- Illustration by Amy Mackens
By Nathan Wood, Daily Food Columnist
Published November 16, 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 second installment of my five-part Thanksgiving series, we’re finishing up the star of the spread: the turkey.
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Last time, we prepared our bird for baking by brining, buttering and seasoning it and preheating our oven to 450 degrees. Now it’s time to get that turkey a cookin’. Open the oven door, shove it in (uncovered!) and immediately dial down the temperature to 350 degrees. You see, we want the bird to immediately hit that scorching 450-degree heat to get the compound butter browning the skin, but the bird will burn on the outside if cooked at this temperature until the meat is 160 degrees on the inside. So instead, we’ll let the oven equilibrate down to the lower temperature while the butter browns the skin at the higher temperature. Clever, eh?
The rule of thumb is to then cook the turkey for 12 minutes per pound, meaning we should be able to pull the bird out after three hours. Starting at 45 minutes, and for every 45 minutes afterward, briefly remove the turkey from the oven and baste the breast meat with the stock and drippings from the bottom of the pan. Why? Because white meat — with its lesser fat content — cooks faster than dark meat. So, to prevent the white meat from becoming overcooked and dry as the dark meat cooks properly, we baste it to slow its cooking process.
Now, because we have brined the turkey beforehand and are cooking it without stuffing, it may reach optimal temperature before the three-hour mark. To gauge whether or not this is the case, periodically check the temperature of the breast meat by inserting a meat thermometer deep into the tissue right next to the breastbone. When it reads 160 degrees, we're white-meat-turkey perfect. But, as previously mentioned, the dark meat cooks more slowly than this white meat and also has a higher optimal temperature — 180 degrees — meaning we must separately check its temperature, as well.
If, upon checking, you find that the thigh (dark) meat of the turkey has reached 180 degrees, you’re golden (as the turkey should be, too). Pull the turkey out of the oven and give yourself a pat on the back. If the dark meat is not yet 180 degrees, though, don’t fret. Pull out some aluminum foil and wrap the breasts and wings in it. This will prevent the white meat from cooking too much more as the dark meat cooks freely up to temperature. Leave the meat thermometer in the thigh and pop the turkey back in the oven until it reads 180 degrees.
After baking, let the turkey sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. This is another crucial yet oft-overlooked step. If you were to immediately begin carving the turkey upon its removal from the oven, all of the delicious turkey juices would spill out, resulting in a dry turkey. And since nobody wants that, and you’ve put so much work into developing those juices thus far, just let it be for a few minutes.
After those 15 grueling minutes have passed, the turkey has locked in its juices and is ready to be carved.
Somehow, my dad is the one who always ends up carving the turkey in our family. It’s the only reason he really ever enters into the kitchen all year, save for the late-night and Saturday afternoon football runs to the junk food cupboard. Anyway, if you ask me, he shouldn’t be trusted with an electric knife, so I always find somewhere else to be while he carves the turkey. And for that reason, I have no advice to give on the subject. Try YouTube, I guess.
And that, my friends, is my advice on how to cook the perfect turkey, the staple of Thanksgiving dinners across America.