Turkey 101: Brining, Roasting, and Carving
The first time I ever brined a bird was with Mama over 10 years ago. I had read about it in Cook’s Illustrated. You know those folks like to brine. They’ll brine anything that doesn’t move fast enough. I was pretty curious so we thought we’d give it a try. We tried an overnight brine with salt, sugar, and spices. The bird was moist and tender with the most beautiful caramel-colored golden brown skin.
It was then I decided I would never not brine a turkey. That’s step #1 for Turkey 101.
Spatchcocking seems to be the rage this year and has “changed Thanksgiving forever” according to some sources. A few years ago, I had one of my better ideas that revolutionized our Thanksgiving. It was a small gathering and we just didn’t need a big bird. So, I bought a small bird and brined it overnight as I always do, then I halved it! I cut the backbone out and split it down the breast. It was an absolute revelation – and only took about an hour to cook. Splendid. Something to keep in mind if you need a smaller-than-normal bird and if you don’t want to cook only a breast. (We froze the other half to cook later.)
What’s all this business about brining? Brining – soaking meat in a saltwater solution – is the key to a juicy, tender turkey. Salt causes the food proteins to form a complex mesh that traps the brine so the muscle fibers absorb additional liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat is juicier to begin with, it cooks up juicier at the end. It sounds a little complicated, but think of a cup filled “over the rim.”
The size of the salt grains used in a brine is very important. Grains of table salt are very fine, while those of kosher salt are larger. The crystals of the two most widely available brands of kosher salt, Morton’s and Diamond Brand, differ. Half a cup of table salt is equal to 1 cup of Diamond Brand kosher salt or 3/4 cup Morton’s kosher salt. My recipes call for Diamond Brand because the conversion is easy at 2:1.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for brining – it all depends on how long you want to brine. However, keep in mind that the stronger and more concentrated the brining solution and the smaller the piece of meat, the shorter the brining period. A turkey is best brined in a weak solution for a longer period of time. For smaller pieces of meat, my philosophy is to use a strong brine that takes an hour or less.
However, for a turkey, I prefer an overnight brine. With a 10 to 15 pound turkey, dissolve 1 cup Diamond Brand kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar in 1 gallon of hot water. Stir until dissolved, then add 1 gallon of ice water to cool the solution. The total amount of water depends on the size of your container. Since most of us don’t have a refrigerator to place a turkey in a 5-gallon bucket, I suggest using a cooler with ice and ice packs. I store the cooler outside since it’s cold. Having said that, make sure to weigh down the lid of the cooler so a curious raccoon or other critter doesn’t take a peak, look-see, or a nibble.
Also, yes, I do brine my heritage bird. I find that the meat stays moist and I prefer the flavor of a pastured bird. It’s too late this year for Thanksgiving for you to order, but keep White Oak Pastures in mind for next year.
What about Roasting? That’s step #2 for Turkey 101. I roast at a higher temperature to start, then reduce the heat to finish cooking. In general, The main point about roasting a big bird is food safety. I suggest using an instant read thermometer. Instant-read thermometers are indispensable when cooking a large piece of meat because, while the doneness of steaks and chicken breasts can often be gauged by touching the meat and feeling for firmness, a large piece of meat such as a turkey needs a thermometer to really see what’s inside. The plastic pop-up timers found in many turkeys are unreliable, often resulting in an overcooked bird. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with an instant read thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.
Here’s a general guideline for cooking times for unstuffed birds:
4 to 8 pounds (breast) 1½ to 3¼ hours
8 to 12 pounds 2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4½ to 5 hours
When carving a turkey, let the bird guide the way. That’s step #3 for Turkey 101. This may sound funny, but the parts should separate at the joints with little or no effort. I often tell my students that if the bird is fighting you, the knife is not in the right place.
Set the turkey breast side up on a cutting board, preferably with a moat to catch the juices. If the bird is hot, I use a clean kitchen towel to protect my hand and fingers instead of a carving fork, but you can use a fork. I prefer to use the towel because it doesn’t tear the skin and I have those chef asbestos fingers. Do what feels comfortable to you.
Pull the leg and thigh back to expose the joint that attaches it to the body.
