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November 21, 2009

Thanksgiving Thoughts #6

Filed under: Food — Twistie @ 8:30 am

You know, back when turkey became the expected Thanksgiving treat, people actually cooked it more often than they tend to do these days. Sure, a lot of us have some turkey on hand in the freezer much of the time, often in the form of either ground meat, sausages, bacon, or small medallions that can be quickly cooked any night of the week for dinner.

But how many of you out there have cooked an entire turkey at any time of the year other than Thanksgiving? It’s a heck of a lot of food for a modern family, and besides we are taught from childhood that it’s a process fraught with the potential for disaster.

Consequently, we find ourselves nervous when faced with cooking a fifteen or twenty pound bird, and it winds up becoming something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We assume it’s beyond us, and we find ourselves unprepared when the big moment comes. Lack of preparation is a huge part of kitchen failure. Knowledge is power, whether you’re talking about the boardroom, the bedroom, the closet or the oven.

So for those of you about to cook your first turkey, or those of you who haven’t done it for a while and are feeling rusty, here are a few useful tips that should help you produce a bird that is tasty and moist.

Leave yourself plenty of time for thawing a frozen turkey. Turkey will thaw in the refrigerator at the rate of approximately five (5) hours per pound. That’s right, hours per pound. If you find yourself rapidly approaching the time you need to start roasting and still in possession of an ice block of bird, move the turkey to the kitchen sink. Cover it in cold water and change the water about every half an hour. That brings the timeline down to about thirty (30) minutes per pound. Do not attempt to speed things up from this. At that point you’re courting spoilage. Salmonella is not a welcome table guest. Better to have to wait an extra hour or two for dinner than spend your holiday suffering from food poisoning.

The right pan makes a difference. A good roasting pan large enough to hold a whole turkey is a great investment even if you don’t ever cook a turkey in it. You can use it to roast other meats and vegetables, make lasagna and other baked, layered one-dish meals (shepherd’s pie, anybody?). Besides, if you are going to cook a turkey, a too-small pan can spell disaster. You’ll want something about two to three inches tall so you can keep the juices in the pan, but no taller so as not to keep the dry heat from crisping the turkey skin. You’ll want strong, stationary handles and sturdy construction. After all, you don’t want to finish cooking an eighteen pound masterpiece only to find that a too-thin pan has burnt the bottom or that the super-cool movable handles decide to move at a key moment when you want them to stay put. If all you’ve got to work with is those disposable aluminum trays from the grocery store, at least use two at once. It’s not an ideal solution, but it will do in a pinch.

If you’re putting stuffing in the turkey, wait until just before roasting to fill the cavity. Many people prefer to cook the stuffing separately from the bird, either for health concerns, so that vegetarians at the table can share in the treat, or because they think it has a nicer consistency that way. I still stuff because I like the way the stuffing and turkey suffuse one another with an extra layer of flavor. Besides, I think it’s fun to dig out the stuffing. In the end, to each their own. But if you are going to stuff, stuff safely. You can make your stuffing ahead of time (assuming your recipe deals well with that), but don’t put it in the bird until you’re just about to put it in the oven. Stuff loosely, and cook until the stuffing reaches between 160 and 165f on the thermometer. Again, safe food handling trumps everything when feeding a crowd.

Trussing is optional. Trust me on this. If you’re worried about trussing because you’ve never done it before, just recognize that you have the option to leave that step out of any poultry roast. I have never trussed a bird in my life, and they’ve all turned out just fine. In fact, there’s a school of thought that trussing the bird can make it more difficult for the heat to properly distribute in the inner portions of the legs and wings, meaning that you have to cook longer, thus almost guaranteeing dried out white meat. I don’t know if this is an accurate theory, but I can tell you that I have never trussed a turkey and I have never served a dry turkey. Food for thought.

