The Epic Thanksgiving Turkey

Thanksgiving is a week away; kind of hard to believe, isn’t it?

In Monday’s post, the first of my Thanksgiving series this year, I covered how to make truly homemade Thanksgiving stuffing. I started there because doing stuffing the way I do takes by far the most lead-time of my Thanksgiving dinner.

Today: lets talk turkey.

Turkey, despite being the centerpiece and the largest item on your Thanksgiving table, is actually one of the easiest items to make. Here’s what you really need:

1 turkey
1 roasting pan
1 meat thermometer

That’s really about it; the rest is a matter of taste.

Of course, I make things more complicated. In the past, I had generally found Thanksgiving turkey to be fairly dry, which is a matter of both overcooking and lack of real internal seasoning of the meat.

To combat this, I make sure to get my turkey 48 hours in advance. Then I brine it, using the Williams Sonoma brining mix (you can buy this online here). I’m not sure what the difference between brining and marinating is, but the result is the same: your turkey sits in highly seasoned liquid for a while before you cook it. Adds some nice liquid and seasoning into the meat, while softening it up so it’s not as tough.

What time you start prepping your turkey on Thanksgiving Day depends on what time you’re eating; generally we eat around 5pm at my place. So first thing when I get up, I get the turkey out of the fridge. I leave it in its brine and allow it to naturally warm up to room temperature.

When it’s time to cook, I kick my oven up to 500 to start. Get a roasting pan large enough to fit your whole turkey into, and cover the entire thing heavily with olive oil cooking spray. Chop up two onions, a few carrots and some celery, and add them to the pan. Not a lot; you’ll just need a few. Put the turkey in on top of everything.

Then take a stick of butter, add around a tablespoon each of thyme, rosemary, parsley, garlic and onion powder, and then melt the whole lot in the microwave. Remove it, and then you want to put the butter under the skin. You can do this near the openings in the turkey cavity; slowly pull the skin away from the meat, and push the butter in between them, covering as much area as you can.

Now stuff the turkey with huge chunks of fresh parsley and chopped onions. I don’t use stuffing because there are some health concerns with the whole uncooked poultry microbes being absorbed into the stuffing, then the stuffing not fully cooking it off, but mostly because the herbs add more flavor. Once the cavity is full, add a lot of FRESH rosemary and thyme into the cavity, making sure to spread it around. Finally, chop up a stick of butter into about 12 squares. Spread six of them throughout the cavity mixture, then add six more pats between the skin and the meat.

Spray the entire turkey over with your olive oil cooking spray, then douse the top of the turkey with olive oil (liquid this time) until the entire thing is covered and dripping into the pan. Sprinkle the entire surface area of the meat with chopped FRESH rosemary and thyme.

Finally, pour in a lot of chicken broth (see Monday’s stuffing post about the low-sodium note); you’ll need at least 1/2 in the bottom of the pan.

Then, I put the turkey in the oven at 500 for about a half-hour. BE VERY CAREFUL if you choose to do this – the turkey can easily burn, and quickly. But if you pull it off, the skin gets crispy very quickly, which helps to lock in the juices. It’s the same principle as searing a steak.

I then baste the turkey using the liquid in the pan (and add a bit more if it’s evaporated) and cut the temperature of the oven to around 325 after leaving the door open for about 3-5 minutes to let the extreme heat dissipate. It might be necessary to lightly cover the turkey with foil to avoid the skin drying out.

The turkey will need to be basted every 20-30 minutes, and it will take 3-5 hours more to cook depending on the size of your turkey. I use the Julia Child estimates for 325, which are as follows:

12-16 pound turkey – 4 hours
16-20 pound turkey – 5 hours
20-26 pound turkey – 6 hours

Since you’ve already done 30 minutes at 500, take an hour off of each, and you have a rough idea. You’ll know it’s done when you insert a meat thermometer into a breast, thigh and drumstick and they all come out north of 165, or close to it (Julia Child says 162-170).

The Thanksgiving turkey will need to sit for 10-15 minutes before it’s ready to eat; maybe a little more with an extremely heavy bird.