I thought I would recap last year's Perfect Turkey post with a few important updates. If you follow these steps – both the ones about what to do and what not to do – your friends and family will grovel at your feet and beg for your recipe. But you won't give it to them, because it's our little secret.
So here are the five foolproof tips for cooking your turkey this Thanksgiving. (Note: This method requires a 2 day prep period. But don't worry! The flavor steps will only take you 15 minutes a piece.)
Update (11/2010): I've re-visited this recipe for the first time in several years and made a few small changes based on recent experience. The main change is to cut way down on the brown sugar in the rub, and to add some butter. This will reduce the potential for burning and the butter makes a slightly damp spice mix that will adhere better and make the skin crispy and delicious!
This is the single best thing you can do to improve the flavor and juiciness of your turkey. In a large pot on the stove add:
- about 1 cup of table salt (or 1.5 cups of kosher salt) for each gallon of water
- 2 whole lemons + juice (just squeeze them in there and throw the lemon halves in)
- 3-4 whole cloves
- a whole cinnamon stick
Heat the mixture up just to dissolve the salt and infuse the spices and then cool it completely. Tip: If you're going to make a gallon of brine, no need to heat it all up, because it'll take longer to heat and an eternity to cool. Add the full amount of salt and aromatics to less than half of the water. Then stir that mixture into the rest of the water. You can make any additions to the brine for additional flavor. For instance: bay leaves, thyme or rosemary, a bit of honey or brown sugar, cardamom. This year I'm going to infuse the water with some black tea. I don't expect it to give big flavor, but I think a hint of the smoky, earthy, nutty tea flavor will be great. The only way to tell if it's salty enough is to taste. It should taste like sea water.
Brine the turkey whole, in the refrigerator, for up to 24 hours, at least overnight.
A dry rub is entirely about two things: creating a crispy, flavorful skin and making your bird look sexy. You can't honestly expect something you rub on the outside of a turkey to seep down into the meat very much, but it's a worthwhile step and a foolproof way to actually get a crispy, dark skin on your turkey, as opposed to the basting method which, as I explain below, is crap. So:
After you've brined the turkey, take it out of the solution and lay it on a bed of paper towels. Pat it dry. While it's drying a bit more on the counter, mix up the dry rub. You really don't want to skimp on the rub, so try this recipe out, but don't hesitate to make more if you need it:
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup butter, melted
- 1/4 cup salt
- 1 tablespoon. garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon finely ground mustard
- 1 tablespoon paprika (use spicy Spanish paprika for a wonderful flavor!)
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
Be creative here. Add any spice you want – add some cayenne to give it a kick. But avoid dried herbs as they may burn and give your skin a bitter taste. Once the turkey is fairly dry, generously rub the mixture all over the turkey. Refrigerate overnight.
You're going to have a lot more rub than you need, but it's better that way, since you really want to add it liberally. Most of it will fall off before the bird ever hits the oven. I like to rub the turkey inside the same roasting pan that I'm going to cook it in. I use a V-shaped rack. Just before the bird is ready for the oven I take the rack and turkey out, rinse the extra rub out of the bottom of the pan, give it a quick dry, plop the rack and turkey back in the pan and then pop it in the oven.
Don't worry if patches of the skin look like they're burning – it's bound to happen. I have a tiny Wedgewood oven with no circulation, so I got some significant blackening in one little part. Not a problem.
Do Not Stuff! Do Not Baste!
Stuffing and basting are about the two dumbest things you can do to a turkey. Here's why. You want moist turkey and crispy skin, right? But your oven, which creates dry heat, is working against you, sucking the moisture out of your bird the longer it sits in there. The problem here is that by the time your stuffing has come to a safe temperature to kill the bacteria in the tasty Turkey juices it has absorbed, the rest of your Turkey is going to be over-cooked. If you like dry turkey that's fine, but for me it's not worth drying out the turkey for some tasty stuffing. Another thing you might want to try if you like dry turkey is opening the oven door all the time to baste it and let the heat out. That'll sure make it take longer to cook. And don't be fooled: basting does not make your turkey more moist. How's that juice going to get way down into the meat?
No, there are only two things that are going to make your turkey moist: brining it and tenting it. If you follow my method, you'll get both. And cooking it to the correct temperature. Ok, that's three.
The problem with cooking poultry is that the white meat cooks faster than the dark meat. If you wait for the dark meat to be done, you'll have overdone white meat. If you take it out when the white meat is done, you'll have undercooked dark meat. So what's a well intentioned cook to do? Tent it. Crank the oven up to 425 and shove that bird in there. Let the skin caramelize for about 45 minutes. Then take a large piece of tin foil, folded over and molded to fit the shape of the breast, and snug it over top of the breast like a…. (You might want to shape it in advance so you don't have the oven door open too long to put the tent on.) Turn the heat down to 350 and let it go the rest of the way.
Update: Take the bird out of the fridge about 45 minutes before it's supposed to go in. If you put it in the oven ice cold it's obviously going to take longer, and we can't have that!
Use a Digital Thermometer
Take my word for it: there is no other way to know when your bird is done except by temperature. The x number of minutes per pound method is terrible because turkeys and ovens vary so much. Buy one of those digital thermometers with a metal probe thermometer. After you've tented the turkey, shove the probe through the foil into the deepest part of the breast on one side without touching the underlying bone. When the thermometer reads 165 degrees, that sucker is done! Take it out of the oven, out of the pan, and let it rest on the counter until it's time to carve.
Follow these simple steps and you can't go wrong.