Unless you brine, baste often. I’ve never brined a turkey. I honestly have no tips or tricks on that. But I swear by my own method of keeping turkey moist while it cooks. Heat equal amounts of unsalted butter and olive oil in a small sauce pan until the butter melts. Leave it on the lowest possible heat on the burner and baste the turkey with this mixture every twenty minutes to half an hour. Be liberal with this concoction. Not only does it keep the meat moist, it also imbues it with a sinfully luscious flavor. Oh, and be sure to roast the bird breast down. It makes a difference.

You know the turkey is done when the thermometer tells you it’s done. For safe eating, the dark meat will need to reach 170f. Don’t fudge this. Get a good, accurate, instant-read cooking thermometer and use it.

Let the meat rest before you carve. Once you take the bird out of the oven, transfer it to the platter and cover it tightly for about ten or fifteen minutes with aluminum foil. Meat carved too quickly after cooking can dry out when the juices run too freely.

Relax. If the turkey turns out a touch dry or everyone has to wait another half an hour because it’s just not getting to the temperature it needs to be, it’s not the end of the world or proof that you’re an incompetent cook. It’s just something that happens. A little gravy or cranberry sauce will make the drier bits of meat go down just fine, and a short wait for Thanksgiving dinner only whets the appetite more. Besides, there are few greater party killers than a panicky host/cook telling everyone how badly the food turned out. Serve it with a smile and offer up gravy. Everything will be fine.



  1. Good tips, Twistie. May I add that if you can afford it, buy a fresh bird. No thawing, and I’ve found they cook in a flash. I also brine my bird; it’s not hard, just cumbersome. This might not work for those in warmer climes, though. I put my bird and brine out in my cold garage because there’s no room in the refrigerator at this time of year! But a brined bird really does taste great. Breast down roasting (at least for part of the time) is the way to go. And you gave the best tip of all: relax and smile and serve up whatever you’ve got!

    Comment by Mrs. Hendricks — November 21, 2009 @ 10:01 am

  2. I do the breast-down thing. I turn it over with about an hour to an hour and a half left to get that nice brown crisp on the skin. The dark meat cooks perfectly and the breast meat comes out unbelievably moist. Mmmm, turkey.

    And we do have roast turkey in the winter beyond Thanksgiving. A turkey breast is usually just right to give you a nice meal and just the right amount of leftovers.

    Comment by Phyllis — November 21, 2009 @ 10:22 am

  3. I’d also like to add that if you’re nervous because it’s your first turkey, IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE. Yes, that’s right: if you’re planning to cook Mr. Gobble for Thanksgiving, it’s perfectly OK to cook a practice turkey. Ideally, you will not wait the weekend before for this; a month beforehand is fine. It can be a smaller bird, it can be a bird without the rest of the turkey accessories, you can bone it and freeze the meat and use it in increments and make soup stock from the carcass (YES!).

    And you know what? If the refrigerator gods haven’t cooperated, it’s OK to start cooking Mr. Gobble the night before, say, at 200 degrees, and at an ungodly hour come wrestle the innards out NOW, since they were frozen like a block of frozen innards when you started. Then you can stuff a hot turkey! And put it BACK in the oven to continue cooking! It is OK to cook a turkey for much longer at a much lower heat. It is not advisable, however (in my experience), to cook a turkey for less time at a higher heat. If your turkey is going the Low Slow route, make sure it’s covered and oiled.

    Do not panic, by the way, if the Low Slow route results in the ever-entertaining Topless Turkey, where the bones of the bird lift out when you are trying to move the bird from pan to platter; it just means it’s thoroughly cooked – and tender, tender, tender. Not all exploding turkeys are bad! If you go with one of those wretched disposable alumninum baking pans (I know I do!), it’s OK to DOUBLE THE PANS UP before you put the turkey in to cook. And when you move those flimsy pans out of the oven, slide your cutting board UNDER THE ALUMINUM PAN to support it as you lift it out of the oven. Good luck!

    Comment by La BellaDonna — November 21, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  4. Thanks, Mrs. Hendricks! And yes, those tips about thawing do become moot when using a fresh turkey. If you have access, folks, it’s worth it.

