Teaching myself to cook, one recipe at a time.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Post #1: Turkey

I’ve got to say that the recent spike in views on this blog between Thanksgiving and today make me really happy because it means that people actually check this silly thing. It also makes me aware that I’ve been slacking on posting. I’m going to blame it on tryptophan.

I did cook a lot of food, and I took a ridiculous number of pictures. I’ve decided to split up the meal into a couple different posts, but I’m going to start my Thanksgiving posts with the post important one: the turkey!


Last year was my first year roasting a turkey. Feeling intimidated, I pretty much did exactly what I had grown up watching my mom and her sister do in our kitchen every year, though I turned to a recipe to give me specific ingredient amounts and step by step instructions. In searching for that recipe, I found a lot of recipes for brine. It looked scary and intimidating, so I didn’t give much thought to it and I certainly didn’t attempt it.

This year, I gave it a second glance. More brine recipes kept popping up, and when I started reading reviews, it became clear that brining a turkey is something that people generally try out of curiosity and then repeat every year because it’s so delicious. I was curious about this secret cooking method that everyone seemed to swear by.

The brine I selected (because someone pointed to it and said “Do this one”) had some ingredients I wasn’t familiar with. Like chopped candied ginger. I read that crystallized ginger could also be used. Same thing? Probably. Not sure. I’m a wannabe foodie, so I don’t have to know these things.


I’d never seen it before and expected it to be rock hard, but it was soft and was easy to chop up. I also used black peppercorns and whole allspice (which I hope is the same thing as “allspice berries,” which is what the recipe said to use).


Dump them in a large pot with a gallon of vegetable broth.


Also add a cup of kosher salt (no idea if that’s different than regular salt, but I figured I might as well buy it since I was using so much) and a half cup of brown sugar. God, this recipe is weird. Okay, not really, if you consider what you’re making. The point of soaking the bird in such a salty, flavorful mixture is that the moisture and flavor is drawn into the bird, making for a juicy and delicious meal. Something about osmosis, I don’t know. If you care, ask my brother. He teaches this stuff to high school kids. Maybe I should go back for a refresher course.


Confession: sometimes while I’m cooking, I think about the episode of Magic Schoolbus where Miss Frizzle takes the kids on a field trip inside a bakery, where their school bus is shrunken to the size of a fly and the kids learn about the chemistry of baking a cake literally from the inside of the cake as it’s baking. Is my nerdiness showing?


Okay, brine. I brought it to a boil, and then just removed it from the stove top to cool. When it was room temperature, I put it in the fridge for about 24 hours.


The day before our feast, I unwrapped our thawed bird, removed the neck and liver, and washed the whole thing in cold water.


Mix the cold brine with a gallon of heavily iced cold water. I used a large bucket. Immerse the bird, breast down. Since you’re assuming the breast meat will naturally be the driest, you want it to be the most likely to soak up the brine.


I planned to put mine outside on the balcony, so I wrapped it up in plastic wrap to keep out bugs. And puppies.


And that’s it for the brine!

Now for the other huge thing that I did differently with my turkey. My family has always stuffed our bird. Always. But this year I read a lot of bad things about stuffing the bird, such as the fact that it provides a beautiful place to grow tons of bacteria, or that it messes up the cooking time.

Two other factors were at play, as well. First, my stuffing last year was just okay. I normally love it, so I’m not sure what I did wrong, though I suspect I just put too much inside the bird. But it just wasn’t that great. Second, this year, hubby wanted to make the version of cornbread dressing that he grew up on, a southern alternative to the stuffing of my childhood. The combination of these two things, plus all the bad stuff I’d read about stuffing the bird, led me to follow the experts’ advice and stuff the bird with “aromatics” instead of stuffing.

This involved some fresh sage and rosemary.


It also involved a sliced red apple and a half onion (also sliced).


I added a cup of water and microwaved it for about 5 minutes.


Then I realized I was supposed to have added a cinnamon stick, so I put it in after the water was hot and just let it sit there in the hot apple-onion juice for a while.

I put the sage and rosemary in the bird’s cavity first, followed by the soft apple-onion-cinnamon stick stuff, which I inserted with tongs.

Another new thing this year:

I’ve always thought that turkey took all day to cook. Then I read online that slow-and-low cooking could help the bird dry out, so rather than doing that, you should start off with very high heat and then back off for a quicker cooking period. Also, no basting, because that just keeps letting all the heat out of the oven, kind of how you’re not supposed to pick the lid off your rice while it’s steaming. I was intimidated by this change at first, but after watching videos online, I decided to try it.

What did people do without the internet?

Anyway, I coated the bird in oil and a touch of butter, then placed it uncovered in a 500 degree oven for a half hour.

For that half hour, it smelled like I was doing an oven self-clean. If my guests noticed the bad smell, they didn’t say anything, but it was embarrassing.

Then I covered the bird with a foil shield and reduced the heat to 350 degrees, cooking for another 2 1/2 hours or so. That’s when it started to smell amazing.

It turned out beautifully! Look at that turkey!


Here’s a tip: always let it sit for 20-30 minutes before you carve. I went ahead and put an uncooked casserole in the oven at this point, setting the time for a half hour. If you cut in too soon, you lose all the juices.


While I was waiting, I suctioned out the drippings and worked on my gravy. Here’s the gravy separator that I still don’t really understand.


I didn’t take pictures of the gravy-making process so I’m not going to dwell on it, but I will say this: I’m glad I read reviews about the brine before I cooked. Some people said that you couldn’t really use the drippings for gravy because it was too salty. They were right. I used the fat and a touch of that brown liquid underneath it, but it really was too salty to use very much of it.

As for the turkey, it was a hit. It was so juicy that I had a few moments of panic when I cut in and thought, “Holy crap, it’s undercooked,” before  realizing that it was just really, really juicy. Hubby announced with a mouthful of meat that he’d never had white meat that he’d enjoyed so much. I’m telling you, this was one juicy bird. And flavorful. It tasted a little different than what I was used to, but in a good way. Just yummy.

Like all the other reviewers, now that I’ve done it this way, I’m not going back.

If you want the recipe, google Alton Brown’s Good Eats Roast Turkey, or just wait for me to post it in my tastebook. He does some videos, too. One of the videos even explains the osmosis thing.

So, should my next post be about my sides or my pies? Comment and let me know what you think!

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