Monday, November 2, 2009

Turkey - Which Method is Best

It’s that time of the year when American cooks start to think about making one of the biggest meals of the year. Turkey has become the hallmark of Thanksgiving and sometimes Christmas, and for many people the holidays are the only days of the year they cook or eat this tasty bird. The inexperienced cook often thinks that making a delicious turkey will be as simple and successful as roasting a chicken. But we know that nothing could be further from the truth. The size of bird, which for big families often means 20+ pounds, is one confounding factor as is the way in which the turkey has been bred, raised and processed.

During the past several years I experimented on numerous turkeys in order to find the method that produces the best and most reliable results. In the end there are several methods that will give you a juicy turkey. For example, you can deep fry the bird in peanut oil (they make special outdoor fryers for this. See photo of my seafood boil on this blog, which uses the same device). I did this three times and each time the results were good. However it didn’t provide a lovely smell throughout the home nor did it provide that picturesque photo of the stuffed bird at table. The skin was crisp, but fried, and not the texture one generally associates with a holiday turkey. This method was however, more forgiving than other methods in that it didn’t seem to matter if I used a free range fresh turkey, a previously frozen Butterball, etc. They all came out well and had a similar flavor. Size is limited and because of this, for one dinner I had to make two 12 pound turkeys but since they fry very quickly, this wasn’t a problem.

Rotisserie turkey on an outdoor grill is also quite delicious, but if you need anything more than a small bird, this can be quite challenging as counterweights are generally required to turn a large turkey on a spit, and many grills are not large enough to accommodate the weight and the large bird. If however, you just need a turkey for 2-3 or just want a roasted breast, consider this method using a fresh (not frozen) piece of meat with a dry rub. (I show a juicy breast of turkey on a prior blog post.)

Roasting, which was what most of our mother’s did, is the most traditional method. And while you can find dozens of suggested techniques for this method, lots of trials are required to determine what gives the best overall results.

Selection of the right turkey is obviously key. I tested all of the major brands of frozen versus fresh turkeys. I tried free range and heritage birds. As price is always a consideration, you need to balance the cost with the benefits. Some state that the prepared, frozen turkeys (aka Butterball) which have a salt solution injected prior to freezing are ‘pre-brined’ and ‘pre-basted’. While you will not get a bad result simply following the package directions in a standard oven, the outcome also won’t be the best result for a similar amount of work. In the end, I found the best most consistent result at a reasonable price comes from a freshly killed young turkey (never frozen), but it does not need to be free range or a heritage variety (both more costly.)

Once you’ve selected the bird, you need to prepare the bird for roasting. Some cooks just set a fresh bird (not frozen) on the counter one hour before the roast begins with little other attention. Some suggest a ‘dry brine’ which is a salt/spice rub that you apply to the turkey 4-24 hours prior to roasting, then rinse off and cook. This seems to be the new favorite method of “Cooks Illustrated”. It works and certainly provides for a better bird, but in my opinion is still inferior to wet brining the turkey. This method consists of placing the turkey in a salt/spice bath for 24 hour prior to roasting. You mix water with salt/spices (which you can purchase mixed, or prepare yourself), bring to a boil to dissolve the salt, let it cool, then placing the turkey in a large plastic bag supported by a tub or pan, pour the mixture over the bird and refrigerate it for 24 hours. While it is perhaps more laborious than other methods mentioned here, nothing gives as consistent a result for a moist, tender turkey. This is a key step for excellent results.

Roasting the turkey does imply that you will be placing it in an oven. But these days there are many oven options, including counter top equipment. In general I’ve found countertop ovens and roasters to be inferior. They simply can’t handle the size and the heat is not even throughout the cooking chamber. Most also have inferior capabilities for browning. A standard oven that heats evenly works well, but a convection oven works best circulating the hot over air throughout the chamber. But if you don’t have it, don’t worry as it is hardly essential. (I made the worst turkey of my life using a convection oven, unstuffed bird's legs spread wide and pointed to the fan, ala Food TV's Alton Brown. So even with the right equipment, you can still go wrong.)