    Phyllis, I’ll definitely be trying your tip about turning the bird next time I cook one (we’re going to spend Thanksgiving with friends this year and I’m not cooking a turkey and transporting it across town, so I’m only making a couple side dishes and pumpkin pie).

    LBD, thanks for the extra tips about dealing with those flimsy aluminum roasting pans. Also the slow roasting sounds fabulous. It makes me wish I had that double oven set up my parents had back in the day so I could cook the turkey in one and everything else that needs roasting or baking in the other. And yes, you’re absolutely right: lower and slower is often successful with roasting, but faster and hotter results in nothing but heartache…and stomachache.

    I’m also heartily in favor of practice turkeys. Turkey is good eating, and there’s nothing like having a nice bird carcass on hand when you want to make stock.

    Comment by Twistie — November 21, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  5. Unless you like the idea of spending Thanksgiving night at the ER, don’t cook turkey at a temperature lower than 325 degrees. It doesn’t get hot enough to kill the bacteria, and the longer you leave it in the oven, the longer time those babies will have to reproduce. By the time you serve it, that turkey can be deadly.

    Comment by Margo A — November 21, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  6. The perfect reason to roast a turkey is for all of the cooked turkey meals you can make out of it. Really it is because I grew up with a Mom who made the most leftovers in history, and I am nothing if not a comitted nostalgic.

    I find when frozen turkey comes on sale I just buy one. Then roast it and divide it up to use the meat for sandwiches, turkey pot pie, turkey vegetable soup, turkey tetrazzini and more. Cooked turkey meat, kept in the freezer in usable portions is a staple for my family.

    I also make gravy from the drippings, and then will make open face hot turkey sandwiches with gravy at will. It is such a comfort food for me that I have them about once a month.

    Comment by Bobbi — November 21, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

  7. I use two big ole handfuls of paper towels and grab’er by the…er, holes. Plus I do keep it oiled/buttered. The turkey, I mean.

    Comment by Phyllis — November 21, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

  8. Where I went to school in the late ’90s you could buy a fresh whole turkey for 27 cents a pound, so all we starving college students practically lived on gobblers from September through May.

    We’d go down to the Rack n’ Sack (really) buy an 18 pounder for five dollars, some onions, celery and stove top –sometimes when we were rich or feeling high brow we’d get dry breadcrumbs and tins of oysters to make oyster stuffing– and roast ourselves some bird in one of those disposable roasting pans.

    Brining was a necessity because none of us were about to baste a bird –I doubt if any of us owned basters– so we’d plop it overnight in a big trashbag full of saltwater and whatever spices we had. The bag would go in a cooler. The next morning we’d roast the bird –stuffing in– and have a big dinner, plus a week’s worth of sandwiches for whoever wanted them.

    Comment by Plumcake — November 22, 2009 @ 12:55 am

  9. Twistie, I’m so happy to know that someone else loves to make stock from the carcass! It’s a highlight for me, that’s how crazy I am.

    Comment by Mrs. Hendricks — November 22, 2009 @ 11:35 am

  10. Turkey stock and turkey soup are part of why my family roasts its own turkey on Friday, after spending Thursday with our cousins. Seeing the relatives and sharing the meal are fantastic and I wouldn’t miss out on that, but… turkey! Leftovers! Mmmm, tryptophan.

    Comment by Nomie — November 22, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

  11. Margo A – I appreciate that caution. In my personal experience, the Low Slow was always followed by the Standard 325 Degrees – but I didn’t mention it, because, well, I didn’t. But that’s what happened once I woke up. And Mr. Gobble always had that I’m COOKED! pop-up bit, so I didn’t have to look for the meat thermometer.

    A second question for you, Margo A – Would the turkey truly be cooked through to the disintegration point if it hadn’t reached the correct internal temperature? I’m not being disrespectful, I’m curious, since I relied on the pop-up, and the interior was always lava-like, too.

    Comment by La BellaDonna — December 15, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

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