Monday, November 24, 2014

Perfect Roasted Turkey (With Brining)

Everyone has their own memories of Thanksgiving when they were growing up. Mine are of waking up in the morning to the amazing smells of roasting turkey and the hour or two of waiting impatiently, for the Macy's parade to start on TV. My mother always prepared her turkey and stuffing (not just bread, but oyster stuffing, too) the night before and would get up in the wee hours of the morning and trudge sleepily down to the kitchen to put the bird in the oven. She cooked it the "low and slow way", at a temperature of 300 to 325 degrees F, for what seemed at the time, like days instead of hours. In reality, it was proably more like 6 to 8 hours.

When I grew up, got married and took over the hosting duties of the day for our large extended family, I did all that I could to learn new ways of preparing and cooking the turkey and tried more than a few different methods in an effort to obtain the best possible result. I loved my Mom and always will, but her turkey was usually a tiny bit on the dry side. I knew that there had to be a way to cook that bird all the way through and still end up with juicy, tender, flavorful meat. My wonderful Hubbs joined me in that quest, once he developed his own love of cooking and together, we discovered what we believe is a perfectly roasted turkey.

What we found after several years of experimentation, was that the juciest, most tender roasted turkey, is achieved through brining the bird first and then roasting it for a shorter time and at somewhat higher temperatures than my Mom used.

Important: If you're going to brine the turkey you want to start one day ahead for a fresh turkey or two days ahead for a frozen bird.

I've never taken the time to document the brining process in photos, but the video below will tell you everything you need to know about properly brining the bird. I'll follow the video up with the steps that we take from that point forward.

Another important step in roasting a flavorful, juicy turkey is to season it well and to lubricate it (for lack of better terminology) so that the breast meat is both delicious and most importantly, not dried out. A great way to achieve this, is to use a mixture of butter and herbs (often called a compound butter) that's placed between the skin and the flesh. Compound butters are very easy to make.

Roasted Turkey
(serves 15+ people)
  • 1 Turkey (18 to 20 Lbs)
  • 4 Large Stalks Celery, cut into thirds
  • 4 Large Carrots, cut in half or thirds
  • 2 Medium Yellow Onions, unpeeled and quartered
  • 8 Tbls Butter (1 Stick)
  • Assorted Fresh Herbs (see below for suggestions)
  • Salt & Pepper
  • A Roll of Kitchen String or Twine
  • "Instant Read" Meat Thermometer or Digital Temperature Probe
  • More Celery, Carrots & Onions, in place of a rack (*see note in step 11)
Pre-heat your oven to 500 Degrees Farenheit

1. For an 18 to 20 pound turkey, one stick (8 tablespoons) of butter is generally plenty, but if your turkey is a couple of pounds larger or you want to have extra just to be safe, you can soften another 4 tablespoons. (1/2 stick) The herbs can be any combination that you like. You could even use a single herb, if you prefer.
2. Roughly chop about 4 Tablespoons of herbs. For turkey or most other types of poultry, we like a combination of parsley, sage and thyme and since that bird will be in the oven for a while, using fresh herbs is key. Dried herbs could burn more easily. 

3. Place the softened butter, chopped herbs, a teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of pepper in a small mixing bowl and stir well to combine. 

*Tip: Keep in mind that if you decide to mix up the extra half stick of butter, you want to put that amount in a separate bowl. You'll be dipping into and out of that bowl as you're spreading it on the turkey and if it turns out that the extra mixture isn't needed, you don't want it to have had any contact with the raw poultry or your hands.

4. This can be done a day or two ahead by making the mixture and putting it into an airtight container and refrigerating it. You'll just need to take it out of the fridge about 30 to 40 minutes before use to allow it to come back up to room temperature. If you're going to be using it right away, you can just set it aside while you prepare the turkey.

5. Assuming you have already removed the neck and giblets from the turkey and have brined it for the proper amount of time... Remove the bird from the brine and discard it. (the brine, that is) Rinse the bird well under cold water to remove any leftover brine. 

Place the turkey on a large clean plastic cutting board or you can set it in a freshly scrubbed kitchen sink if you don't have he counter space. Pat the bird dry with paper towels, making sure to get it as dry as you can, or the butter won't adhere to the flesh or the skin of  the turkey and it also won't brown as nicely. Don't forget to dry the nooks and crannies under the wings and legs and make sure there's no measurable liquid inside either of the cavities of the bird.
If you've never cleaned/prepared a turkey prior to cooking before, please watch the video HERE.