Stuffing the bird with a bread dressing is very traditional and gives the finished turkey an overall more round appearance with stuffing that is moist and delicious as it absorbs the juices of the cooking turkey. Generally you need a second pan of stuffing to feed your family, as it is a popular side dish. Compare the stuffing from the pan with what came out of the roasted turkey. I’m sure you will agree the dressing from inside the turkey is much better. However, stuffing the turkey does slow down the roasting time and it will cause the white meat to dry out while the dark meat is finishing cooking. Others suggest that the way around that problem is to start the turkey cooking breast-side down, and then flipping the turkey over part way through (ala Julia Child.) While this method is likely to improve evenness in cooking, not many cooks want to try and wrestle a very hot turkey over part way through cooking.  But I do suggest this method if you don't stuff the bird. If you do use this method, ensure you have on an apron and silicon oven mitts and someone to hold the roasting pan in place when you flip the turkey back over to breast-side up..

My recommended roasting method is this. After rinsing the brine from the turkey, I set it to rest on the counter for approximately one hour. This helps to bring the temperature of the bird up. While the bird rests, I prepare the stuffing and place in a separate baking dish. Next, I give the turkey a massage with softened butter. I do this inside the skin where I can, and then also on the outside of the skin all over the bird, top and bottom. At least ½ cup of soft butter is required. I do this before trussing to ensure I get all of the nooks and crannies. At this point, I follow what is commonly called “The Martha Stewart Method” although she has several. This means warming a bottle of white wine with butter on the stove top. While this slowly heats, using a standard trussing technique, tie the bird to make it as compact as possible to facilitate even cooking. I then season the bird with favorite spices all over.  Add water to a shallow roasting pan, about 1/2 inch to prevent drippings from smoking.  The turkey is then placed in a shallow roasting pan on a rack breast-side down and is ready for the oven which should be preheated to 425F degrees.  Roast in this position for 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and reduce oven temperature to 350F.  Flip the turkey over so the breast side is up. ensuring you have on an apron and silicon oven mitts and someone to hold the roasting pan in place.  Place a temperature probe in the thigh. Now, using a four layer piece of cheesecloth big enough to cover the entire bird, dip the cheesecloth into the wine/butter mixture, which should slightly warm so the butter remains melted but not hot. Lay the wet cloth over the entire bird and return to the oven. Add some additional water to the pan if necessary. Baste the bird on top of the cheesecloth every 30 minutes.  About halfway through cooking, add cut up carrots, onions and celery to the pan around/under the bird. This will, in combination with the basting liquids and juices from the bird, make the best possible gravy. I also through in the neck to add flavor to the drippings.  Continue roasting the turkey until the meat thermometer reaches 170-180F at the thigh (not touching the bone) and 160F at the breast.  Approximately 30 minutes before the end of cooking, remove the cheese cloth and let the bird brown.  Basting several times uncovered and finishing if you wish, with a glaze.

Remove the bird from the oven and let rest while you prepare the gravy by using a food mill to combine the vegetables and liquid. Cook the mixture adjusting seasoning, then strain again to remove larger particles from the sauce (either a fine siv or cheesecloth). Return the liquid to the heat and thicken. Remove the trussing and pins from the turkey. The turkey and gravy are now ready for service.

See my Flickr Page for more photos of my different turkey cooking methods and other Thanksgiving photos


  1. I had a couple private comments about an area I neglected. Carving the turkey. I swear by an electric knife for this purpose. It really does give you the most clean and perfect cut, especially those thin slices of breast meat which you want to have with their crust of skin.

  2. Love this post David. I use the Martha method of cheesecloth with wine/butter basting. Never had a bad turkey! Last year I had a Thanksgiving dinner served for almost 30 people. We roasted two large turkeys (oven) and then also roasted 4 turkey breasts in the Cosco electric roaster. While the oven turkeys were gorgeous in color (compared to the electric roaster) the "juiciness" of the turkey breasts were nicer. Anyway, thanks for your inspirations!

  3. Dianne, Thanks for the post. I concur that Martha's method works best for a whole roasted turkey. But like you said, the juiciness of a roasted turkey breast (bone in) can't be beat. You can get the temperature just perfect. Then you can slice that perfectly done white meat and lay it around the roasted turkey, as it is the most popular part in many families. That's what I'm planning this year, as I'm having 16 for Thanksgiving dinner.