Every year there seems to be some elaborate new Thanksgiving turkey preparation technique. For a while we were all deep-frying the poor things, and our parents once tried putting a can of soda in the cavity. To baste from within, or something. By 2014 we have probably reached peak turducken, but nesting poultry is still a thing. Other tricks like butterflying (spatchcocking) and brining will have their day. These techniques have one thing in common. There is always the one anecdote of success, and a quiet majority that knows turducken was still pretty bland.
Yes the turkey is the focus of the Thanksgiving meal, but that does not mean it should be the focus of our cooking efforts. Look — turkeys are incredibly lean birds. They lack duck’s self-basting fattiness, or a chicken’s mild but distinctive flavor. Instead of endangering your porch or driveway with a dubious single-purpose deep-fryer, just put the bird in the fucking oven. Turkey is always dry, and you should accept the zen of this statement. Focus on your vegetable sides and gravy, and you will have a much better dinner.
Here is how to do Thanksgiving turkey right:
- Order an organic, hormone-free, all-natural, free-range, beer-fed, daily-massaged, Wagyu, Angus turkey from a farm in Portland. Or do whatever is your closest approximation. Preferably he’s named Colin. (Yes, all eating turkeys are male, because the females lay eggs. Duh.) This might be the only decision that will actually matter for the bird’s taste and juiciness. Avoid a bird that has been frozen. Order about a pound of bird per person at your dinner, adjusting for kids and vegetarians.
- Preheat your over to 450 degrees fahrenheit, or whatever that is in Europe.
- Prepare a little bowl of seasoning. I like kosher salt, lots of cracked black pepper, minty and citrusy dried herbs like marjoram, and a pinch of sugar. You want several tablespoons of seasoning mix.
- Wash the bird inside and out, removing the giblets (offal) inside. Yes, washing poultry may get food-borne nasties like Salmonella all over your kitchen. That is why you have paper towels and a disinfectant handy. Also make sure the bird is fully plucked. An old pair of dull tweezers can help. The more hippie your bird (see #1 above), the more likely it is to have some lingering feathers.
- Dry the bird with paper towels. Brush him with melted butter, and then sprinkle all over with your seasoning mix.
- Turn the bird upside down on your roasting pan. This bastes the dry breasts with the meagre fat that is in the bird. Oh, and the butter. Butcher-tie the legs and wings close to the body, if you are feeling fancy.
- Just put the bird in the fucking oven.
- After about a half-hour, or whenever the bird gets brown, turn your oven down to 325 degrees. Then after about three hours more, check the temperature inside a thigh. You want at least 165 degrees fahrenheit, but remember the bird will continue to carry-over cook a bit after you pull it out of the oven. Do not baste the bird, since this loses the heat in the oven and does not help much anyway. Do not open the oven to peek and smell and fret every ten minutes, even if your guests have arrived. Do not cover just the right breast with aluminum foil, and do not stuff the bird. It will all work out, I promise.
The Gravy to End All Gravies
I have been proposed marriage by men and women both, for my gravy. Get some chicken stock and a glassful of sherry boiling in a sauce pain. Add the turkey giblets. Turkey kidneys for the win! If you have some mirepoix chopped-up (onions, carrots and celery), toss them in the pan. Simmer for 45 minutes-or-so.
Since you have been smart and not bothered basting the turkey (right?), your roasting pan probably has a bunch of browned juices and fat. This is fond, the nectar of the gods. Strain your simmering stock right into the roasting pan. Scrape all that lovely fond up into the liquid, with a wooden spoon. (If you do not have wooden cooking spoons, you are a bad person and will always be a failure as a cook.) Return the liquid to your sauce pan, and simmer for about 20 more minutes, then strain again into a new saucepan.
Make a roux in a non-stick pan on the side. I use bread flour and whole, unsalted butter in approximately equal portions by volume. (Don’t overthink this.) Stir the roux as your butter melts. If you want to feel southern, let the roux brown a little bit. Whisk the roux into your simmering stock, and boil for ten minutes to thicken. Add some lemon juice and a ton of salt. If the gravy does not taste right, add more salt. If it still does not taste right, add more salt.
I can hear you asking about the cornstarch… Remember that part about making the best gravy ever? This requires butter, as all good things do. Compared to the glory that is roux, cornstarch is weak sauce.