A Visual Guide to Making Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey
Getting tasked with cooking Christmas dinner can seem like a real bastard. I mean, how often does the average person cook a whole turkey? Here's a short cut.
Getting tasked with cooking Christmas dinner can seem like a real bastard. I mean, how often does the average person cook a whole turkey? Unless you're the one who always cooks for everybody else year after year, that number is close to zero. With that said, it's obvious why people who haven't roasted a turkey very often, if at all, get a little panicked when they are given the opportunity to screw up a perfectly good bird. Take a deep breath.
Step One: Your Bird This is the place where a lot people try to buy their way out of Christmas by buying a heritage breed turkey that was hand-fed rose petals and heirloom corn. Do not fall for this! What you need is a free-range and/or organic broad-breasted white turkey. These are not ridiculously expensive or hard to get. You can buy one at any good butcher shop or even on the internet, shipped right to your door. Why do you want one of these instead of the more expensive options? Mostly because you do not need to baby a broad-breasted white turkey when you cook it. What that means is that you can cook it at 375° F or even 425° F if you want to. You can't do that to heritage turkeys because they get real tough if you cook them at over 325°. This becomes a serious problem when you have pies and other items that need to share the oven at different points during the hours of turkey cooking time, and those types of things tend to need to be baked at temperatures well over 325°.
One last thing: order a bigger bird than the online charts tell you to. Everyone loves leftovers.
Step Two: To Brine or Not To Brine This one is easy. Brine the fucking turkey. Most people will tell you to do this because it "makes it juicier." Well it does, sort of, but that's not the main reason why you want to do this. The real reason is salt. You need to get it into the meat of the bird so that it will actually taste like something, and a overcooked bird that is properly seasoned is still better than a bland one.
In addition to salt, the brine makes your turkey less likely to be dry and the sugar in the brine will make the bird brown up nicely. Appearances matter. Again, don't get carried away with Byzantine brine recipes that involve ten ingredients, because salt and sugar are all that matter. A good rule of thumb for brine is one cup of kosher salt and a half cup cup of regular sugar per gallon of water. Your bird will probably need one and one half gallons to brine it, but make two gallons to keep it simple.
I brine my bird in a big ass stock pot, but if you don't have one, you can buy a brine bag or a food safe five gallon container to do it in. I like to buy two-gallon jugs of water, pour ¼ of each jug into a pot, bring it to a boil, dump the salt/sugar in there, and then stir the hell out of it until it dissolves. Then, add the rest of the water. This removes a lengthy cooling time from the brine-making equation.
Once the brine is cool, taste it. It should be just a little saltier than is pleasant. If it makes you feel like spitting it out, it is too salty. Add more water. This is a good check just in case you used one cup of regular salt instead of kosher. Put the turkey into the brine the night before the big day (remember to remove the neck and giblets that are inside the turkey first please) and place it in the refrigerator. Sleep soundly and set your alarm for 8 AM.
Step Three: Drying and Buttering If you brine your bird, the skin is going to get a little water-logged, so you need to get out of bed when your alarm goes off. Take it out of the brine and put it back in the fridge—breast side up—to let it air out. Before you go back to bed, take two sticks of butter out of the fridge and place them on the kitchen counter to soften.
Now you can mess around with your stuffing or whatever sides for a few hours. Once that time is up, pull the turkey out and get a bowl to put the butter in. I like to add Bell's Poultry Seasoning to my butter—a couple of tablespoons should do—and mix it in really well. Take half of the butter in the bowl and shove it gently under the skin of the breast. Be as even as you can, but don't go crazy. The other half of the butter is for smearing all over the outside of the bird. Go crazy. This will make the skin crisp up better.
Step Four: Roasting The Bird This is actually the easy part. First, preheat your oven to 375° F and then look up the approximate roasting time for an UNSTUFFED turkey. There is no easier way to make your cooking time twice as long AND undercook the bird than to stuff it. Make your stuffing in that Crock-Pot your mom bought on QVC when she had one too many glasses of chardonnay. Once your oven is heated up, throw in the turkey and set two alarms on your phone: one for halfway during the cooking process and one for one hour before the turkey should be done.
At the halfway mark, baste your bird and give it a complete 180° turn in the oven so that it cooks evenly. At the one-hour-before-it-should-be-done mark, give the leg/thigh a wiggle. Is it still really stiff? It's not done. Does it wiggle a little? You're almost there. Does it almost come off in your hand? It's done. Pull it out and tent it with tin foil. But what about the thermometer meat pokey thing? They lie. If you don't use one regularly, you have an 80 percent chance of dicking up the temperature by touching the thigh bone or sticking it in the wrong place. Go with the wiggle method. It works everytime … except with heritage turkeys, which is another reason to eschew them. If you are anal and insist on a thermometer, you're looking for 170° temperature in the thigh.
The Final Step: Resting and Carving Now that your bird is done, take it out and—like I said earlier—cover that thing with tin foil and (ideally) place it on top of your oven, or at least as near as possible to keep it warm. Sometimes if everything is out of the oven, I'll just turn it off and crack the door and put it in there, but this carries some risk of overcooking if it's too hot or someone turns the oven back on to bake their saltine white trash bars. Once it's rested for 20 to 30 minutes, it's safe to carve it up. If you don't carve turkeys once a year, you're likely to not do a crackerjack job of carving, but using a sharp knife will make it look much better. If you don't own a sharp chef's knife, buy one or get yours sharpened. It will allow you to cut through the skin better and the slices will have more definition. Congratulations! You have not fucked up Christmas.
Worst Case Scenario: You Dicked Up Christmas Look, everyone overcooks the fucking turkey sometimes. It's not the end of the world. If it's undercooked, well, put it back in the oven, no big deal. If it's overcooked, do this: Get a big plate and put the stuffing on it, then your overcooked turkey slices on top of the stuffing, and then pour gravy over it. That's it. I have done this in the past and almost no one noticed.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2016.