Every Thanksgiving, families nationwide assemble around the table waiting for the most honored guest: the turkey. And every year it's a delicious meal, albeit not exactly the same; there are, after all, several ways to cook a turkey! Inside are our favorite methods to prepare and cook the Thanksgiving Day bird, and the tools required to do so. And with the big day just over a week away, now's the time to test out a new technique or two.
Choosing the Right Size Bird & Thawing
First, a note on how big a bird to serve up. Martha Stewart suggests a turkey between 15 to 20 lbs. for a large party, which, when divvied up amounts to about 1.5 lbs. of meat for each person. Smaller birds weighing 12 lbs. or less have a smaller meat-to-bone ratio, so hosts should allow about two pounds per person.
For many folks, frozen birds are the way to go, but they take a long, long time to thaw properly. And if they're not thawed out properly, they won't cook up evenly. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it takes a full day for every 4 to 5 lbs. of turkey to thaw in your refrigerator, meaning a 25-lb. bird could take the better part of a week to thaw out.
If you find yourself in a time crunch, thawing a frozen turkey in water can speed up the unfreezing process. It'll take 30 minutes per pound and a changing of the water every half an hour. It's ill advised to microwave a frozen bird since it warms unevenly and can leave frozen spots inside. Once the turkey has thawed, it shouldn't be left out of the oven or unrefrigerated for more than an hour or so.
Seasoning the Thanksgiving Turkey
Brining the Bird
The anathema of Thanksgiving cooks everywhere is a dry turkey, and many people turn to brining to keep the bird moist while cooking. Brining itself involves soaking the bird in a solution of salt, sugar, and water, which helps break down the proteins. Most recipes suggest creating a solution of one gallon of water to one cup each of sugar and salt. By placing the bird in a food-grade plastic bag and soaking it in this brine for one hour or more per pound of meat, the meat will tenderize and stay moist once roasted. Remember to rinse the bird before you bake it, and never use a kosher (pre-salted) or self-basting bird with the brining method.
Applying a Dry Salt Rub
However, not everyone is a fan of the brining method. J. Kenji Lopez of The Food Lab suggests that while the bird remains moist, the extra moisture is water, which he concludes, make a flavorless bird. Instead, dry rubbing the bird with kosher salt will tenderize the meat and give more concentrated flavor, while still keeping it moist. Allow the salt to sit on the thawed bird overnight before cooking, and if possible, rub salt under the skin. What's more, there's no need to wash the bird off before cooking.
Cooks have found that many complementary flavors can enhance the mild taste of turkey. Simply let the the turkey sit in flavorful marinade overnight and the bird will absorb and retain these spices. There are many recipes online: the chefs from Epicurious suggest using lemon juice, ginger, cloves, and soy sauce, while the folks at Jennie-O marinate their birds in red wine, orange juice, and garlic.
Marinating a turkey allows for the flavor to seep from the outside of the bird to the inside, which can result in an uneven distribution of seasoning. This problem can be resolved by using a meat injector such as the Norpro Deluxe Marinade Injector ($10.16 with free shipping via Prime, a low by $4). This device allows for the injection of flavorings deep into the bird's breast and thighs. Try our a concoction of olive oil infused with garlic, or apple juice, or whiskey, and experience tastes you never thought you could get out of the plain old turkey.
The traditional method for serving up a Thanksgiving Day turkey is by roasting. Martha Stewart suggests buttering the skin, then wrapping it in cheesecloth soaked in butter and wine and basting every half-hour for the majority of the roasting time. For safety sake, she instructs the cook to use a instant-read thermometer to test for doneness. The OXO Good Grips Instant Read Dial Thermometer ($11.99 with free shipping via Prime, a low by $5) should do the trick. The USDA confirms that cooked turkey meat should reach 165 degrees when measured deep in the thigh away from bone.
Cooking a Thanksgiving bird outdoors takes a bit of preparation, but the result can be spectacular. Whether the chef prefers a gas or charcoal grill, the key to a successful grilled turkey is to cook it adjacent to direct heat. For charcoal grills, bank the coals on either side of the bird and add four to nine briquettes to both sides of the fire every hour. Remember to seal in the heat by covering the grill, too.
To keep the turkey moist while it's on the grill, put a drip pan with water filled with water directly under the bird; the water will help moisten the air, as well as capture the drippings for gravy. It will also help avoid flame-ups when the grease gets hot. Speaking of hot, a cooking chamber temperature should be maintained between 300 to 350℉. The Kingsford Grill Surface Thermometer ($7.74 with free shipping via Prime, a low by $5) is a key tool for monitoring the grilling chamber temperature. Be careful about the wind, too; a strong wind can make keeping the temperature in the proper range difficult.
The Char-Griller 1224 Smokin Pro Charcoal Grill and Smoker ($199 with free in-store pickup, a low by $14) is another great way to cook up the Thanksgiving Day bird. It includes a thermometer, a side firebox smoker, and total cooking surface of 830 square inches. Cooking a delicious bird in a smoker also requires the right hardwood. A brined, modest-sized bird can smoke for four hours in a smoker in the 250℉ zone, and won't require a lot of wood chips or chunks. Most professional smokers use apple or hickory wood for their pleasant smells and mild flavors. Avoid soft woods like pine, as they will output unpleasant resins into the smoke.
There's no shortage of stories about the house fires started by deep fryers on Thanksgiving. Though more dangerous than other cooking methods, a deep tried turkey is delicious. Just heed every safety warning. First, find a spot away from flammables to set up the fryer. Then, make sure a fire extinguisher is at hand. Most importantly, the turkey must be thoroughly thawed and dried; when water hits hot oil, it will spit like crazy.
A proper cooking kit is a must, too. One like the Bayou Classic 32 Qt. Stainless Steel Turkey Fryer Kit ($188.90 with free shipping , a low by $30) includes the cooking pot, rack, burner, thermometer, and everything needed, except propane and cooking oil.
The first step in deep frying this year's Thanksgiving bird is to bring enough oil to cover the turkey up to 375 degrees. Then turn off the burner and submerge the bird. Once the bird is securely in place, relight the burner. This process allows the oil to cook the bird at about 350 degrees; a 12 to 14-pound bird will cook in about 40 minutes.
There are many other ways to cook a turkey, including steaming and microwaving, but none of them provide the combination of a moist inside and a crisp skin that delights palates and eyes on Thanksgiving Day. Just remember that regardless of how you cook your turkey, it should rest 15 minutes before carving to allow its juices to settle. And make sure you've got all the right cookware and serving dishes for the perfect Thanksgiving Day 2012 feast.