tcr-011020-Turkeys (copy)

Two turkeys near Garfield Avenue in Traverse City.

Nancy Krcek Allen

Nancy Krcek Allen

Year after year I watched my mother prepare our Thanksgiving turkey. She would thaw the frozen bird in a sink of cold water and salt, bathe it as you might a baby and carefully blot it dry. The next morning, she slow-cooked diced onions, carrots and celery in lots of butter and folded them, along with eggs, broth, sage and parsley, into a bowl of her eggy homemade bread cubes. The big bird, stuffed, skin dried and buttered, went into a 325°F oven where it remained until it was brown and very tender.

During my childhood this ritual never varied. Across America mothers made their turkeys in much the same way as mine. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, cooks had fewer options than today. The culinary explosion of the Food Network and cooking magazines have given us choices and techniques of which we would never have dreamed.

With them came experimentation … and some confusion.

When I began to prepare my own turkeys I wasn’t content to make them the same way year after year. I experimented with a maple-soy glaze, herb butter under the skin, roasting breast side down, roasting in a Weber grill, smoking, brining, injecting and marinating. One year I stuffed the bird with blue cornbread dressing, another year with wild rice and one year with nothing but vegetables. I chose frozen birds, big birds, small birds, fresh birds, free-range birds and organic birds. Nothing stayed the same.

We’ve all done things to our Thanksgiving turkeys in the hopes of a spectacular success. From my jumble of experience several bits of wisdom have finally surfaced: get the best turkey you can afford, a box of Kosher salt and an instant read thermometer. Keep it simple. Direct your creative urges to the side dishes.

The better the bird the closer you will come to spectacular success. I choose a fresh turkey every time. They are reliably tender and tasty. Commercial freezing is much faster so a commercial bird’s texture suffers less than in days past, but I still find a fresh bird better. A frozen Butterball can be a passable standby when you can’t get a fresh turkey, but you don’t have control over what the manufacturer has injected into it. Read the labels.

I use Kosher salt because it is a pure, light, clean salt without additives, dissolves fast and mostly because salt adds flavor and can, with a little time, juice up your bird. Brining has become a valuable ally. It does require a large bucket in which to immerse your bird. If you have only one refrigerator it might require some juggling. A brined turkey becomes firmer and meatier while still moist and juicy. Brining poultry changes the structure of the protein in the muscle; the strands unwind, become sticky and tangle with each other to trap liquid between them.

For speed and ease I rub my fresh bird with a little Kosher salt under the skin and rest it 24 hours in the refrigerator uncovered. My turkey goes breast side down at 350°F for 3/4 of the cooking time then breast side up at 400°F until done. This method is an excellent way of obtaining juicier, firmer meat, even with a little overcooking.

My final advice: ditch the pop-up timer. An instant read thermometer is the most important tool you can have for any meat-cooking project. It will protect your family and take away the blind guesswork that has destroyed many a Thanksgiving turkey.

Really-Quick-Salt-Brined Turkey

This method will save you the extra work of water-brining your bird and will deliver a flavorful, moist turkey.

Serves 10 to 12

16-lb. turkey, giblets and neck removed

2 T. Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, more as desired

4 T. melted unsalted butter

Carefully push your fingers under the turkey skin on breast, legs and thighs to loosen it; avoid breaking skin. Rub about 1 tablespoon salt under skin of each breast half and leg/thigh. Refrigerate turkey uncovered in roasting pan 24 to 48 hours (this dries the skin so it browns better).

Preheat oven to 350°F. Remove turkey from refrigerator 30 minutes to one hour before roasting. If desired, rub butter or oil on skin and inside on breast meat. Stuff with warmed or room temperature stuffing (for safety).

Choose a heavy-duty roasting pan with 2-inch high sides, large enough so the bird doesn’t touch the sides of the pan. An oiled rack makes it easier to remove the bird, but isn’t necessary. Place pan on the lowest shelf in the oven.

Roast turkey breast side down 2-1/2 to 3 hours or about 3/4 the approximate cooking time. Turn turkey on its back and raise heat to 400°F. Roast until skin is golden and stuffing measures (on an instant read thermometer) 165 degrees F and thickest part of thigh measures 170 to 175°F.

After roasting allow your bird to rest in a warm place 20 minutes. It will continue cooking and the juices that were pulled to the outside will move back into the bird. Carve your creation with a freshly sharpened knife.

  • The easiest way to figure out turkey roasting times: calculate 13 minutes per pound at 350°F for an unstuffed turkey or 15 minutes per pound for a stuffed turkey. Advice varies on what temperature is best for roasting a bird. In general, the larger the bird, the lower the temperature. It takes time for the heat to reach the center of the bird before the outside browns. (That’s why warming the stuffing for a large bird makes sense.) You can begin with a preheated 425°F oven for 30 minutes and lower it to 325°F, but it’s not necessary. I vote for my mom’s simple method of 325°F for large birds and 350°F for smaller ones.

Tuscan Roasted Vegetable and Balsamic Sauce

I’m not much for gravy so I prepare this sauce for my turkey (or chicken). I often roast the vegetables the day before and finish the sauce while the turkey rests. I learned this sauce when I worked in a Tuscan cooking school. The woman who offered it loved birds so she served it with a roasted pork loin stuffed with prosciutto and basil leaves instead.

6 to 8 servings

1/4 C. olive oil

3 large carrots, 2 C. diced 1/2-inch cubes

1-1/2 C. diced 1/2-inch cubes celery

1-1/2 large red onions, 3 C. diced 1/2-inch cubes

4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 T. balsamic vinegar, more to taste

6 large leaves fresh basil or 1 C. coarsely chopped Italian parsley, loosely packed

2 C. chicken broth and/or turkey juices

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss carrots, celery and onions with olive oil and a little salt. Pour vegetables into a 10-inch by 14-inch roasting pan, tuck thyme under vegetables. and place pan into oven to roast.

Roast vegetables until tender and browned, about one hour. Pour 1/2 cup broth into pan, cover it partially with foil and roast until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove pan from oven, uncover, pour 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar over vegetables and cool slightly. Remove thyme branches and scrape off leaves into vegetables; discard stems. Pour vegetables into food processor and purée with basil or parsley leaves. Pour in one cup broth or juices and continue to purée until chunky-smooth.

Adjust seasonings to taste with more vinegar, salt and pepper.

Adjust consistency with remaining broth or juices; sauce should be on the thick side. Pour sauce into saucepan with any remaining broth and bring to a simmer. Serve hot.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

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