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Your holiday bird: A guide for making the perfect turkey

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JON EMANUEL roasts 200 turkeys a year. That’s about 199 more than the rest of us.

So when Emanuel — the executive chef at Project Angel Heart, a nonprofit organization that delivers meals to homebound folks across the Front Range — lays out his system for a moist, picture-perfect Norman Rockwell-style Thanksgiving roast turkey, it pays to pay attention.

“I use what I call the BATTT method,” Emanuel says. “Brine. Air dry. Truss. Turn. Temperature.” He swears that this progression, from seasoning to serving, results in an impeccable turkey every time.

Emanuel isn’t the only one with a set of foolproof turkey-roasting rules. Noah Stephens of Vert Kitchen in Denver (who cooks about 500 birds a year for his restaurant’s famous turkey sandwiches) and Mark Monette of Boulder’s Flagstaff House (who ships hundreds of complete Thanksgiving dinners for his national dinner-by-mail program) also lay claim to the secrets of a flawless bird.

A survey of each expert’s playbook reveals some similarities and some differences. But each was emphatic, confident and clear about his own unique method.

One rule all three experts agree on: Start with a natural turkey, preferably organic and never one that’s been pumped with saline. Check the label if you’re uncertain. (Best bet: Call a local independent butcher and order ahead of time instead of shopping the grocery store bins. You’ll pay a little more, but your turkey will be much, much better. And, being the star of the Thanksgiving show, it’s worth it.)

EXPERTS DISH ON STEPS TO A PERFECT BIRD

BRINING
Brining — usually submerging the turkey in a salty-seasoned water for a day or two before roasting — is the best way to ensure a well-seasoned and moist turkey, according to the experts. “Brining, to me, is magical. It can take something boring and make it into something flavorful and juicy.

You will astound your friends,” says Emanuel, whose wet brine formula consists of 1 gallon water, 1 cup kosher salt, and 1/2 cup of sugar. “Maybe some sage or thyme or garlic. Maybe a bay leaf.” For the Thanksgiving dinner, Emanuel suggests putting the bird in brine on Tuesday morning.

“We have done a lot of experimenting with this, and there is a big difference between no brine and a two-day brine,” Stephens says. At Vert, he brines turkeys for two days in a mixture of salt, sugar, bay leaf, peppercorns, apple cider vinegar and water.

Monette explains the science behind the process: “Brining promotes a change in the structure of the proteins in the muscle. The salt causes the muscle fibers to become unwound, allowing increases in the amount of liquid inside the meat cell, making juicier meat.”

One important tip from Emanuel: Make sure the bird is completely thawed before you brine it. Otherwise the brine won’t penetrate.

Another essential brining tip: Rinse the bird thoroughly after it comes out of the brine.

AIR DRYING
“Air dry the bird after brining on a rack in the fridge overnight,” Emanuel advises. (This means taking the bird out of the brine on Wednesday evening.) “This will promote crispy skin and a gorgeous color. No cheating by just wiping the bird with a towel and calling it good. You actually want to slowly evaporate moisture from the inside of the bird’s skin.”

Monette agrees. “The bird must be thoroughly rinsed of brine and dried inside and out with paper towels. Water on the bird creates steaming, but a dry skin that is brushed with butter will create a seal that locks in moisture.”

For Stephens, this step may be more trouble than it’s worth. “Air drying is not that important to me. This technique is better for duck. Plus, who has that much refrigeration space on Thanksgiving to give the bird a whole shelf to air dry?”

TRUSSING
“Yes to the truss!” Monette proclaims. “Two to three wooden skewers that have been soaked can be used to sew the cavity shut. This creates an aromatic ‘hot box’ that will diffuse the flavors from the core of the bird outward. Butchers twine for the legs and wings creates a more compact mass, thus cooking more evenly, and also makes handling the bird much easier.”

Stephens and Emanuel both agree. Emanuel’s technique: “Tuck the wing tips under the bird. Take a 4-foot length of twine and tie the legs together at their ends using the center of the twine, leaving even lengths of twine on either side. Bring the two sides of the twine around the bird, placing them between the drumstick and the thigh, then bringing them over the bird’s shoulders to the bottom of the breast at the front of the bird. Tie the twine tightly at the neck so the breast is fully secured.” Need a visual aid? “There are trussing videos all over YouTube,” he says.

TURNING THE BIRD
Monette and Emanuel agree: It’s best to start the bird in the oven breast side down, then flip it to finish cooking. “Turkeys are white and dark,” Monette explains. “White meat is leaner and cooks faster, so in order to not dry out, the bird must be rotated for even doneness.”

Monette’s technique is the most elaborate. “Start with the oven at 400 degrees. Place trussed and buttered turkey breast side down on a V-rack in a roasting pan that has been scattered with celery, carrots and onions, and 1 cup of water. After 45 minutes take the turkey out and carefully rotate turkey a quarter-turn so that it is on its side. Baste with pan drippings and return to oven for another 15 minutes. Repeat at 15-minute intervals.”

Emanuel’s method is a bit simpler: “Start it breast side down for the first 30-45 minutes. After 30-45 minutes, turn the bird over gently with kitchen gloves. The breast will brown nicely during the remaining cooking time.” Another tip from Emanuel: “Make sure your oven is fully preheated and your rack is greased so the breast doesn’t stick!”

