The Perfect Turkey

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This may sound egotistical but I know a LOT more than you do about cooking a turkey.

Allow me to explain…

Back in 1999, when I was teaching at the California Culinary Academy, I was involved in both the cooking and the tasting of the San Francisco Chronicle Food section’s Turkey Challenge. Over a two week period, we cooked 28 turkeys to find the best method of producing a plump, juicy and flavorful bird.

We brined some turkeys and left some uncovered overnight in the refrigerator. We roasted some, barbecued others, deep fried one and even smoked another. We cooked some breast up and some breast down. Some we basted and some not, some were covered in the oven and some not. Some were stuffed and some not. We cooked turkeys at an oven temperature varying between 325º to 450ºF. Are you getting the picture?

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Our favorite, by far, was the turkey that we brined before roasting at 350ºF. Brining produces an incomparably juicy turkey, with wonderful flavor and texture.

The God of kitchen science, Harold McGee, said in his New York Times’ Curous Cook column,

[Brining is] a flexible technique that makes a remarkable difference in the moistness of the meat, especially the breast… The sodium [in the brine] attaches to the long, intertwined muscle proteins and causes the proteins to push apart from one another. This makes room for more water, and salt, and weakens the muscle fibers. The water flow reverses, so that water and more salt move from the brine into the meat.

Brined meats end up gaining 10 percent or more of their original weight in water and salt. Then when they’re cooked to well done, their swollen muscle fibers can lose moisture and still have enough left to seem juicy. And the weakened fiber structure makes them seem tender as well.

Here’s the technique. Place 2½ gallons cold water in a pot that can easily hold the liquid and the turkey. Add 2 cups kosher salt , 1 cup sugar, 2 bay leaves torn into pieces, 1 bunch fresh thyme, 1 whole head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled, 5 whole allspice berries crushed and 4 juniper berries, smashed. Stir for a minute or two until the sugar and salt dissolve. Put the turkey into the brine and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. If necessary, weigh it down with a plate to keep it completely submerged in the brine.

If you don’t have room to brine the turkey in the refrigerator, use an ice chest. Place the turkey and the brine in a double-layer food-grade plastic garbage bag. Smoosh out all the air pockets, close the bag and pack it in the chest with ice.

When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Give your turkey a quick rinse and spread 2 tablespoons of softened butter on the skin. Season with 4 to 5 teaspoons of kosher salt plus 1 to 2 teaspoons ground black pepper on the skin and inside the cavity. Tuck the wing tips under, truss the legs and place the turkey on a V-shaped rack in a roasting pan.

Tent the breast with foil and place the turkey in the oven. After about 1 hour, remove the foil and baste. Continue basting the turkey with pan drippings every 20 minutes or so. If the legs begin to over brown, cover them loosely with foil. Roast until the internal temperature registers 165ºF at the thickest part of the thigh, about 3½ hours total. Start checking the internal temperature after about 2½ hours of roasting time.

Before carving, let the turkey rest 20-30 minutes after taking it out of the oven; the internal temperature will continue to rise several degrees.

Then there’s the leftovers. Zip-lock plastic bags, bulging with white and dark meat that will most likely end up on sandwiches or eaten at midnight standing at the fridge. Save the leftover carcass for soup stock. Then, try tossing the meat in a pasta with currants and roasted butternut squash; stir-fry it Cantonese-style with onions and green beans or make a curried turkey salad topped with radish sprouts.

Keep in mind that simplicity is the key to post-holiday cooking.

See What to Drink with Your Turkey? and For more information on Heritage Foods and heirloom turkey see Turkey in August?

image credit: MaxMilli0n under a sxu license

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