Monday, November 22, 2010

It's Turkey Lurkey Time: Roasting, Seasoning, Great Gravy, and an Argument for Free Range Turkey

I'll give you a buck if you can name that musical (It's turkey lurkey time, Tom Turkey ran away, but he just came home...) Just kidding, I won't give you a buck; I'm cheap. But I will be impressed.

First, a note on brining. I have only ever brined a fresh, not-shot-up-with-saline-solution bird. And although in my last post I said you could still brine a turkey to good effect if it'd been treated with a saline solution (that sounds like a medical sort of thing doesn't it), I've been reading conflicting information on this. Some say that if you brine an already sodium/water filled bird it will get way too salty. This makes sense. They recommend a shorter brining or one with less salt. This also makes sense. However you do it, though, if you're dethawing your bird in water (and who isn't--has anyone in the course of history ever managed to actually de-thaw a turkey in the refrigerator without starting on July 4th), throw in a bit of salt and some herbs. The herbs should heighten the deep-down flavor of your bird.


How to Cook Your Turkey:

Ha ha. See how much authority I gave that phrase. Let me put it in bold so there is no mistake. Now you're going to think I'm like some of those folks on the food network who talk like they've made a certain "failproof" recipe, oh, oodles of times and then you make it and it's a bust and you realize they may never have made it before, but they're paid to stand up there and look/sound confident while their recipe creators/testers sit backstage and snort milk through their noses. Ahem, but I digress. The point is, I have cooked a turkey several times in my young life, and I--for the record--have never died of food poisoning. Or even had to put the turkey in the microwave after it's "done." Now if that isn't a sterling food record I don't know what is. Seriously, though, my turkeys have always been pretty good (except for one unfortunately garlic-y Christmas turkey when I was pregnant and couldn't handle even just a bit of garlic). But last year my turkey well exceeded the levels of just pretty good. It was really really good, great even. It also cooked quickly, which can be really nice on a busy Thanksgiving day. I took the advice of Alton Brown, which I wasn't sure I should due to a certain hot chocolate recipe I'd once tried from him that is the perfect gift for all your friends who enjoy creamed corn starch (oh look, there are the recipe testers with hot chocolate dripping out of their noses). But I digress again. Brown suggests starting the bird at a high temperature and then reducing the heat. Last year I did this, freaked, turned it down even more, cried, made Kip go buy an instant read thermometer, called my sister sniffling, and then turned out a perfect turkey. Today I will try to help you avoid all those prior steps and just get to the perfect turkey part. So, here we go.

1. Rinse your bird if brined. Rinse it really well--inside and out. Pat it dry if you are not lazy and care about skin crispiness.
2. If your bird has been frozen, it should be completely dethawed. If it's not, spend some time running cold water on it until it to get it completely de-thawed instead of popping it in the oven partially frozen and crossing your fingers.
3. Also, along this note, remove the neck and giblets--not that I think you're an idiot--just that Thanksgiving morning can be stressful and things get forgotten.
4. Preheat oven to 475 or 500 degrees. You heard me. 
5. After you've seasoned and or stuffed the bird (more on that below), slather the skin with butter, and put it breast side up on the lowest rack of the hot oven for 20-30 minutes. [A note: many great chefs recommend starting the turkey breast side down and flipping it partway through in order not to get the breasts overdone. This would probably work. I don't do it. I do stuff the breasts--more on that below.]
6. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees. (Don't take the bird out, just reduce the heat.) Cook for about 10 minutes per pound of bird (so for a 14 pound turkey, I'm going to cook it for 140 more minutes or about 2 hours.) Alternatively, you can reduce the heat even more (275 or so), but plan to cook it longer--probably 15-20 minutes per pound of bird.)
7. Keep your eye on it. If it starts to get too brown, throw a bit of foil over it. Alternately, you might want to start with foil on it and then uncover near the end.
8. Don't baste. It's not necessary if you've brined (or the store has essentially brined) your bird, and basting will un-crispy the skin as well as mess with the oven temp because you keep opening the oven.
 9. Check the turkey BEFORE it's supposed to be done--like halfway through the cooking time. Last year, my turkey was done way before I thought it would be.
10. And now for my most important advice: INSTANT READ THERMOMETER!
Look, do you want to cry in front of your in-laws or not? Do you want burned or raw turkey or not? I'm cheap too, but this is possibly the best kitchen gadget you will ever buy. Certainly for 10 bucks. BUY A THERMOMETER. Stick it in your turkey when you think it's done or if it's getting too brown or if you think it's raw, or if you're about to cry. Just stick it in. Don't touch the bone. Stay in the flesh. The breast should be about 165 degrees and the thigh 170-175 degrees. (The thigh area closest to the main body of the bird is the thickest part--stick it there.) If it's at those temps, you're done. You don't have to guess. You don't have to take the bird out and cut it open and see it's pink and put it back. You don't have to listen to your uncle comment on how his wife/mom/girlfriend's turkey is so much moister than your overcooked one. Just stick the thermometer in. I might get some weird ads showing up on the site from saying that so much in this post, but that is the price I'm willing to pay if you will please just use a thermometer and get a perfect turkey and not have to cry beforehand. (Here's a video link on checking bird with a thermometer if you're interested.)
11. The thermometers that come in some birds are not meant to spring until the bird is at 180-190 degrees which is 20-30 degrees overdone. Buy your own thermometer, my cheap friends.
12. After it's cooked, rest the bird (covered with foil) for 15-20 minutes.

(Here he is, ready to go in.)


