Food for Thought: Turkey Tips for Thanksgiving

|by Linda Viertel|

Benjamin Franklin may have contended that the turkey was a more appropriate symbol of the new United States of America than the bald eagle, but luckily he lost that argument. As a result, we have enjoyed roast turkey ever since the first Pilgrim fall feast celebration, given in thanks for a good harvest. In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress that instituted Thanksgiving as a national holiday, now always celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. And, since the 1980’s Presidents have been granting one lucky turkey an honorary pardon, a ceremony which allows the bird to live and roam free on farmland.

turkey-croppedTurkey has become the one constant in most every Thanksgiving meal, whatever varied cultural, ethnic, or regional culinary contributions are brought to the table. Much has been written about the best and only way to cook a turkey. Some prefer brining the bird for several days in a salt, herb and spice based mixture that is absorbed into the meat for more succulence. Other cooks will tell you that turkey skin is too tough to absorb the brine for full effect and that soaking in water will preclude achieving a crisp skin. Many prefer slow cooking the bird, while others prefer an initial high temperature to crisp the skin and seal in moistness before turning the temperature low.

Then, there are debates about how to achieve the crispiest turkey skin- a treasured Thanksgiving treat in our household. To insure most breast meat, try putting bacon slices atop the breast, covered with cheescloth and slathered with butter and olive oil. Then remove the bacon/cheescloth for the last 45 minutes of roasting in order to brown the protected skin. (Gobbling up the crunchy bacon may be the first delight of any Thanksgiving dinner. Eating bacon in the kitchen amidst the warmth and familiar smell of the bird roasting has to be one of the holiday’s greatest secret pleasures).

Many critics decry any implanted pop-up mechanisms to determine when the turkey is done as well as the use of butter products pre-injected into the turkey meat, though thousands use these methods, and you can too. However, if you want to rely more on yourself than on commercial aids, you can not only make certain when your turkey is done, but you can help your turkey retain tender meat by the following method: carefully lift the skin from the breast sides, then insert high quality butter by pushing softened pats in under the skin. Turn the bird over and repeat with the softened butter under the skin in the thigh meat area. Not only will you be taking control, you will have the added cook’s certainty of knowing what has been inserted into your turkey – no fake butter, hydrogenated fats, or margarine.

Debates rage concerning the buying of a frozen turkey, or a fresh one, ordering an organic or naturally raised turkey or purchasing a generic bird from the local grocery store. Cost, timing and individual preference should be your guide. But, just in case you still have any concerns on Thanksgiving Day, know you can call the Turkey Talk-Line, a holiday help feature since 1981: 1-800-288-8372.

Here’s my version of a treasured recipe- Zuni Chicken (created by the late San Francisco chef, Judy Rogers and named for her Zuni Café) adapted for roasting a crispy, tender turkey. It’s terrifically simple, only requiring salting the bird 2 to 3 days before roasting and air-drying in the refrigerator during that time. If you have room in the fridge, a turkey purchased the Monday before the holiday, and some kosher salt on hand, you have everything it takes to bring forth a moist bird with the crispiest, tastiest skin.

Thanksgiving Turkey – Zuni Chicken Style

  • 1/4 cup kosher salt (approximately)
  • 1 turkey – any size
  • stuffing of your choice or fresh herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme) and halved lemons
  • Gravy ingredients will include chicken broth, your choice of fresh herbs (see above), Madeira or sherry, flour, butter, salt and pepper.
  1. Two to three days before Thanksgiving, wash and thoroughly dry your turkey. Heavily salt the skin over the entire bird, turning it over and rubbing the salt in. Make sure you salt the cavities as well. For moister meat, carefully separate skin from meat in both the breast and thigh areas and push softened pats of good quality butter in between the skin and meat.
  2. Place turkey on a rack in the refrigerator and turn over each day to air dry evenly.
    On Thanksgiving morning, take the bird out well before roasting to bring it to room temperature. Stuff it with your favorite stuffing or, if you want to bake the stuffing separately as dressing, stuff the turkey with rosemay, thyme and sage plus several half lemons.
  3. Turn the oven up to 450 degrees and let pre-heat for about 20 minutes. If you have a black cast iron skillet large enough, you can heat it on top of the stove and place the turkey on it until it starts to sizzle, then place the skillet directly in the oven. If your turkey is too large, just place it on a rack in a roasting plan with low sides (you want to make sure the heat hits the skin as directly and fully as possible) in the 450 degree oven.
  4. Roast at 450 degrees for 20 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 350 and roast until a meat thermometer registers 150 to 155 degrees. (I use a digital thermometer that can be inserted for an immediate read). Most cookbooks recommend you plan on about 12-15 minutes per pound, but in my experience, turkey usually gets done well before you think it will. Also, once out out of the oven, it will still continue “cooking”, and will reach an internal temperature of 160 to 165 degrees after 15 or 20 minutes. You can use that time to make gravy.
    I have found that a 16 pound turkey is done in 3 hours when high-roasted first.
    For a low-temperature roasting, set the oven at 325 and allow 15 minutes per pound, but check with the meat thermometer before you think the bird is ready, because it will often be done before you expect, even at low temperature cooking. It is always preferable to have a moist, slightly pink interior than a dried out stringy meat texture.
  5.  Remove the bird to a carving platter and use the roasting pan or skillet to make the gravy. If there is a lot of fat in the pan, pour most of it off, but leave a few tablespoons. Add an equal amount of flour to the amount of fat (you’ll be guessing, but add two or three tablespoons) and cook for a few minutes, stirring with a whisk. You can add some fresh sage and thyme at this point, or rosemary if you prefer, and, if you like, a little sherry or Madeira. When the flour has darkened a bit after a few minutes, add about a cup of chicken broth, stirring constantly until the mixture has thickened and you’ve incorporated all the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. If the gravy is too thick, add more broth until you have it the way you want it. Taste for salt and pepper, and you will have a rich, fresh tasting gravy to complement your turkey and stuffing preparation. Strain it from the pan into a gravy boat and serve. The bird will now be ready to carve.

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