Todd's Turkey

We like roast Turkey (and the leftovers), so we cook it several times a year. A three day weekend is an excuse to cook a turkey (cook it the first day, and gorge on the leftovers the other two days). Though we've never had any difficulty cooking a turkey, we have made some refinements to our techniques that seem to reliably produce a most excellent bird. Most of the individual elements derive from Rombauer/Becker's Joy Of Cooking, but we have combined them in slightly different ways.

First, let's talk size. Once you have cooked a few turkeys, you quickly realize that under about 16 pounds the quantity of meat drops off drastically. The phrase 'skin and bones' comes to mind. We routinely cook a 19-20 pound turkey just for the two of us. This size bird will of course readily feed 10 people, but more importantly (to us) will yield substantial leftovers for a couple of empty nesters. Along with the usual turkey sandwiches and leftover 'hot meals', we usually bang out a batch of turkey soup that makes about 10 quarts; this freezes very well.

The recipe that follows can be seen as a starting point if you've never done a turkey before, though Sharon says this is more like an 'advanced' technique for taking your turkey 'to the next level'. 'Flipping' a roast turkey is not for the faint of heart, but it seems to make a huge difference.

If you haven't cooked a turkey before, you should be aware that the vast majority of supermarket turkeys are sold frozen solid. It takes about 4 days in the refrigerator to thaw a turkey. A too-common newbie mistake is to buy a frozen turkey the night before you intend to cook it.

There may be ways to 'force' the defrosting of a turkey, but I won't go there. Brining (see next step) can shave the defrost time a little. An update: On this last turkey, I had trouble finding one (Memorial Day weekend apparently isn't prime season for some folk...). I finally found one and bought it on Wednesday afternoon and put it straight into the fridge. On Friday morning, I put the still quite frozen turkey into a brine of 3/4 cup salt and two gallons water. This was even more awkward than usual as the bird was so frozen it has hard to get a hold of it. The resultant 'cannon ball' when I accidentaly dropped it in the bucket made a most impressive splash! Saturday morning (24 hours later) the turkey was in shape to cook, and it came out fantastic.

Brining a Turkey - 1 cup of salt, 2 gallons of cold water, 12 hours in a 5 gallon bucket

Whether you've brined or not, wash the turkey inside and out (discard the brine). 'Joy' makes a big deal about patting the bird dry inside and out, but I've never bothered. I do try to make sure the body cavity is well drained. Remove the neck and giblets (oddly, these seem to be reversed in the birds I buy; the neck is in the body cavity and the giblets are in the neck cavity). Place the neck and giblets in a two quart saucepan; this will be stock for gravy. Add to the saucepan:

Let that simmer (add more water as needed) while the turkey cooks.

Prepare stuffing if you like, and stuff the body cavity. If you aren't preparing stuffing (this would be a crime, in my opinion), 'Joy' suggests putting onion, carrot, celery and thyme into the body cavity just to season the bird.

For some reason, turkey lacers were a mystery to me the first time I encountered them; now they seem so simple and obvious to use. I have included some photos of how it's done if you're a 'first timer'. The cheap lacers that you buy in the grocery store seem to come in packs of six; I often need seven or eight for a bird, so buy two six-packs (they're cheap, and you'll be cursing when you need 'just one more'). I use five or six for the body cavity and one or two for the neck.

Cut the tail off and throw it in the stockpot if it's in your way.

'Joy' doesn't say much about closing the body cavity, as though it's not necessary. I find it very necessary for the 'inverted' cooking method. I always lace up the body cavity the same way; the neck seems to be a little different for each bird (as I write this, I'm cooking a bird where I thought I could seal the neck cavity with a single pin, but it got away from me during roasting and I had to repair it with the more traditional 'two pins and lace' method).

'Brenda' wrote me with a nice tip for sealing up the body cavity: you can stick a bread end or 'heel' in there before you lace it up. That way if the skin rips (or it just seems like you can't get it closed) you still have pretty good containment....

'Joy' writes extensively about the problem of the breast being overcooked before the dark meat is fully done. The 'simple truss' and the inverted cooking method seem to take care of that for us. The goal of the simple truss is to get the dark meat (i.e., the legs and wings) to 'cover up' as much of the breast as possible. I think of it as almost a 'defensive posture', how a person tends to cover up their belly and torso when threatened.

As an aside, I grew up with three older brothers. We were all instructed to seek wives with 'wide mouths, white meat'. This was a nod to our own narrow orthodonture, and the fact that we all fought over the dark meat at Thanksgiving. With apologies to my Mother, I'm not as fixated on dark meat since I learned how to cook a turkey with moist white meat......

For the simple truss, start with about six feet of twine. Find the midpoint of the twine, and loop it back on itself to capture both ankles. Draw the ankles up to the breast as best you can. I tend to work on one half of the bird at a time here; the twine goes across the back of the leg and loops around the elbow joint of the wing (the joint between the two meaty parts). When you have both halves suitably captured, bring the ends of the twine up across the breast and tie tightly (a partner helps a great deal to 'hold the knot'). If you've done it right, the wings sort of shield the breast. If you've gone the 'wrong way around' the elbow, the wings stick out awkwardly. Even though I do this several times a year, I struggle with this part each time.

