Tips for Cooking the Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

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Since I became a chef, I’ve been responsible for the turkey at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner.   For the last fifteen years I have made a brined turkey.   There really is no other way to do it.  American turkeys are extremely breast heavy, which possibly says something about American tastes.  This does create a problem, however, since the breast meat quickly becomes dry and tasteless while cooking.  Brining a bird will help this dramatically.  Another technique I’ll share with you also helps give you the perfect turkey: I split the turkey in half before cooking.   This lets you cook the light and dark meat to different temperatures.  The problem with turkey is that you either have overcooked breast or undercooked leg meat. Breast meat is ideally cooked to 155ºF, while the dark meat should be cooked to 180 ºF.  This way you’ll have moist breast meat and the legs are tender and the juice runs clear.   I’ll give you a simple brine recipe that will result in a turkey that tastes… well like turkey.  If you want to experiment, you can add all kinds of things into the brine to change the flavor of the turkey, such as soy sauce, ginger, pepper, curry, or any other spice.  Have fun with it.  I’ve tried many different versions of turkey brine, but I always come back to the basics for Thanksgiving dinner.

Serves 10

1ea.                   12-14 pound fresh (or defrosted) turkey

For Brine:

½ gallon           water at room temperature

1 cup                   kosher salt

1 cup                   maple syrup

¼ cup                peppercorns, cracked

1-½ gallons     water with ice in a clean 5 gallon bucket

To cook the turkey:

½ pound            butter, melted

 

In a large bowl, mix the salt, maple and peppercorns into the room temperature water until the salt is dissolved.  Add to the ice water in the 5 gallon bucket and stir well.  Prepare the turkey by removing the neck and innards from the cavity and place the bird carefully “head” first into the bucket.  Make sure that the bird is completely submerged.  If you need to, you can weight it down with a plate.   Place the bucket into a refrigerator or outside if you’re sure that the temperature will remain between 30 and 40 degrees overnight.  Let the turkey brine for 18-30 hours, flipping the bird once.

Remove the turkey from the brine, rinse in cold water, dry with paper towels and place on a cutting board.  Take a sharp kitchen knife and one side at a time, pull the skin tight on a leg and carefully cut the skin between the leg and the breast.  Follow the curve of the leg and cut all the way back to the back bone.  You want to keep as much skin as possible on the breast, and less on the leg.  After you complete both sides, stand the bird up, front end down and bend the leg section back, using the back bone as the hinge.  This will cause the back bone to break.  Use your knife to complete the cut and remove the leg/thigh section from the breast.  Now you should have two sections of turkey.  Place each section onto a roasting pan, skin side up and brush generously with melted butter.

Preheat the oven to 500ºF.  Place both sections in the oven and cook for 30 minutes.  Reduce the oven to 325 ºF and continue cooking for approximately one hour, rebasting with butter occasionally.  Use an instant read thermometer in the thickest part of each piece of turkey.  The breast will be finished cooking at an internal temperature of 155ºF, the leg/thigh section at 180 ºF.  When each section is done, remove from oven and cover with foil and allow to rest for at least 15 minutes.

You can reassemble the turkey for presentation if you wish, simply by pushing the two sections together on a large serving dish. Enjoy. Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday season!

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