6. To season the turkey with the herb butter, you need to first make a pocket between the skin and the flesh by finding a loose spot at the front end of the breast (as shown in the photos above and below) and carefully slide your fingers in, gently pulling the skin away, but still leaving it "attached" to the bird.

If you're more of a "visual learner" (as I am) you can watch a quick video that shows how this is done, by clicking HERE.

7. Taking a fairly good sized scoop of the butter in your fingers, start from the "back" toward the neck end of the turkey, being careful not to go out the other side and spread the butter under the skin as evenly as you can, moving toward yourself. 

*Tip: The meat might still be a bit cold and this could cause the softened butter to harden up a bit, but just keep working it and the warmth from your fingers will help to warm it up and keep it spreadable.

8. Make sure to spread some of the butter down into the sides and between the skin on the legs and thighs as well.

9. Take any remaining butter and spread it evenly over the top of the skin.

(Try to make sure to get the butter under the legs and wings as well.)

10. Fill the cavity of the turkey with the cut up vegetables and throw a little salt and pepper in there as well. You can also add a cut up apple or two, or if you like a little citrus flavor, you can use a lemon that's been cut into quarters. Use any leftover stems or leaves from the herbs as well. You can tie them up with some kitchen string if you want to, but it isn't necessary, sice all of the goodies inside the bird will be removed and discarded after cooking.

11. Place the turkey on a rack and set it in a roasting pan that's big enough to hold the entire bird. Note: If you don't own a rack, or if the one you have is the wrong size, you can cut up double the amount of vegetables and spread the second batch evenly over the bottom of the roasting pan, as a bed for the turkey to sit on as it roasts. Throwing a few of the cut veggies in the bottom of the pan will also add flavor to your drippings and then any gravy you make from those drippings.

*Tip: You can "truss" the whole turkey (as seen HERE) or just tie it's legs together in the front and tuck the wings underneath, before placing it in the rack. 

We usually cook a second turkey or a large turkey breast, since it's not unusual for us to have upwards of 30 people here on Thanksgiving. (We also like to have plenty of breast meat left over for those late night/next day turkey sandwiches.)

12. Roast the turkey for 30 minutes at 500 degrees Farenheit and then turn the oven down to 350 Degrees. 

*Tip: If you've brined your turkey, (or frankly, even if you haven't) there is no need to baste it during cooking. The compound butter you've used under and on top of the skin will baste the bird for you. Besides, basting just extends the cooking time, because each & every time you open the oven door, you're reducing the interior temperature.

13. Cooking time: OK... This is where it can seem a little tricky, but don't be intimidated. It's really not so difficult when you follow the steps thatt I've outlined or that are in the (very short) videos I've linked. Your goal is for the turkey to reach an internal temperature of 160 - 165 degrees. Do NOT rely on the "pop-up timers" that come inserted in the turkey. In our experience, by the time it pops, the turkey is already overcooked. Trust me on this one.
If you have a digital probe, just follow the manufacturer's directions and you'll be good to go.
If you don't have a digital probe, you'll need an instant read meat thermometer. (If you don't have one, see a selection HERE) For an 18 to 20 pound turkey, it will take anywhere from 3 & 1/2 to 4 hours to reach the correct internal temp. After the first hour and a half of cooking, check the turkey at 1 hour intervals. 
I know it seems like a pain in the backside, but for the least amount of heat loss when you check it, take the bird out of the oven and shut the door quickly, take it's temperature and then get it back in the oven as soon as possible.

If you need to prepare it ahead of time, the very best way to keep a turkey super moist and tender, is to:
A) let it rest for about 15 minutes afer removing it from the oven, 
B) slice it up into the portions you will be serving
C) place the portions in a large baking dish with a good drizzle of turkey (or even chicken) stock over it and
D) cover it tightly with foil and refrigerate it until about 25 to 30 minutes before you plan to eat.
E) on Thanksgiving Day, take it out of the fridge and place the covered pan in a pre-heated 325 degree oven for about 20 minutes and you'll be amazed by how juicy and tender it is. Even the breast meat!

See all of the lovely drippings in the bottom of that pan? That, my friends is the best possible beginnings to an outstanding gravy for your turkey, stuffing and taters. I'm going to try to get a post up on making your own turkey stock and then gravy from that, either tonight or tomorrow. 
So, now you have all of the steps you need to roast a delicious, juicy, tender turkey, whether you've tried to do it before or not! 
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below and I'll get back to you as soon as possible!

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