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WHY IS MY TURKEY UGLY?

Every November all the food magazines have these cover photos – if this wasn’t such a high-class blog, I’d call them the money shot, but of course I’m too couth to say that – of perfectly golden brown plump roasted turkeys. Like this one:

So you painstakingly follow the directions to ensure that your turkey is just as perfect. And what you wind up with probably looks something like this:

The skin and meat around the legs has shriveled. The skin looks like the turkey used sunscreen on some parts and not on others. There are weird burned bits and the whole thing looks like it crawled out of a dumpster.

Why doesn’t my turkey look like the one on the magazine cover?

Your turkey is cooked. The one on the magazine cover is about 80% raw and has been treated with a variety of products not unlike the old Q-T Suntan Lotion. Kitchen Bouquet and Gravy Master are the least disgusting. That gorgeous turkey, the Gisele Bundchen of fowl, has been prettified with soap, oils, Pam,  brown shoe polish, and browned with a blow torch. (Perhaps like Gisele herself.)  It’s nearly raw inside and now, with the paints and polishes, is also inedible. A wee bit of airbrushing and Photoshopping will add the finishing touches. After the photo shoot – which was done last summer under hot lights during a two- or three-day session, meaning the turkey was also starting to stink – it will be thrown out.

I should add that in the last couple of years I have seen a few magazines that actually feature a real cooked turkey on the cover. In 2006 Gourmet Magazine did this and got a lot of complaints from readers about the “burned-looking turkey.”  That kind of response may say something about Gourmet readers and why Gourmet is no longer in existence.

This year I will roast my 32nd consecutive Thanksgiving turkey. That doesn’t include turkeys roasted for occasions other than Thanksgiving like potlucks and family dinners and Christmas, so I guess the total is somewhere around 50. I’ve tackled fresh and frozen, super broad breasted and tiny titty, organic and pumped-full-of-crap, hens and toms, 12 pound to 26 pound, stuffed and unstuffed. The only really memorable thing that ever happened was one year when the heating element in the oven went ballistic and the temperature rose to Surface Of The Sun. A 22-pound turkey roasted in 2 hours, meaning it was done at 10:30 in the morning.  I had a lot of time to kill that day.

There are plenty of directions out there for cooking a turkey. Roast it in a bag. Start roasting it upside down, then after a couple of hours flip it. Deep-fry it. Steam it. Cut it into pieces and roast them separately. Brine it.  I haven’t tried  these methods because Thanksgiving is not a day to be experimenting on a turkey. If you decide that this is the year to try Alton Brown’s method of cooking a turkey by strapping it to a motorcycle engine using two furnace filters, dry ice,  and a yard of Mylar – well, you better have Plan B ready, because there are going to be a lot of long faces around the table and you will never, ever hear the end of it.

Some opinions and advice. Take them for what they’re worth.

  • It’s impossible to cook a super-broad-breasted turkey and have it come out edible unless you deconstruct the turkey and cook the breast separately from the rest.  I’m not up for that myself. If you really feel you must roast one of these Carol Dodas anyway, try layering bacon strips over the breast to delay the inevitable desiccation.
  • Fresh turkeys are better than frozen, but they also cost more. Only you can decide if they taste that much better.I think organic and kosher turkeys are the best, but they will run $3.50/pound and upwards (this year, anyway). Again, that’s something you’ll have to decide on. About heirloom turkeys: Read this and then decide. Never cooked one myself because I don’t have that kind of money. If you do, let me know how it turned out.
  • For frozen turkeys, allow ample time to defrost it in the refrigerator. Figure one day (24 hours) to defrost 5 pounds. Thus, a twenty-pound turkey will take about four days to defrost in the refrigerator. For the love of God, don’t defrost it on the counter unless you enjoy projectile vomiting and a trip to the ER. If you HAVE to speed it up, put the unwrapped turkey in a sink full of COLD water and change the water often. DO NOT allow the water to warm up. (Two weeks before we got married, my husband and I enjoyed a night of lying on the bathroom floors with our faces pressed against the porcelain goddess, experiencing rapid weight loss in the worst way possible, victims of poultry poisoning. Trust me. You don’t want to experience this.)
  • With fresh/non-frozen turkeys, buy them as close to Thanksgiving as possible. When you get it home, remove the plastic wrap and take a sniff to make sure it isn’t spoiled. Or if you’re ballsy, cut  the plastic wrap open right there in the store so you can shriek dramatically and faint from the stench of a rotting turkey.  I once got a “fresh” Christmas turkey that had been deceased a very long time and it was damn near impossible, not to mention expensive, to procure a replacement on Christmas day.
  • While the stuffing that is cooked inside the turkey is most righteous, turkeys doesn’t actually hold very much;  whoever is in the kitchen will wind up furtively snarfing up all that stuffing as they finish making the side dishes. More importantly, it’s my belief that the stuffing will absorb much of the turkey’s precious bodily fluids, meaning the turkey will not be quite as juicy. I can’t prove this – never conducted any tests – but that is my belief and I’m sticking to it.  And a stuffed turkey takes longer to cook, so the likelihood of overcooking it increases.

