Updated: Nov 16
It's that time of year again. Let's do this.
Basting might seem like a useful thing, but its effect is only skin-deep.
We covered a lot of ground last year in a 3-part series on Thanksgiving. (See Part I, Part II, and Part III.) I have just a few notes to add for this year... most of which are related to the fact that The Turkey As We Know It Is A Culinary Abomination.
Wild turkeys are avidly pursued by hunters, and yet they aren't particularly prized for their edible flesh. I'm reliably told that most successful turkey hunters return home with only the breast meat and perhaps some feathers and claws for the trophy shelf. Meanwhile, the domestic turkey cultivated from the wild version is a flightless and comparatively flavorless freak that seems purpose-built to dry out when roasted. This tendency is commonly mitigated (in cheaper birds, anyway) by the injection of a salt, sugar, & chemical solution. (Always, ALWAYS read the labels on anything you eat.)
But you can usually find supermarket turkeys at various stages of naturalness, e.g., with labels indicating "no added solution," "antibiotic- and hormone-free," "organic," "heritage breed," and even "raised on a vegetarian diet." (As designed by God and/or nature, turkeys are omnivorous.) Unfortunately, the more "natural" the turkey, the greater its tendency to toughness and dryness. Some people have come to simply not bother with the bird and opt instead for ham or even prime rib, both of which seemingly cook themselves to perfection with little effort from the family chef. But if you MUST have a bird this November 23rd, here are some pro-tips:
BUY TWO SMALL TURKEYS INSTEAD OF ONE HUMONGOUS TURKEY.
Moms out there, what would you consider preferable-- giving birth to two 6-lb. twins, or to one strapping 12-lb. baby? The same reasoning applies here... it is WAY easier to maneuver the two smaller birds in and out of your oven.
BRINE YOUR BIRD(S).
Brining is an easy process that makes the bird more flavorful and moist... which is why those cheap turkeys are pre-injected with the aforementioned salt/sugar/chemical solution. But by purchasing an un-injected bird and brining it yourself, you assert control of two key variables: the length of brining time (24 hours is good) and the composition of the brine itself. I'm not bothering to list a specific recipe here because hundreds of them will appear in your google search; they will all contain salt, some will contain one form or another of sugar, and still others will include herbs and other seasonings. I recommend perusing a few and then picking one that strikes your fancy.
CONSIDER COOKING THE TURKEY IN PIECES.
White meat and dark meat cook differently... so why not cook them differently? Much of Thanksgiving cookery revolves around the contradictory challenge of thoroughly cooking the thighs without turning the breast meat dry and stringy. It is perfectly okay to quarter your bird and then cook each part to individual perfection. In a related story...
CONSIDER POACHING THE BREAST.
It is downright difficult to dry out a turkey breast if you gently simmer it in a flavorful stock as the thighs roast. Just make sure to keep the temperature safely below boiling, which will toughen it. If you can poach an egg, you can poach a turkey breast. (It is best to poach it on the bone.)
START A POT OF TURKEY STOCK RIGHT AFTER DINNER.
This integrates nicely into the cleanup process-- Fill your biggest stockpot halfway to the top with water (along with the breast-poaching stock, if applicable.) Glove up and pull all the remaining turkey meat from the bones and pack it in zip-lock bags. By simmering the bones and scraps for an hour or more, you wind up with a healthy bone broth that makes a killer soup. You can also cook it WAY down, freeze it, and use it for future sauces and braises.
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And then there's the touchy topic of Thanksgiving wine. While Pinot Noir from California and Oregon remain perhaps the single greatest choice to pair with the bird, decent versions thereof aren't getting any cheaper... quite the opposite, actually. But wanna know what IS getting cheaper? Australian Shiraz! That's because Australia and China are presently engaged in a little trade spat that is causing an unexpected glut of wines from Down Under, and great values abound at every price point. Aussie Shiraz is noteworthy for its crowd-pleasing, rip-roaring fruitiness that can stand up to the tartest cranberry sauce like no other wine. Those clever kangaroo-keepers even make a sparkling version of Shiraz that is worth a special search.
Whatever you drink, however you cook your bird, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!