It’s amazing how many people I speak with who don’t think they can cook a turkey, at least one with moisture and flavor. Turkey is not difficult if you know a few tricks.
I guess the first would be getting the right bird. I avoid all those pre-brined (“Honey Brined”) birds. Pumping water into the meat will give you moisture, but who wants a watery turkey. I buy a good quality, fresh turkey with as little added water as possible.
As an aside, how come my “fresh”, “never frozen” turkeys and chickens always range from down right crispy with ice crystals to rock-hard frozen? Does the butcher use a different definition of “frozen” than I do?
Okay, we’re back. Number One: high quality bird. Number Two: dry brining. We will ignore the controversy about whether this is really brining or actually curing. A rose by any other name…. We are not going to dump our high quality bird into gallons of water and salt to sit for hours. Yes, this method will introduce moisture into the bird, but we are right back to the watery turkey again.
With dry brining, we are going to spice the turkey, cover it with a couple tablespoons of kosher salt, put it into a bag and refrigerate it. We are then going to let it sit for three day, turning it over every day. I don’t know the science behind it, but here is what I think happens. The salt draws moisture out of the turkey. The moisture mixes with the spices that you put on the bird. Then the spiced moisture is drawn back into the meat. You will notice that the bag will develop a watery mixture after a day and that by day three it is gone. I think something changes in the cellular structure of the meat, as well, but I will leave that to the scientists. From the chef’s perspective all you need to know is you end up with a moist, flavorful turkey and, after all, is our goal.
The night before cooking, remove the turkey from the bag and pat the skin dry with paper towels. Place the turkey on a plate and refrigerate uncovered overnight. This step ensures you end up with nice crispy skin. . . . or I should say, your turkey ends up with nice crispy skin. It is probably not your goal to turn your skin crispy! If it is, while the turkey is brining, visit the local tanning salon for three days, turning daily.
A few word on spices: let your imagination run wild! I have done Southwestern Turkeys with Ancho chili. I have done Miso Turkeys. You can use any citrus. I have used lemons, limes and oranges (not all together, but you could). This year it was Mediterranean Turkey, but more on that in a minute. The point is, think outside of the box . . . the Bell’s Poultry Season box that is.
Another trick is you want to get under the turkey’s skin, literally not figuratively. Get your fingers between the skin and the breast meat and work the skin loose. Liberally apply spice under the skin. This gets more spice into the meat and not just on the surface. Spicing well is trick #3.
There are many different ways to cook a turkey. You can roast it, grill it, smoke, fry it, sous vide it and probably a dozen other ways. I roast it in a Reynolds Oven Bag. I use the bag because it cooks faster and stays moister. Not a bad combination. Reynolds is still using old guideline on the turkey temperature. You can safely cook the turkey to 165 degrees F. You do not need to go all the way to 180 degrees. Concerning temperature, pull that little plastic pop-up thermometer out of the bird when you first get it and throw it away. Get a reliable meat thermometer and use it. Trick #4: proper cooking.
That is all there is to it! Buy a high quality bird, use some interesting spices, dry brine it and cook it properly. Overcooking the turkey is probably the biggest problem that people have. Overcooked turkey is tough and dry. The solution: a good thermometer and cooking to the proper temperature.
Thanksgiving Dinner was at my daughter’s house this year and I cooked my Mediterranean Turkey. The spice combo: Za’atar, Pomegranate Molasses and Garlic.
Za’atar is a Middle Eastern blend of herbs, sesame and salt. The blend varies from region to region, but is widely used. One of the main ingredients is Sumac. No, no, not the poison stuff we know in the Northeastern US. Sumac spice is the dried, ground fruit of the Elm-Leaved Sumach or Tanner’s Sumach shrub. The za’atar I used is thyme based. Za’atar can be purchased in any Mediterranean Grocery or the international section of most chain groceries.
Pomegranate Molasses might be a little harder to find. I can buy it a Wegman’s in the international section right near the za’atar. This time, I bought it at Whole Foods who had it with the regular molasses.
13 lb. Fresh Turkey
6 Tbsp. Za’atar
4 Tbsp. Pomegranate Molasses
4 cloves Garlic, minsed
6 Tbsp. Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. Kosher Salt
Juice of two limes
1) Rinse and dry Turkey
2) Combine 4 Tbsp. Za’atar, Pomegranate Molasses, Garlic and 4 Tbsp. Olive Oil in a small bowl.
3) Generously coat Turkey with spices including all surfaces and under the skin.
4) Sprinkle Turkey with Kosher salt on all surfaces and rub to ensure it is evenly coated.
5) Place Turkey in brining bag and refrigerate for 3 days, turning daily. (Reynolds nicely supplies two oven bags. I use one for brining and the other for cooking.)
6) The night before cooking, remove the Turkey from the brining bag. Pat dry with paper towels. Put Turkey on a plate and let sit overnight in the refrigerator, uncovered.
7) Remove Turkey from the refrigerator one hour before cooking to bring to room temperature.
8) Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
9) Place Turkey in clean oven bag.
10) Mix 2 Tbsp. Olive Oil and Lime Juice in a small bowl.
11) Pour Oil/Lime mixture over Turkey and sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. Za’atar.
12) Close bag with provided tie and make slits in bag, as directed.
13) Roast for 2 – 2 1/2 hours, until thermometer in thickest part of the breast reads 165 degrees F.
14) Remove from oven and let stand covered with aluminum foil for 30 minutes.
15) Slice, serve and enjoy.