Monday, November 08, 2010

Mailbag: Turkey Time!

Brenda from Utah sent via carrier pigeon this missive:

So what are your best tips for cooking Thanksgiving turkey? Nothing fancy, just flavorful and not dry.

The classic Thanksgiving dilemma. So many people eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and so rarely does it come out tasting as good as it looks. Good news: The secrets are simpler than you think.

The biggest thing for a moist bird: Don't overcook it. Most birds come with a little pop-up thermometer thingie. It's cute, but using it means that your turkey is going to suck. The pop-up thermometer goes off at 185°, guaranteeing breast meat as dry as chalk. Get a digital probe thermometer like the excellent ThermoWorks Cooking Thermometer and use that. The meat should register 160° in both the thigh and breast. Usually the breast meat races ahead of the thigh meat; you can mitigate this some by filling a gallon Ziploc bag with ice cubes and draping it over the breast for 20 minutes to half an hour while you heat up the oven. Also on this topic, as tasty as stuffing cooked inside the turkey is, cook the stuffing on the side. If you stuff the bird, the stuffing has to also hit 160°, and the turkey itself will be way overcooked by that point. If you insist on stuffing the bird, put it in a covered dish in the microwave, and zap it, stirring every couple of minutes, until the temperature of it is 130° throughout.

Second thing for a moist bird and biggest thing for a flavorful bird: Brining. Introducing salt to the meat will both keep the bird moist, and make it taste better. Most supermarket birds are already brined. There will be something on the label mentioning it, usually saying something like "Moisture enhanced with up to 10% of a solution". Don't brine these, you'll end up with a bird that is closer to a salt lick. Just take it out of its package the night before cooking and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator so the skin can dry a little for crisper skin on the finished product. If your turkey has not been brined, then brining it will greatly improve it. Lots of people brine theirs by putting it in a salt water solution, but I find this to be a huge pain in the ass when doing it with something as big as a turkey. I prefer to use a method I do for roast chickens: dry brining. Just sprinkle salt (about 3/4 teaspoon per pound, be generous) and pepper all over the bird two or three days in advance, and let it rest covered loosely in the refrigerator. If you want, before sprinkling on the salt, loosen the skin on the breast and thighs, and slide a few sprigs of herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage, what have you) underneath.

Glad you asked, Brenda! Thank you!

If you have a cooking conundrum of your own, just drop me a line and I'll be glad to help you out.