How to Not F*** Up Your Turkey
With the counsel of a few seasoned pros, we amp up the flavor (and the moistness) while also simplifying a notoriously overwrought recipe.
By Kendra Lee Thatcher
Thanksgiving 2002. My best friend, Lisa, introduces me to what will become my new holiday obsession. The evening is a perfectly orchestrated scene from Martha Stewart’s playbook. Summoned to the dinner table, we gather around the glistening turkey, a fire roaring behind us, Bruce Springsteen roaring over the fire.
Until tonight, I’d only known flavorless, white breast meat drowned in gluey gravy. With ninja-like swiftness and precision, Lisa grips a leg, rips it from the carcass, places it on my plate, then repeats the process and places the other on hers. Sisters in legs. Not really. I stare at mine for a good while, trying to figure out the best way (read: the least embarrassing way) to go about this. Finally, I look over at Lisa, who’s already polished off hers. No help there. Screw it. I pick it up and start gnawing away like I’m at Medieval Times. The skin, caramelized and crisp, seduces me at first bite. The dark meat’s so, so moist and laced with herbs, nutmeg and orange. This is what turkey’s supposed to taste like?! How did I make it into adulthood without realizing this?
Every year since, I’ve had dibs on the leg. It won’t be so clear-cut this year, though, because I’ll be playing the role of Lisa for the first time. Those legs aren’t naturally that moist, and nutmeg-y and citrus-y. Which means I’m in trouble. So I called around and asked a few friends who should know, flat-out, “How do I not f— up my turkey?” The following is the step-by-step plan I assembled from their advice and tested during a recent trial run.
Step 1: Buying
Convenient as those massive grocery store-birds are, shell out for a fresh, local, heritage turkey. They tend to be smaller and more manageable.
“The smaller the bird, the less time in the oven. The less time in the oven, the juicier the meat,” says Ian Knauer, who established The Farm Cooking School in Stockton, New Jersey.
I bought an 11-pound, Lancaster-raised turkey at None Such Farm Market in Buckingham. I had it quartered, based on the recommendations of Emily Peterson, the host of “Sharp + Hot” on Heritage Radio, and Matthew Martin, the owner/chef of More Than Q BBQ Company. The butcher broke down my bird into two breast-wing and leg-thigh segments, bones-in, skin-on and odds and ends packaged to make stock with.
Step 2: Prepping
Pour yourself a glass of wine. Proceed.
I’m a fan of adding fat under the skin. So when Ian reiterated this, I felt completely validated. I mashed up zesty-herb butter and massaged it into the meat. But I didn’t stop there. I then slathered the reserve fat from smoked bacon all over the skin and seasoned it with salt and pepper.
Also: “Lightly trussing the quarters will ensure the skin stays on and the juices stay in,” Matthew says.
I mixed brandy, fresh orange juice and star anise to roast and baste the turkey in. I picked that little cocktail up from Diana Paterra, the owner/chef of DeAnna’s Restaurant and Bar in Lambertville, NJ, and now I’ll never use another.
Step 3: Roasting
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. In two large roasting pans, place a “veggie rack” comprised of carrots, parsnips, onions and citrus and cover it with a bed of herbs. Add your breasts to one pan and the legs to the other. Pour the brandy-OJ-star anise mixture evenly over both pans and then stick them, uncovered, in the oven.
Step 4: Timing
Never—seriously, nev-er—lose track of your bird. Roasting it hot and fast is the way to go, but it requires constant attention. It’ll take about 30 to 40 minutes for the turkey to turn golden brown, which seals in those juices that make so much of the difference between a remarkable turkey and a blah bird. (Note: The breasts will cook about 10 minutes faster than the legs.) At that point, pull the pans from the oven and brush the turkey with the drippings. I then reduced the heat to 375—my oven runs a little hot—and basted every 20 to 30 minutes for the next hour or so.
In an hour and 45 minutes, my turkey had hit the sweet spot—crispy on the outside, tender on the inside—so I slid it out and let it sit for another 45 minutes, as per Diana’s counsel. From there, I sliced it up with an extremely sharp knife, as per Emily’s counsel, arranged the pieces on a platter and drizzled them with the remnants of drippings.
I still reached for the leg out of instinct, but, really, there was no boring bite with this turkey. And that’s not to say that I’ve mastered Thanksgiving. The turkey, it turns out, is actually a very small piece of that headache. But, dismantling the intimidation was as critical as any step in this, ultimately, fairly simple recipe.