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Turkey 101

I know Martha always titles her how-to guides in this way. Sorry. Anyway, I think my way to the perfect Thanksgiving turkey is better than Martha's. When I want to cook something and need to research basic technique, I generally turn to Martha, to Mark Bittman, to The Joy of Cooking and to Lynne Rosetto Kasper, and their collective turkey roasting advice has been very good to me. But in this case, Martha's method for classic roast turkey is also classically Martha: a lot of effort and flash for very little result. She commands that butter-and-wine-soaked cheesecloth be placed over the turkey breast and constantly refreshed with more of the rich liquid. Feh. Not worth it.

[Note to those expecting a guest appearance from my old doppel, MothraStewart: sorry, her free TMF membership expired.]

Now, let's get to it. One disclaimer first. This is the way I do a turkey, and my credentials are that I'm a really good cook. Not a perfect cook or a professional cook, but a good one. I also know a lot about food. Other than that, I'm a hack, so don't listen to me. You can roast your turkey any way you want, yes, even spray it with Pam® like a complete dork. That's up to you.

THING #1: Buy a quality turkey. By quality, I mean a bird that has been grown free-range and organically (not necessarily certified, grown in accordance with organic standards will do), free of nitrates, antibiotics, artificical flavoring, sodium phosphates, and other junk. Grocery stores sell “all-natural” turkeys, which usually just means they don't have flavoring added, but “all-natural” means jack.

You can get a quality turkey from a local grower, farmers' market, cooperative grocer, and sometimes upscale markets. You may need to order your turkey in advance, depending on the supply of the store or the grower's flock. You may be asked to specify a weight range and whether you want a tom or a hen. Toms are bigger (good-sized ones range from 25-35 pounds) and will cook a bit faster because they are less fatty; they also have more meat per pound. Some people prefer hens because the flavor is more delicate and they make better stock. If your turkey is fresh, you will pick it up on Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving; if it's frozen, you may be able to pick it up a week or more in advance, depending on the killing (oh, get over it—that's that they do) schedule.

The term “free-range” makes people get all giggly and afeared of hippies, but all it means with turkeys is that they're allowed to run around instead of being caged. Turkeys are stupid, excitable, and destructive animals, so keeping them free-range is a time-consuming, expensive and challenging way to raise birds. However, if you're concerned about humane methods of poultry production, rest assured that (in the words of a local turkey producer) “the only bad day these birds have is the day before Thanksgiving"). If you're not concerned about it, and in fact are the type who loves to pull the wings off houseflies and torture small squirrels, you'll be rewarded for your concern about turkey comfort, because here's what you will get with a real, quality, chem-free, non-caged bird:

a. Superior flavor, less fat, more evenly cooked meat, and tender texture. You won't believe the difference between a Butterball and a quality turkey.
b. Little or no risk of salmonella.

“a” is swell, but “b” is key. About half of all factory-raised turkeys are infected with salmonella, due to the cramped and often unsanitary conditions in which they are raised. The FDA's advice for countering this is generally to cook a bird until its inner temperature is 185 degrees (also known as “overcooking”). With a clean, quality bird—when you know where and how your turkey was raised and killed—you need not worry and you need not overcook.

Please note that quality turkeys cost in the neighborhood of $2.00 to $2.50 per pound. Before you get all outraged, please remember that this isn't LBYM, and please take into account what I have just told you about how expensive it is to raise clean, quality poultry in a sustainable way. Those birds that cost 69 cents a pound? Someone's getting ripped off, I assure you. Hey, wait a minute—everyone's getting ripped off!

THING #2: The most important thing you can do to ensure a turkey that is fully cooked, yet not dried out the way your sister-in-law always makes it, is to brine the bird—soak it in a light salt water solution before roasting. What you are doing is “curing” the meat (it's similar to what is done to hams, bacon, gravlax, etc., but with those cures, a salt mixture is put directly on the flesh, whereas the brine is a much weaker salt solution). I won't bore you with the science of it (I don't understand most of it anyway) but the result is that the bird is subtly flavored (not at all salty like a ham), cooks more evenly, and retains more moisture while roasting.

