem of overcooked white meat or undercooked dark meat. You sacrifice something when it comes to presentation, but the flavor and juiciness of the meat will be unrivaled.
Is it time to jettison the popular image of someone standing at the head of the table and carving a whole turkey? I say yes. Let’s trade that idealized moment for a juicier, tastier bird. In the battle of substance versus style, I will choose substance every time.
Josh Cohen is Food52's Test Kitchen Chef.
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