So, right after the joys of Halloween comes Thanksgiving followed quickly by whatever Winter Celebratory Feast you participate in. For someone with a kitchen-focus like mine, these are pretty much the best two months of the year. It condones tons of irrational cooking, eating and sharing your kitchen with people you (hopefully) enjoy spending time with.
The problem is we have major recipe issues around this time of year! Most people rarely roast large pieces of meat on a daily basis, or make pie, OR COOK. Mashed potatoes might be the only thing you can reliably repeat year-round.
I would have published more on the subject, but it’s been kitchen busy… So let’s cut to the chase.
Let’s talk about Turkey. It’s a big lean bird. The breast wants to dry out before the skin crisps, and the dark meat is dense and unforgiving of being underdone. Oh the stress, right? WRONG. It’s way easier than people think. It just takes thinking!
What do people want? Juicy meat, crispy golden skin, right? One thing guarantees both on any piece of any kind of large piece of meat. Salt+Time. The water added means starting with higher moisture internally keeping it juicy, and the salt will provide water retention and flavor. You still with me?
Brining slowly is great if you have a big bucket and a lot of time, but I want to be painless. Get a flavor injector needle. I got mine at the hardware store, but they are so popular at this point even some grocery stores or Home Depots have them. This is your friend with any piece of meat. Once you see the things it does, you will start looking for excuses to apply its power. (Salted apple cider vinegar and bourbon into a pork chop? Sriracha chicken broth into your buffalo wings? Go to town!)
Take a bowl and add flavor. Water alone – it’s a start. Just add salt – better. Salt and sugar – even better. I add a touch of white wine, some finely ground dried herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice. If it tastes like a really weak soup, you’re on the right track. Experiment on chickens. You will like it.
Injecting is about getting into the meat, but not piercing the skin (otherwise it doesn’t crisp – but more on that another day). The best way is to jack it as many places – 1/2 in. spacing at least – in between the ribs inside the cavity until it’s leaking. For wings, legs and thighs, get into the joints where the skin will split anyway.
Now – pat it dry on the skin side and rub it with a bit of salt. Nothing else. Let it sit in the fridge, uncovered, until it’s just past tacky to the touch. This will dry the skin. Say it with me: Dry skin makes crispy skin. Wet skin makes soggy skin. Again Salt + Time is your friend.
NOTE ON THIS SKIN TEXTURE: Put a bit of white school glue (not paste) on a piece of paper. Starts wet, right? Phase 2 it develops a film, but will burst if you touch it since the film is still sticky, right? Phase 3 it has a firm film that is dry and not sticky to the touch, but it is still clearly damp. Finally, Phase 4 is the really dry phase. The ideal skin of the bird before oven should be like Phase 3, that “nothing sticks to your finger” stage.
The next hard bit is balancing the skin and moisture question. The bird needs a medium-high temperature to get cooked well and get crispy – but a tall-chested bird will burn the skin before it’s done inside! Oh the stress right? WRONG. Put an aluminum foil hat on it like the wierdos that think the X-Files is a documentary. Just cover the breast and the tips of wings and legs. LEAVE THE CAVITY OPEN. DO NOT PUT STUFFING INSIDE! (That just unnecessarily extends and makes an even more uneven cook time.) You need the skinny, delicate bits to be covered, but hot air needs to circulate inside for the breast meat to cook evenly. Just think that if thin aluminum protects astronauts from solar insanity in space, it will more than do the job for the turkey in your residential oven. Put it into a roasting pan on top of things. A rack would be good. You can just as easily put it on a bed of flavorful veggies (onions, garlic, celery and root veggies of all kinds are great for this). Start it off at 450F for 30-40min and when it starts to ooze goodness and get some deep golden color on the knees – bring it down to the 375F point.
Once the temperature is nearing completion, you can take off the aluminum foil to crisp the skin. With an instant-read thermometer you should be around 135-140F in both the breast and thickest part of the thigh when this happens. Then go till golden. We want a bird at around 153-158F to pull from the oven and rest (it will rise 10-15F while resting under foil. This is commonly referred to as carryover). Remember doneness is key since this is poultry and if it waddles or flies, 165F means fully done.
Let me know your thoughts! Share comments below 🙂
NOTE ON TEMPERATURE: I know many of you will hate on my temperature notes here. You do as you like, but food safety and handling standards ask for 165F for poultry before serving, and honestly I have never had a problem there. It’s not dry, and nobody is crying about a pink piece of turkey/chicken/etc. You want to do less, do as your conscience demands. USDA New Temp Standards: http://blogs.usda.gov/2011/05/25/cooking-meat-check-the-new-recommended-temperatures/