Somewhat forcefully bend a leg away from the body until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the leg from the body, cutting through the separated joint. As you separate the leg, using the tip of the knife, be sure to get the “oyster,” a yummy nugget of delicious dark meat toward the back of the turkey, just above the thigh. Repeat the process with the other leg and thigh.
Place each leg quarter on the cutting board, skin side down. Use a chef’s knife to cut through the joint that connects the leg to the thigh. (It should be fairly easy to cut through the joint.) Look for a line of fat, and if the knife meets resistance, your knife is hitting bone and is not placed at the joint, which is easy to carve through. So, reposition the blade slightly and try again.
Place the turkey breast side up on the cutting board. Feel for the breastbone, which runs along the top center of the carcass. Begin separating one side of the breast from the body by cutting immediately alongside the breastbone with the tip of your knife. Work from the tail end of the bird toward the neck end. When you hit the wishbone, angle the knife and cut down along the wishbone toward the wing, then make a cut between the breast and the wing.
Finish separating the breast by simultaneously pulling back on the meat and using little short strokes of the knife tip to cut the meat away from the carcass. Slice the breast into 1/4-inch thick slices. (Do the same to remove the breast meat on the other side.)
Find the joint where the wings connect to the body and bend until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the wing from the body, cutting through the separated joint. Using a chef’s knife or your hands, remove whatever meat remains on the carcass. (Reserve the carcass for stock.) Arrange the legs, thighs, wings, and meat on a platter, pour over any accumulated juices to moisten the meat, or use in pan sauce, and serve.
There you have it – Turkey 101 – Brining, Roasting, and Carving. Whether this will be your 1st bird or your 50th, I wish the best for you and yours.
Lastly, as you start your holiday shopping, please know that both of my cookbooks are on sale online AND you can pre-order Lighten Up, Y’all. The Cook’s Warehouse in Atlanta also has signed copies of all my books. For more information, check out my cookbooks page. I’m happy to send you a signed and personalized bookplate if you shoot me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org with “bookplate” in the subject heading.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
ROAST TURKEY WITH APPLE CIDER GRAVY
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 cups kosher salt
1 12 to 14-pound turkey, neck and giblets reserved for stock
1 stalk celery
1 apple, halved
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh oregano
4 fresh sage leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1 onion, peeled
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Apple Cider Gravy, recipe follows
Using a 5-gallon bucket lined with a large heavy-duty plastic garbage bag, combine 2 gallons of water with 2 cups kosher salt as directed above. Add the turkey, cover and chill for 8 to 10 hours.
Heat oven to 425°F, place oven rack in lowest position. Rinse turkey inside and out and pat dry. Rub turkey inside and out with salt and pepper. Place celery, apple, parsley, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, bay leaf and onion in cavity. Working from large cavity end, run fingers between skin and flesh of breast to loosen skin without tearing. Put 2 tablespoons butter under skin and spread butter evenly. Tie drumsticks together with kitchen string and fold wings under body. Put turkey on rack in a large roasting pan. Brush remaining 2 tablespoons butter over turkey, roast 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Baste turkey with pan drippings and continue roasting, basting every 30 minutes, until a thigh registers 165°F on a thermometer, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Carefully tilt turkey to release any juices from inside cavity into roasting pan. Transfer turkey to serving platter. Discard celery, apple, parsley, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, bay leaf and onion from cavity. Allow turkey to rest 30 minutes before carving. Serve with Apple Cider Gravy.
APPLE CIDER GRAVY
1 cup hard cider or sparkling hard cider
4 cups turkey stock
2 large onions, finely chopped
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter,
4 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Remove rack from roasting pan and pour pan juices through a sieve into a 1-quart glass measure. Place roasting pan across two burners over high heat, add cider and deglaze pan, stirring and scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 5 minutes. Pour cider through sieve into glass measure with pan juices, skim fat, reserving 1/4 cup. Add enough turkey stock to drippings to equal 4 cups.
Using a large sauté pan over medium heat, add butter. Sauté onions, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add sage and cook, 1 minute. Add turkey stock mixture and any turkey juices accumulated on platter and bring to a boil. Using a small bowl whisk together flour and reserved 1/4 cup fat. Whisk into gravy, reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
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Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.