The right roasting pan makes a big difference. We have a Costco (Kirkland brand) heavy non-stick roasting pan with a V-rack. 'Joy' says if you don't have a V-rack, a flat rack and some balls of foil can keep your turkey from tipping. Good luck with this, it sounds awkward. Our Costco pan cost about $35, and it was money well spent. I link to a pricier Caphalon pan at Amazon if you're interested (this one includes the 'turkey forks'). Place the trussed turkey breast side down in the V-rack. Watch out for the lacing pins; don't get stabbed.


and baste the back and legs with about 1/3 of the butter.


Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees F, rack in lowest position. Place turkey (breast side down) and roasting pan in center of oven. Roast for 2 hours if 18 pounds or less, 2-1/2 hours if between 18-21 pounds, and 3 hours if it's 21 pounds or more. Baste with the butter every hour.

If your turkey is large and your oven is small (as ours is), you may note that the side near the back of the oven browns more quickly. It's a good idea to rotate the pan during basting to ensure even browning.

After the 2-3 hours of cooking as described above, it's time to 'flip' your turkey. Remove the roasting pan from the oven. 'Joy' recommends using paper towels to shield your bare hands, simply grasping the turkey at both ends. I did this on my first couple birds, and I have to tell you it can get pretty exciting... Between the hot greasy bird trying to soak through the towels to your palms and the hot handles of the pan threatening the backs of your hands, it's a 'high threat environment' (oh yeah, there's the hot lacing pins to impale yourself on too). I scored a pair of 'turkey lifting forks' and never looked back. An assistant to help at this point is a wise choice. Nine times out of ten, the V-rack sticks to the bird ('non-stick' being a relative term), and your helper can keep the rack in place while you lift and spin the bird.

With the turkey back in the rack and pan breast side up, you're ready to baste the breast (and the rest of the now 'up' side) with the rest of the butter. I have been known to melt another half stick of butter at this point if I'm short.

Return the bird to the oven, still at 325. You need to cook it another 30 to 90 minutes depending on the size. Using a meat thermometer, you want to cook the bird until the thickest part of the thigh meat reads 175 to 180 degrees F. If the turkey is getting 'done' before the breast browns, you can jack up the temperature to 400 F. for the last five or ten minutes. By the way, most of the time the 'pop up' doneness indicator that comes standard on these turkeys does not 'indicate' that it's done when using this method / inspection. Whatever, the turkey comes out very nicely.

A Word about Convection Ovens

Remove the turkey from the oven and transfer it to a platter for 30-40 minutes while you make gravy. If for whatever reason you're not making gravy (another sacrilege), let the turkey stand for about 30 minutes before carving. It's still 'cooking' at this point.

The above turkey recipe happens to dovetail into an easy tasty gravy. All that butter combined with 'brined juices' from the turkey and the stock that was prepared from the beginning are most of what's needed for good gravy.

My roasting pan fits directly on two burners of my stove, and that's where it goes to make gravy. Set the two burners to moderately low heat, and transfer the hot strained (nothing special to straining, just use the lid) stock to the roasting pan.

I have this special tool for making gravy, it's sort of a variation on the 'spiral whisk '. I grew up with one, and I assumed they were easily available until I tried to buy one for myself. I had to hunt around a bit. Turns out my mother (who of course had 'the original' when I was growing up) couldn't find one either, so I bought two and sent her one to replace her broken 40-year-old one.

Loosen the cooked brown bits from the bottom of the pan with the spiral whisk tool. This is the stuff that makes for great gravy; you can't buy it, you have to 'roast your way' to this point. You want to heat the stock and drippings to just barely boiling. At the risk of stating the obvious, the roasting pan (and handles) are really hot, use a hot mitt or wad of towels to stabilize the pan while you're loosening the bits from the bottom of the pan.

Next 'cool tool' item - the Tupperware Quick Shake. I've had this fifteen years or so, and I didn't even know what it was called until I started writing this down and felt I had to research it a little more. It's essentially a Tupperware two cup cocktail shaker, with a little 'mixing disk' in between the top and the bottom. I use it anytime I need to make gravy or anything else that benefits from a smooth flour/water combo.

To make gravy for this turkey, I start with:

I put them all in the shaker and shake till the lumps are gone. Sometimes the flour on the bottom of the shaker needs a few taps on the counter (edge of container) to break loose.

Pour the flour / water mixture into the drippings and stock and immediately stir it in. The basics of gravy (for me, anyway) are to start with a cool flour/water mixture, add it to stock/drippings and heat it while stirring. If you heat it too fast, you'll get lumps. As it heats, it will thicken. As it thickens, it seems to absorb fat (this may or may not be called 'emulsifying'). The art of 'building' gravy involves adding enough flour/water mixture to absorb all the fats, alternating with adding enough hot stock (or hot water if you run out of stock) to thin the gravy if it's too thick. When you have the amount you need, at an appropriate (stabilized, after cooking) volume, stop adding anything but seasoning.

For this gravy recipe, I used minimal salt as a starting point. This is due to much of the drippings being composed of (salted) butter and (brined) juices. Very little added salt is needed in the gravy. Start here, then taste the finished product and add salt and pepper (easy on the pepper) to taste. If you overdo the salt, swiping a little raw potato through the gravy will draw the salt out of it.

Storage and Turkey Soup

We carve out the entire turkey that same evening and store the meat in Gallon ziplock bags. It's much easier to do this all at once, and the meat stays moist and fresh for the best part of a week. Put the carcass (including 'wing tips' and other bits that most folks don't get around to eating) in another ziplock bag or two and make Turkey Soup from it in the next day or two.

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