Thursday, November 6, 2008

Make it from Scratch Thanksgiving - Talking Turkey

Thanksgiving is a mere three weeks away, and it is time to talk about the star of the show, the turkey. Did I hear squeals of delight? Obviously, you have partaken in Thanksgiving turkey done right, a moist and flavor full bird. 

Or was that groans of dread I heard at the thought of dry meat being choked down with a bunch of gravy? In a quest to make sure the turkey is really done, many cooks roast the bird until it is dry as cardboard. If that has been your experience, let me share some tips for roasting a turkey to perfection. 

What to Buy
Fresh or frozen? Tom or hen? Which brand? It really doesn't matter. Really. That is my experience. And an article in this month's Debt-Proof Living confirms it. The article was written by a former butcher, John Smith, author of Confession of a Butcher.

He  said a frozen turkey is actually fresher than a fresh turkey. He claimed that the quick freezing of the frozen turkey keeps the meat fresher than a "fresh" turkey that is kept almost at the freezing point, but never quite frozen. So, "fresh" is not as fresh as frozen. Frozen is fresher than "fresh." Confused? Just buy the frozen bird. 

Hen or tom? They are labeled by the weight of the bird, not the actual sex of it. Your tom may actually just be a large hen. Or your hen a small tom. The point? Buying a turkey by its sex is pointless. 

Brand? Often they are the same birds in different packaging. Buy what is the cheapest. 

You will want to figure roughly one pound per person when determining the size of bird. Of course if you want a lot of leftovers to freeze and use later, buy a bigger bird. Once you've decided what size bird you need, look for the roundest, plumpest one in that size. 

Bottom Line: Buy the cheapest roundest bird in the size you need.

Now that You Have Your Bird
Keep it cold. It is best defrosted in the refrigerator. It takes about 1 day for each 6 pounds to defrost in the refrigerator. Leave it in the original wrapping, but you will want to place a pan under the bird to catch any dripping. 

Timing is Everything
The biggest stress of pulling off the Thanksgiving dinner is the timing. I will talk more about that with in regards to the whole meal next week, but for today, let's concentrate on timing the bird. Decide when you want to eat and then count backwards to find when the turkey needs to be in the oven. From serving time count back one hour to allow time for carving and to let the turkey rest 20 minutes after it comes out of the oven. Then count back the actual roasting time to find time you need to start the bird. 

Estimated roasting times at 325 degrees F.
6- 8 pounds 3-31/2 hours
8-12 pounds 3 1/2- 4 1/2 hours
12-16 pounds 4 1/2- 5 hours

So, if you want to eat at noon and have a ten pound bird, you need to start roasting the turkey at 7:00 AM. That is figuring one hour for resting and carving and four hours for roasting. 

Preparing Your Turkey
Remove the giblets to use for the dressing. Rinse the bird inside and out. 

Do not stuff with the dressing.  The bread in stuffing absorbs the fat and moisture of the bird, drying out the meat without adding much flavor. Instead, fill the cavity with items that will add moisture and flavor. Onions and celery are my favorites. Apples and carrots are good also. 

Place the turkey in a shallow roasting pan, breast side up. Rub olive oil over the skin and season. Seasoning can be as simple as salt and pepper, or you can use other seasonings you enjoy. I like ginger, garlic, and rosemary.

Loosely cover the turkey with foil.

Your turkey prep will probably take about 30-45 minutes. 

Now You're Cooking
Once the turkey is in the oven, there isn't much else to do with the bird. If you've rubbed oil on it and tented it with foil, there is no need to baste. Just wait until the bird has roasted for about 2/3 of the anticipated time. At this point, you want to start checking the meat so that it does not overcook. Check with a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the drumstick, without touching bone. The turkey is done when it reaches 165 degrees F. The foil needs to be removed for the last half hour of cooking to give the turkey a nice golden color.
One more suggestion about roasting the turkey. Oven space is at a premium Thanksgiving day. If you have a large roaster oven, it is a great place for the turkey. One caution though, the bird cooks much faster in the roaster than in the oven. The first year we used a roaster we were shocked when the bird was done almost an hour early. We were able to keep the bird warm and moist while we hurried along the other dishes, but it was a little stressful. 

Practice Makes Perfect
Turkey is cheap this time of year. If you are a little anxious about roasting a moist delicious bird for the big day, why not give it a practice run? There is plenty of time, and you will feel much more confident when the big day comes. 

More Made from Scratch Thanksgiving posts:

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