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Nathan Wood: How to make a Thanksgiving turkey that tickles taste buds, part one

Illustration by Amy Mackens
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By Nathan Wood, Daily Food Columnist
Published November 14, 2012

Though praising and bashing the eats in Ann Arbor is my customary modus operandi, I’m shifting course a bit this time around in honor of Turkey Day. Join me as I mix together a few family favorites, a blue ribbon culinary technique or two and some real deal tips and tricks that — served with a pinch of sarcasm — will have you cooking up the perfect Thanksgiving dinner in no time. In this first installment of my five-part Thanksgiving series, we’re getting to the meat (Get it?) of the matter: turkey.

Your first job is to grab a frozen turkey. We’re looking for one about 15 pounds, which — at approximately 1 pound per person — should comfortably feed 15 people. For the more responsible among us, Eberly Farms’ free-range organic turkeys are available in most supermarkets. The cheaper and still delicious alternative is the classic Butterball standby. Whatever you choose, haul the turkey home and force someone stronger than you to stow it in the freezer for good keeping.

On the Monday morning before Thanksgiving, begin to thaw the poultry by placing it in your refrigerator. If you’re cooking a smaller or larger turkey, adjust this timeline by remembering that you need to allow 24 hours of thawing time per five pounds of turkey. Assuming you don’t have room in your refrigerator for the massive bird, you can:

1. Cry on the kitchen floor as you tweet about your #firstworldproblems

2. Binge eat everything

3. Move things around until it fits

Doing all three would also be acceptable.

On Thanksgiving eve, the real fun begins: brining. In this context, brine is a mixture of water, salt and a variety of seasonings that is used as a sort of turkey “marinade.” After soaking in it overnight, your bird will be well on its way to succulent perfection.

Brine Ingredients:

1 gallon vegetable stock
½ gallon apple cider
½ gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
4 fresh bay leaves

Directions:

Combine all ingredients in a Dutch oven or large stockpot over high heat. Stir occasionally until the mixture comes to a boil. Remove from heat, cool and refrigerate for at least two hours. (This brine can easily be made a day or two ahead, as well.)

Pour the brine into a brining bag or five-gallon bucket. Add the turkey and four cups of ice to the container. Store overnight in the refrigerator, on the porch or in a non-insulated garage, as your climate allows.

I cannot emphasize enough the necessity of brining. It’s the only way you’ll ever attain the exquisitely peerless flavor and moistness that your turkey has to offer. Just do it.

After your restful (restless) night of sleep dreaming of succulent turkey (lamenting the snoring of your in-laws down the hall), throw on your robe, grab a cup of Joe and tell yourself, “Today is the day I eat the best turkey of my life.” The lapse of time between the moment you pull the turkey out of the refrigerator and the time you’re looking to eat is approximately four-and-a-half hours, so plan accordingly based on whether dinner is at 1 or 6 p.m.

Start by pulling the turkey and its brine out of the refrigerator. Let it sit as-is for one hour to take the chill off, and preheat your oven to 450 degrees. After one hour — because we’re going to make gravy with the turkey drippings and don’t want them to be incredibly salty — remove the turkey from the brine and rinse it inside and out. Pat it dry and place the bird in your roasting pan. Prepare your own turkey broth by boiling the giblets (that package of organs inside the bird) in four cups of water for 15 minutes. Pour two of the resulting cups of turkey broth into the bottom of the pan.

Now it’s time for the turkey rubdown. In order to get that crispy skin we’re looking for, we need to get some fat all over the bird. My favorite way to do this is to make a faux compound butter.

Ingredients:

1 stick of softened butter
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh sage
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram

Directions:

Chop your herbs and combine them with the butter. (No chilling is required here, which is why I call this a “faux” compound butter.) Get your fingers into the herb butter and rub the turkey all over, including underneath the skin.

As far as stuffing the turkey, don’t do it. It’s often unsafe to eat dressing cooked in the turkey cavity and, frankly, it tastes better when baked separately, anyway. What we will do is throw a few aromatics inside the bird: an onion, a lemon and three cloves of garlic, all cut in half.

And with that, this bird is ready to be popped into the oven. To see its transformation from raw and slimy to crispy and juicy, flip to the second installment of my special Thanksgiving series in Friday’s Daily. It’s gonna be good.


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