The year-end holidays are my absolute favorite time of year. I love the time with family, and especially the traditions. My family isn't really big on the sentimental trappings, but I am a HUGE sap. So a traditional Thanksgiving meal is kind of a must for me.
A traditional Thanksgiving meal, though, is a rather daunting task for some. Why? On its face, none of the elements are particularly complex... except, it seems, the turkey.
This weekend I hosted a pre-Thanksgiving gathering for my parenting group. I was shocked that every single parent there said they had never done a turkey! I think because everyone remembers a terrible turkey or two, it feels like a rather daunting task. Well I'm here to tell you how to make a kickass turkey. And it's way easier than you think it is.
The major hurdle that you must overcome when roasting a whole turkey is that the breast meat cooks much quicker than the thigh meat. So if you don't keep this in mind at all times when prepping your bird, you're guaranteed to make a dry, tasteless turkey. Which is a damn shame when it can so easily be avoided.
I've done turkeys several different ways, herb rubbed, deep fried, the high heat method. But the past two years I have done a cider-brined turkey and the results are absolutely fabulous. I've done this 4 times so far, and each time has been a success. And the best part is it's much simpler than any of the other methods I've tried. So here we go.
1. Brining the turkey.
One of the best ways to avoid drying out your turkey is to brine your turkey. To brine your turkey you simply soak the turkey in a salt (or sugar + salt) solution prior to roasting. Salt ions from the brine enter the turkey flesh, dragging water along for the ride. The extra water in the turkey meat will help buffer the long cook time needed to fully cook the thigh meat.
There are lots of recipes for various brines out there. I most of them use much more salt then you actually need, resulting in very salty tasting meat. This recipe is one that I've adapted and works fantastically well.
3 quarts apple cider
4 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
3-4 dry bay leaves
3 Tbsp black peppercorns
optional: 1-2 Tbsp mulling spices, or 1 cinnamon stick and 1 Tbsp whole cloves
This should be plenty of liquid for just about any size turkey.
Now to the business of brining. To brine your turkey, you'll need a couple of food grade plastic bags big enough to hold your turkey. Luckily, Reynolds makes turkey-sized oven bags that are suitable. There's two in a pack, and I always double bag (just in case). Drop your turkey into the bag, pour the brine around the turkey, and then close up the bag with twist ties (eliminating as much air space as you can).
Brine that sucker overnight in your fridge. Or, if you're tight on fridge space, in a full size cooler packed with ice on your back porch.
When you're ready to roast, take the turkey out of the brine, give it a quick rinse, and you're ready to go. The brine goes down the drain and the bags in the trash... we won't have any further need for them.
2. Prepping the turkey.
If you're like me, you have fond memories of Thanksgiving stuffing from the cavity of the turkey. Moist, meaty and delicious, stuffing that is cooked inside the bird is SO good.
But you probably also have memories of dry, tasteless white meat.
While stuffing your turkey makes for delicious dressing, it ruins the bird. Putting stuffing in the cavity of the bird reduces air flow through the bird. Reduced airflow = longer cook times = dry turkey. DO NOT stuff your turkey. Yes, your stuffing will be slightly less delicious. But your turkey will be exponentially more delicious. Do the math.
Instead, I like to put a couple of aromatics into the cavity. Some peppercorns, a couple of bay leaves, some cloves, a bit of chopped onion. Just enough to be, well, aromatic, but without stuffing the bird and reducing airflow. There should be no more than about 1/2 cup worth of stuff in that bird.
Set your bird, breast side up in your roasting pan. For best results, invest in a halfway decent roasting pan with an elevated rack. This, again, gives the best airflow, keeps your turkey up and away from the drippings, and gives you nice crisp skin all over.
If the grocery store hasn't done it for you already, tuck the tips of the wings down into the birds armpits and tie the legs together.
Now you're ready to roast.
3. Cooking the turkey.
Preheat your oven to 325 deg. Estimate that for a 12-17 pound bird it's going to take somewhere around 3-3.5 hours for that baby to cook, depending on your oven. Drop that baby in and keep your oven closed.
Once the skin has started to turn a golden brown (around 45 minutes into the roast), you're going to have to put a piece of tin foil over the breast to keep the skin from burning. Then leave it alone for another 1.5 hours.
You will know your turkey is done when a thermometer stuck into the center of the thigh (but not touching the bone) is 180 deg. I take my turkey out when the thermometer reads 170 because the temperature will continue to rise as the turkey rests.
4. Let that turkey rest.
Your turkey is going to come out gorgeous. But don't start carving immediately. Let the turkey rest for at least 20 minutes before you carve. This will give people plenty of time to admire how lovely your turkey is.
5. If you're feeling bold...
This year, to complement the cider brine, I did an apple cider reduction to drizzle over the platter of carved turkey (in place of a more traditional gravy). It was met with rave reviews.
1 quart cider
1 Tbsp mulling spices (in a tea ball, or in a little cheesecloth pouch)
2 bay leaves
2 tsp kosher salt
Combine your ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and let simmer uncovered ~20 minutes. Remove mulling spices and continue to simmer until cider is reduced to ~1/2 cup. Remove bay leaves. If you've got some decent pan drippings, add a Tbsp or two. Then drizzle over platter of carved meat and serve.
All right. There you have it. The mother of all turkeys.
Now, while I admire my own handiwork, inquiring minds want to know:
Have you ever made a turkey?
How do you do yours?
Will you be making the mother of all turkeys this year? (If so, I want to hear all about your dazzling success!)