To season the bird I like to use just about the same stuff I used for the brine. I stuff some of it in the cavity, and sprinkle the rest on top and in the veggies on the baking sheet.
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 flowery sprig of sage (about 15 leaves)
4-6 sprigs rosemary4-6 cloves garlic

Additionally, I stick a quartered orange in the cavity.
Then I coarsely chop:
3 medium onions
3 carrots
3 celery ribs
Some I add to the cavity and the rest I sprinkle around the bird.

I confess that I don't eat these vegetables, but use them to flavor the gravy and stock.


This is, admittedly, not my area of expertise. I've only made a really great stuffing once and I found it so fussy that I don't really want to do it again--it was like making a whole separate meal. Currently I'm looking for something simpler and still tasty. So you'll have to look elsewhere for a great stuffing recipe. However, I do always stuff the breasts of my turkey. I do this to keep the breasts from overcooking since I don't flip the bird. If you have a great stuffing recipe, that's just a bonus. To stuff the breasts, simply separate the skin from the flesh--you'll have 2 breast pockets (yeah, it's gross) and stuff the stuffing in. If you don't want to do this, take your chances with some drier breasts or start the turkey breast side down and then flip it halfway through cooking.


You'll find some fussy recipes out there for gravy--if it involves boiling and chopping giblets, it's just not for me. But then again, I do like a good gravy--a weak oily broth is not what I'm looking for on Thanksgiving Day.

The best (and least fussy) way to get perfect gravy is to brine your turkey, to cook with flavorful seasonings and vegetables, and then to put the vegetables and seasonings into a strainer and squeeze all the juices and goodness into the gravy pot along with all the drippings from the turkey. Then thicken the gravy as you normally would. (I use cornstarch mixed with water. When the gravy begins to boil add it gradually till the gravy is the desired consistency). If you do this, you'll have great gravy. (Also, I think people should use 'great gravy' as an exclamation more in their everyday speech. 'Great gravy, Jim, is that a gun.')


I'll have more on this after Thanksgiving, but once you've strained your vegetable juices for the gravy, keep those old used up veggies with the bones and stock stuff. It might all look pretty tired by this point, but it's still got enough left in it to give your stock a nice flavor.

For some printable instructions, go here.

And finally...

An argument for free range turkey:

Of course there are those arguments about how the care of free range animals is better for the environment because their wastes don't create pollution.

And of course there are those arguments about how much more humane it is to have a bird live a good life instead of a teeny tiny cubicle life.

And of course they taste better. And you can control the brine instead of your bird getting shot with a salt/water solution.

But I would like to make an argument on cost. It's more expensive, yes, there's no denying that. But they're not so very much more expensive as they may seem. My free range Indiana turkey will cost $1.99/lb. I understand you can get them from Whole Foods for about that same price if you live in an area with Whole Foods. This year sales don't seem as good as usual. I feel like stores are tightening up. But my free range bird costs just the same as it did last year. In Texas where my sister lives she couldn't find turkeys below $.99/lb (which is what they are here at Walmart/Aldi). At other stores here they are cheaper --$.39-.59/lb, but you have to buy at least $25 worth of food from to get it at that price. So, you go into the grocery store, you buy your lower quality, pollutant-contributing, inhumanely treated bird. And then you also must buy $15-20 worth of other food that is priced higher that that at Aldi or WalMart, which would be fine if the quality was superior (and sometimes it is). But sometimes it's the same lousy non-local food that likely comes from the same big farms and same big suppliers as the Walmart/Aldi stuff, only with a higher price tag. Furthermore, the salt/water solution they shoot it with adds a bit of weight. Furthermore, with frozen turkeys, you're occasionally paying for ice--ice that is in the cavity to keep the bird nice and frozen.

So, I got a 14 lb turkey for $1.99/lb, which comes up to: $27.86

Joe Doesntknow got his 14 lb bird from Buy Low where he paid $.39/lb, which comes up to: $5.46
Of course 2-3 lb of that was water/ice solution, so we're going to add an extra $1.00.
He also bought 5 lb yams that were twice as much as those from Walmart for an extra $1.oo
He bought ready made rolls which (besides being gross) cost at least $2 more than their delicious homemade counterparts.
He bought 2 ready made pie crusts for $1.50 more than homemade (and probably at least .50 more than Walmart's)
He bought red potatoes that were $1.00 more a bag than at Walmart.
He bought a couple loaves of bread, which came up to $3.00 more than at Walmart.
That probably brought him up to the extra $20 he needed to spend and in the process he wasted: $9.50, so his turkey really ended up costing him $14.96.
And if he springs for a couple super nasty, not-as-orange-as-they-should-be ready made pumpkin pies, well then, he's blown the rest of his savings anyway.

So, yes, more expensive, but not so extremely much, and none at all if you're going to fill your cart with a bunch of processed foods.


  1. Poor Joe. Maybe he's just a sad, single guy who doesn't have the time or energy to make his own rolls and pie crusts this year. (And yes, I'm talking about me...minus the single part of course.) I bought ready-made this year of both, and while it pains me--especially the rolls because they really are so much better homemade--I have to believe that the effort saved is worth the slightly sub-par-ness of it all. I hope so anyway!

    I do like your argument for a free-range bird; I'm all about free-range for many reasons. Unfortunately we're not cooking the turkey this year, so I'm sure we'll have something of the pollutant-inducing, inhumanely-treated variety. Can't wait to try your brine for next year, though!

  2. Hee Hee. As long as you don't buy those eery colored Walmart pies, I think you'll probably be okay.

  3. Where's the after?! I am dying to see the after-picture of that gloriously golden bird.

  4. Um, we ate it. Without taking a picture. I can feel the bloggie awards passing me over as we speak.



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