How to roast a turkey:

This is probably in way more detail than anyone needs.

You need a roasting pan that will hold the turkey comfortably. Turkeys seem to expand when the plastic wrap is removed, so get a pan larger than you think you need.  Those cheapo foil pans on sale at holiday time for two bucks? Those are a disaster waiting to happen.  Just about any other large pan is better than those. You don’t need a Cuisinart or Le Creuset pan, just a big sturdy roasting pan that won’t crumple. One with scratches and scrapes from Goodwill is just fine.

Remove the wrapper if you haven’t already. There may be a plastic cord-like thing holding the legs together – get a tough pair of scissors and snip that in half and remove it. It will not roast deliciously. If there’s a wire-like hobble, remove it; you might need pliers. Reach up the bum and remove any giblets (which might be in a bag), then reach into the neck cavity and remove anything in there (like the neck).  If the insides are still frosty, run cold water into the cavity.

Put the turkey in the roasting pan, breast side up. The breast side is the plump breasty side. Cut a lemon in half and rub it all over the turkey, inside and out, squeezing gently as you go. This will cut surface bacteria and also freshen and remove any residual smell from the bag.

You’ll need some butter –  1/2 stick, or more if you’re feeling reckless. If it isn’t at room temperature, soften it in the microwave 10-15 seconds. You can mash in some minced fresh herbs (thyme, parsley, rosemary, sage, marjoram, chives, whatever) and garlic…. sometimes I do if I’m in an ambitious state of mind.

Remove  jewelry from your hands and wrists. Yes, I know Guy Fieri and Paula Deen wear their rings while cooking, but they’re both people I’d like to slap, so ignore them. Run your hand under the breast skin to loosen it, way down to over the legs and thighs. I usually take a pair of scissors and carefully snip where the skin attaches to the meat, directly down the center of the breast. Rub the butter under the skin as far as you can reach without tearing the skin too much. Wipe your hands on the turkey.

Add some flavor to the cavity: the squeezed-out lemon, a cut-up onion, some fresh herbs and garlic. Or not.

Sprinkle the turkey all over with finely ground sea salt and freshly ground pepper, rubbing it into the wing and leg crevices and inside the cavity. You can wrap some bacon around the legs and drape some over the breast; at the very least you’ll have some fabulous bacon to nibble on. Take a sheet of aluminum foil and tent it over the breast loosely.  Pour some liquid into the roasting pan. Water is fine; white wine or vermouth is better; chicken broth or turkey broth, or a combination of wine and broth, is perfect. I add liquid to about 1/2″ deep. Add the turkey neck and giblets to the pan.

By now this pan is heavy, so open the oven door first, make sure the oven racks are adjusted so you can fit the whole thing in, and carefully put the turkey in the oven. Turn the oven to 350. Go listen to Alice’s Restaurant.

This is the best illustrated video I could find.   If you know and love this song  like I do, you already know the words.

Baste the turkey with the pan liquid about every 30 minutes. I’m not 100% convinced basting makes any difference, but I do it anyway. It keeps me busy. It does make for a delicious liquid to turn into gravy later, so that’s a good reason to baste. Add more broth/water/ wine as needed to keep the liquid level up as it evaporates.

After 45 minutes, remove the giblets (heart, gizzard, liver) but leave the neck in the pan.

After 3 hours, take the foil off. Let the turkey get a nice tan.

Just about all turkeys cook in 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 hours. You can use an instant-read thermometer stuck in the meatiest part of the thigh (it should read 165) but this is what I do, and it has always worked for me: I jiggle the leg. If the leg doesn’t move, it needs more cooking time. If it starts to move with a little help, we’re getting close. If the leg jiggles easily, that turkey is done. Remove the roasting pan from the oven to a stable surface that won’t mind getting hot.

Get a very large platter or a cookie sheet (the kind with rims all around) and set it on a stable surface near the turkey. Get some oven mitts that you won’t need again today, and a long-handled spatula. Work the spatula under the turkey and around the edges of the pan to loosen anything that might have stuck. Then, using the mitts and lots of bravery, lift the turkey out of the pan and onto the platter. If you aren’t strong enough to do this, get someone to do it for you.  Wrap the turkey loosely with plenty of foil and let sit while the rest of the dinner is prepared. Throw the mitts into the laundry basket.

There. That’s the turkey roasted. Good job.

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3 responses »

  1. I just love your turn of phrase sometimes! This is not only helpful and informative, but funny in all the right places. Glad I’m not the only one with a desire to slap some of the “expert” cooks upside the head!

    Our turkey this year (as most years) is a wild turkey that my dad hunted. He promises it was a head-shot kill, but I’ll still be checking most bites for lead just in case…. 🙂

    Reply
    • A long time ago we got some meat – I think it was ground beef, but I don’t really remember – from someone my dad knew. There was buckshot all through it. We had to be careful eating it lest we break a tooth.

      Reply
  2. Cooking a turkey tomorrow. After cooking and carving 6 in one week for a wedding I catered last year, I feel like I’m an expert. Forget pretty, I got for moist, delicious, and carved before it hits the table. Yum, can’t wait for tomorrow night!

    Reply

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