Stephens is not convinced. “Breast up,” he says. “The turkey should cook evenly on just one side.” Stephens also recommends basting every few minutes.

TEMPERATURE
“We cook it to 150 degrees,” says Stephens, “then let it rest.” This resting period should bring the internal temperature up to 165 degrees. (The USDA recommends 165 degrees, too.) “When you poke the turkey between the thigh and the breast, the juices should come out clear.”

Emanuel agrees. He suggests using an instant-read thermometer, inserted into the thickest part of the thigh, without touching the bone. “When it hits 165 degrees you’re done. Some recipes say 170 degrees, 180 degrees or even higher. Don’t listen to them, listen to me!”

Monette gauges 155-160 degrees for the breast, and 160-165 for the thigh. “You can always cook it more,” he says. “But you cannot cook it less.”

 

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Roast Turkey

Recipe tested by Tucker Shaw, based on input from chefs Jon Emanuel, Noah Stephens and Mark Monette. You can use a very clean cooler for the brining. Serves 6-8 with some leftovers.

Ingredients

Brine:
1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
10-15 whole peppercorns
A handful fresh herbs, like sage, thyme, rosemary

Turkey:
1 fresh natural turkey, preferably organic, about 12 pounds
2 lemons, halved
2 heads garlic, halved
Roughly chopped onions, carrots and celery
More fresh herbs of your choice
Salt and pepper
Softened butter

Directions
Stir together the brine ingredients until salt and sugar are dissolved. Immerse turkey in brine, add liquid if needed to cover. Place in refrigerator (or outside if it’s cool) for 24-48 hours. Remove turkey from brine at least four hours before roasting, or the night before. Rinse turkey thoroughly, then pat completely dry with paper towels. Place in refrigerator, uncovered, at least three hours or overnight.

Remove turkey from refrigerator at least 1 hour before roasting. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place lemons, garlic and as many of the onions, carrots, celery and herbs as will comfortably fit in the cavities. Secure cavities with skewers, and/or truss with butcher’s twine. Season with salt and pepper. Rub softened butter all over bird, including under the skin. Scatter remaining vegetables in roasting pan and place greased rack over vegetables.

Place turkey, breast side down, on rack. Roast on low oven rack for 45 minutes. Remove roasting pan from oven and reduce heat to 300 degrees. Carefully turn turkey over — taking care not to tear the skin — and roast breast side up, basting occasionally (be sure to close the oven door when you baste), until temperature measured at the thickest part of the thigh hits 160-165 degrees. Estimate about 12-14 minutes per pound total, depending on your oven. Start checking early to avoid overcooking.

(Alternative: Start turkey breast side up and don’t bother with the turn. Baste occasionally. If the skin begins to get too dark, cover loosely with foil.)

Allow turkey to rest 30 minutes before carving.

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PROJECT ANGEL HEART

Get involved with Project Angel Heart, as a volunteer or a donor. Visit projectangelheart .org for more information, or call 303-830-0202.

 

By Tucker Shaw

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Comments
  • comment avatar Richard B November 23, 2010

    So what’s the difference between a bird “pumped with saline” at the factory and brining? Obviously, one should not do both. And, I guess that the consumer pays for that salt water addition to the bird’s weight. What else?

  • comment avatar Jon E One of the Chefs November 23, 2010

    Hi Richard—
    Good question, thanks for asking.
    For me it’s mostly a matter of having control over my own bird. Here are some things you can control by brining yourself as opposed to buying a pre-pumped bird:
    Salt— What kind of salt was used in the pre-pumped bird? Some salts are stronger or harsher than others. I use kosher salt exclusively for its purity and gentler flavor.
    Brining time— How long before that bird was frozen was it pumped? The longer you brine, the saltier the bird and vice versa. I have no idea how that pre-pumped bird is going to taste until I start carving.
    Adding other flavors— The best way to get herb/spice/garlic/other flavorings into the actual flesh of the bird (as opposed to just on the surface) is to add the flavorings into the brine before brining the bird. In a pre-pumped bird it’s too late.
    I hope this helps, Richard. Have a great Thanksgiving!

  • comment avatar Ragnar November 23, 2010

    I agree with chefs. I personally prefer brining my own bird. First, I always use a fully thawed bird to start. For salt, kosher as well, no iodine. Instead of chlorinated tap water, spend the extra $3 for a 2 1/2 gallon container of distilled water. For flavor I use about 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of dried tarragon, and a tablespoon or so of Black Pepper.

    Of course, I ALWAYS steam-smoke my birds, nothing like it!

    Happy holidays!

  • comment avatar Mama Bird November 23, 2010

    This is all great advice. Wish I had known earlier. I bought a typical Butterball, because that’s what my Mom always bought. I supposed the Butterball turkey is pre-pumped with saline solution and I wouldn’t want to brine? Is it worth brining a turkey for any less than 2 days?

  • comment avatar Gretchen White November 23, 2010

    My husband has been brining our turkeys for years. They always turn out bursting with juice—never dry or chewy or in need of rivers of gravy to choke it down. The first year I was VERY SKEPTICAL of his experiment with brining, but it quickly won me over once I took the first bite.

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  • comment avatar Anne-Marie at This Mama Cooks! November 24, 2010

    Any tips for creating gravy from a smoked bird? There are drippings, but I wonder if they’ll be too smoky and overwhelm my citrus based gravy.

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