Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving Recipes - Part 3, Turkey

The turkey.
The big bird.
The big cheese, so to speak.
(Although, ironically, there was little to no cheese at the first Thanksgiving but the star was venison, not turkey.)

There are many, many ways to prepare this superstar player in the Thanksgiving game, and we're going to explore several of them. Here at the Wannabe Gourmande's house, we like options. But first, let's look at a few fun and simple facts about the domesticated turkey:

Domesticated turkeys are too big and fat to fly, whereas wild turkeys can fly for short distances.

Mature turkeys have about 3,500 feathers; the Apache Indians considered them to be a timid bird, so they would never eat them or use their feathers for arrows.

Benjamin Franklin thought that the turkey was so American that it should be the national bird to signify America, instead of the eagle.

Okay, now that that's over, let's look at the anatomy of the domesticated turkey.

The breasts of the turkey are way too big for flight or any practical usage for any animal that would exist in the wild. Fortunately for us, this means big white breast meat that's lean and easy to cut for leftovers. I think that's why people like white meat. Just easy to cut. I personally prefer dark meat(the legs, thighs, etc.). This is great for us, but when roasting for long periods in the oven. It's too high on the bird to stay moist while all the rest of the bird is cooking, so when oven-roasting, the solution is simple: brine that bitch.

A brine is a solution of salt, sugar, and spices that's been boiled and cooled. It's like a marinade only totally better. Alton Brown on the "Romancing the Bird" episode explains it best, but for the purposes of saving you the trouble of hitting ctrl+T and YouTubing it, allow me to explain:

The bird is sitting in a salty solution of flavorings. Salt draws out moisture first, but that's only the first part. The moisture level inside the bird is now even with the water outside, and water is doing osmosis back and forth between the turkey and the water, carrying the salt and flavorings in between. the salt and flavor, however, gets trapped inside the bird along with all this excess moisture. So now after a good long soak(overnight is best), the breast of the turkey(as well as all the other yummy parts) will stay fabulously moist.

Going back to my notes from school, there are actually ten different cooking methods, broken down into three categories: Dry, Moist, and Combination.

Dry
Braised turkey legs are nice
  1. Saute
  2. Deep-fry(there's no water involved, so technically this is a dry method...trust me, I asked myself in class.)
  3. Grill
  4. Roast
Moist
  1. Boil
  2. Parboil
  3. Blanch
  4. Steam
Combination
  1. Braise
  2. Stew
The turkey is a big, massive thing that can be(technically) cooked in all these ways, but for a moist bird you want to carve at the table, you'll probably want to stick with roasting or deep-frying.

I never deep fry turkeys because I'm a big fat pair of testicles when it comes to that and I'm constantly afraid that this will happen, but here's some tips I learned from my friend Don(a guy I know from school):

  • Regulate the temperature and check it often so the oil doesn't boil over and catch fire
  • Thaw the bird completely and thoroughly(otherwise it will probably explode)
  • Pat the outside and inside of the bird dry thoroughly before immersing in the hot oil
Teaching geeks to cook since 1999
So I'm sorry to tell you that low and slow is not the way to go. It's best to start off with a high temperature to brown the skin(around 400) for about an hour and then cover(either with a shield of aluminum foil molded to the turkey breast or the cover for your turkey pan) and cook on a lower temperature(about 350 to 325) until the turkey is done. You're looking for about 170 degrees when stuck into the deepest part of the bird. Alton Brown has some great tips on it, and you can actually watch many of his episodes of Good Eats on YouTube.

But let me say that you should probably leave the stuffing out of the picture. No, seriously. I know I'm probably going to offend some people by saying not to actually STUFF the bird, but not only does it rob the bird of moisture, but it adds mass and cooking time and soaks up juices for Salmonella to develop. So just do dressing and use the cavity to introduce some new flavor.

Traditional aromatics are called mirepoix, which is a 2:1:1 ratio of onion, carrot and celery. You don't have to cut them up nice and pretty, just break them up to be small enough to stuff in the turkey. (I would grill the onion a little bit to bring out some flavor, but whatever.) The turkey's cavity brings out a great deal of possibilities. Some ideas are:
  • Apple halves
  • Orange/citrus peel
  • Celery stalks
  • Grilled peeled carrots
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Sage leaves
  • Rosemary sprigs
  • Thyme sprigs
  • Tarragon sprigs
  • Fresh Parsley
  • Garlic cloves
  • Onion halves
I am totally hot and lightly seasoned for you
Another option of introducing flavors is rubs. Many rubs can be found nowadays for great prices in your local supermarket premixed. You can also be creative and make your own. Just do me a favor and keep the salt content on your rubs LOW. You want to do this because a.) the brine will already season your bird, and b.) salt draws OUT moisture onto the skin and therefore will prevent proper browning for your turkey in the oven.

Also, don't baste. Unless you're the Olympic Gold Medalist in basting speed, the constant opening and closing of the oven doors, changing of pressure and temperature will just ultimately harm your bird and keep it from cooking properly for a very long time. So just save yourself the trouble and leave it alone and let it get all hot and sexy on its own. This guy has the right idea.