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Thanksgiving for the College Student: Tips and Tricks for Great Turkey and Gravy

Whether you plan on returning home this Thanksgiving or you’re planning your first solo run (Friendsgiving, anyone?), the issue of the turkey is probably on your mind. Assuming you’ve decided to keep the bird, you probably are  terrified of overcooking it. Never fear – Tasty Tufts is here. This year regardless of whether you’re feeding a crowd or keeping it small, you’ll be able to produce stunning and flavorful meat that might just cast out those nasty memories.

Rule 1: Keep it small. When in doubt, double up

While turkeys these days are often upwards of 30 pounds, most experts advise that you don’t go over 12-14 pounds. This is tied to two factors: meat quality and thermal conductivity. A big bird is generally a less flavorful bird: the breeds used for the 20+ pounders are rarely designed around the taste of their meat. Ideally, a turkey connoisseur will purchase heirloom birds, which rarely go beyond 14lbs and still retain the distinctive flavor of turkey. Even if you purchase a supermarket turkey, you’ll still benefit from the second point: a smaller bird will cook more evenly. Turkeys, especially the big ones, are mostly lean meat, which transmits heat extremely slowly. You’d need to roast a big one for hours to get the whole breast properly cooked, by which point the skin and majority of the breast have long since reached the boiling point of water and have turned chalky and flavorless. The dark meat won’t fare much better since, with smaller thermal mass and more fat to conduct heat, it has an even greater likelihood of drying out. So the easiest thing you can do is just get a smaller bird. If you need more, get two – at their size they’ll still fit in the oven.

Rule 2: Reshape your Bird

As mentioned above, the fundamental problem with large birds in the oven is that they cook unevenly. This phenomenon doesn’t completely get resolved by limiting the size of the bird. The next thing you can do is adjust the degree to which each part gets cooked. The logic is sound: heat in an oven comes from top and bottom. This means that the top (the breast and skin) and the bottom (bone) will get cooked much more than the sides (thighs, underside of breasts, interior). If you reorganize the bird, you can ensure more even cookery.

You have three options when it comes to re-organizing your bird. The easiest is taking it apart. This is ideal for a smaller and more casual event, and because you can treat the meat separately, it could be a great way to explore multiple flavors of turkey.  Turkeys are built like chickens and breaking them down is pretty similar – separate the thighs and wings from the body, cut the breast (and the breast bone) from the rest of the carcass. You can separate the breast pieces, but for Thanksgiving you may want to keep the bone and skin on.

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A Spatch-cocked Turkey. Source: Serious Eats

Another option is the whole-bird equivalent of butterflying: spatchcocking. A spatchcocked bird has much greater surface area on a horizontal plane, which produces a far more distribution of heat. The actual butchery is somewhat complex: J Kenji Lopez-Alt describes it best in this article: How to Cook a Spatchcocked Turkey. The spread-out bird isn’t as pretty, but considering the improvements on the meat you’ll probably get away with cutting it up in the kitchen and presenting it divided.

This year Mr. Lopez-Alt presented a third way of doing turkey which he claims is even superior to spatchcocking, especially since it’s also presentable whole on the table. Describing his ‘Turchetta’ (really more of a Turkey galantine) doesn’t do his research justice, so we’ll just link his article: How to Make a Turkey Porchetta. If you wanted to convince your elderly relatives that college has turned you into a rebel, presenting your turkey like this might just do it.

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The Turchetta. Source: Serious Eats

Rule 3: Take a Temperature

Turkey and chicken cooking follows the same basic logic: Don’t overcook the thing! The major downfall of all poultry is getting it too hot. With light meat especially, you’ll end up with meat so dry that you might be chewing on chalk. The easiest way to cook meat right is to buy a thermometer – good models are no more than $25.

If you’ve ever cooked a steak you know to let it rest. The same logic applies to turkey and even chicken. While health-and-safety suggests cooking to a temperature of 165F, for superior turkey you might consider the laws of thermodynamics. A turkey straight out of the oven with an internal temperature of 160 could be 20-25 degrees warmer on the outside. Allowed to rest for twenty minutes, the internal temperature will rise by five to ten degrees as the heat redistributes. The result: meat cooked to a safe and moist 165-170 all the way through.

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Source: Serious Eats

These days a lot of stuffing-related advice suggests a separately-baked dressing over an in-the-bird method. If your family is committed to the old method but you’re wary of the downsides of a stuffed stuffing (longer cooking time = drier bird), try this trick: microwave the stuffing in a cheesecloth bag until it is at least 160 degrees, then stuff the bag into the cold turkey. By starting it at well above safe temperatures, you ensure that it remains above those temperatures even as the turkey around it leeches heat. Additionally, the hot stuffing also provides an additional source of heat to the inside of the turkey, expanding the cooked surface area (not as efficient as spatch-cocking, but a bit more presentable)

Another point on turkey is the importance of the temperature at the start. Not frozen. Not straight from the fridge. You’ll want your turkey to sit and warm up a little before cooking. Given the size of the bird, you’ll want to begin defrosting a frozen turkey up to a week in advance: a good rule of thumb is 4lbs/day. If it feels a little cool, you can draw out the chill with a water bath, but make sure to use cold water to avoid sponsoring bacteria growth.

 Rule 4: Don’t Forget the Salt

For lean meat, salt has been touted as a not-so-secret weapon against dryness. Meat proteins in the presence of a salty environment loosen up and hold moisture more readily. There are several schools of thought on the best method of salting:

Wet brine has been promoted in the last ten or so years as a surefire way of injecting flavor and moisture into a bird. Alton Brown’s brine, which uses vegetable stock, sugar, candied ginger and a mixture of ‘sweet’ spices and poultry-friendly herbs, is a solid option if you’ve got the container (at least 5 gallons) necessary to contain it. Here’s the recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/good-eats-roast-turkey-recipe/index.html

From J Kenji Lopez-Alt’s corner we get dry brining, or salting. By heavily salting the bird, you make the bird brine itself without adding any water. His method is light on the seasonings and described in depth in this article.

A note on commercial birds: If you’re purchasing a cheaper supermarket bird, it may have already been brined to improve its shelf life. Likewise, if you purchased from a kosher butcher, the koshering process is very similar to the dry brine method. Turkeys prepared in either these ways won’t benefit very much from brining and can have a watery or over-salted flavor.

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Source: Serious Eats

If you’re not going to feed a crowd this Thanksgiving, you might consider alternatives to the whole turkey. Depending on your meat preferences, you might do better with just the breast or with a pair of thighs. The smaller size of the meat means you don’t have to resort to fancy butchery or multi-day preparation. Mark Bittman’s Braised Turkey  is a good method for a scaled-down approach to both light and dark meat. If you’re a breast man/woman, you could do cutlets or roast the breast whole (with skin on). Mr. Lopez-Alt even suggests a casserole combining dressing and turkey breast in one dish: Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast and Stuffing. If you prefer dark meat or have left-overs from Turchetta, you could try Pumpkin-Glazed Turkey Legs or Red Wine Braised Turkey Legs .

Making Gravy:

If you’re using a smaller piece of bird such as a breast, the lack of meat and bones might make gravy preparation difficult. Before you resort to the packaged kind, try a vegetarian or chicken stock-based preparation. Some options to consider: mushroom gravy (1qt stock, 1 lb mushrooms, ¼ cup flour, 4 tbsp butter) or ‘cheater’ gravy (low-sodium stock, aromatic herbs, and for an extra savory element, soy sauce, Worcestershire, or fish sauce).

-Edmund Brennan

Cover image source.

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