Make a solution of 1 cup of sea salt (pleeeeaaaase don't use iodized salt … once you start using sea salt, you'll notice what a chemical-y off-taste iodized salt has) to 1 gallon of cold water. You can play with this ratio a bit, and some like to add sugar as well. I usually do 1 cup of salt and ¼ c. of sugar to 1 gallon of water, and once I added some apple cider in place of half the water. Rinse the turkey, remove the neck and giblets, and immerse it in the brine.

Small birds can brine in your refrigerator, in a large stockpot or bucket with a lid. Large birds, well, you're on your own. I live in a cold climate, so the back porch or deck works fine for brining (the salt keeps the water from freezing), and I use a large plastic Rubbermaid® tote as a brine tub.

Brine at least 12 hours for birds under 10 pounds, and up to 18 hours for larger birds.

THING #2: Bring the bird to room temperature before roasting. Rinse off the brine, pat it dry, and let it sit at room temperature for about an hour to “temper.” Official food-safety guides and the pamphlets you get from your state extension service will tell you never to do this, and as deep and abiding is my love for all things from the extension service, don't listen. Temper the bird. Remember, if you have a quality bird, you will not get food poisoning from it.

Tie the legs together and put some aromatics (thyme branches, a cut-up apple, garlic cloves, etc.) in the cavity if you wish. The issue of whether to stuff will not be discussed here (but do not, DO NOT purchase a pre-stuffed turkey, because then you WILL be flirting with food poisoning).

THING #3: Roast that baby breast-down. Gravity ensures that the juice runs down to the breast, keeping it from drying out. Place the bird breast-side down on the rack or in the roasting pan. Cook it that way for 2/3 of your total roasting time, then flip it into the more traditional breast-up position. The experts say that the breast-down-flip-later method is only feasible with a bird of less than 15 pounds, and I say they are wrong. I've done it with a 27-pound tom, oven mitts I didn't care about, and the help of a spotter, uh, sous chef. The key is confidence. One person grabs the turkey (one hand in the cavity, the other around the legs), the second person holds the rack and pan steady. Ready, set, flip.

THING #4: Cauterize the bird. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. After you put the bird in, drop it to 350. This will put a nice seal-coat on the outside of the bird and keep more juices inside, where they belong.

THING #5: Another extension-service-disobeying, FDA food-safety-ignoring feat. Roast the bird until the internal temperature (stainless steel meat thermometer—not the digital ones please—stuck in the thickest part of the thigh) reads 160 degrees. That's right. Not 185, not 180. For one thing, if your bird is clean and of quality, you're not worried about salmonella, remember? For another, when you take the bird out of the oven, its internal temperature is going to rise another 10-15 degrees. Turkeys cooked to a 185 reading may actually reach 200 after they come out, which means the poor breast meat is reaching 210 or 215 and no amount of brining will save it.

Miscellaneous things:

-Rub the bird with extra-virgin olive oil or real butter before roasting. Refined oils (basically, anything that isn't expeller-pressed) are bleached, sanitized, and free of the solids you need for even browning.

-General guide: 10 minutes per pound for birds up to 15 pounds, 8 minutes per pound for larger birds. Start checking internal temp about 90 minutes before you think it's done.

-If the bird starts to get too dark, make a little tent out of foil and cover the browning parts with the tent.

-Those “roasting bags”? If you use them, you're not roasting a turkey, you're steaming one. Also, cooking food in plastic releases all sorts of nasty substances into your food. Yuck. Avoid. Shun the bag.

-Spray the turkey with Pam®? Please, no. I beg of you. Grasp the can of Pam®, walk over to the garbage can (or preferably, take it to your local solid waste hazardous substance disposal drop-off site) and throw it away. It is double-nasty.

-For birds under 10 pounds, figure 1 pound for each person eating; for larger birds, fig—oh, screw it, you want leftovers anyway, just buy a big turkey.

-Basting? Why bother pouring liquid over the crisping, nonabsorbent skin of a turkey? Relax and go peel potatoes.

-Hey, I can't make decent gravy either, but with a quality bird, just put the pan drippings into a gravy boat and call it au jus. It'll be the best “gravy” you've ever had.

good luck

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