I fear we’ve been duped by the turkey lobby.
Seriously. Who was the bright boy who decided to foul a national sports holiday with a feast centered on an impossibly difficult-to-cook bird? Turkeys are a huge mix of white and dark meats that are best cooked to different temperatures. There’s also the business of stuffing, which tastes especially good when cooked inside a bird. However, to get all that turkey-juice saturated bread up to a temperature safe to eat, you have to overcook the breast meat.
I’ve hunted wild turkeys a few times, never with any success. I’m guessing they’re even less forgiving in the kitchen than their farm-raised cousins.
I’ve worked hard at the turkey thing. A few years back I went all out on the deep-fried thing. It was pretty good, though I’m not sure it was worth the danger of heating up a caldron of oil to 350 degrees. I’ve also smoked turkeys, with OK results. And twice I made turduckens, boning out a chicken, duck and turkey, then stuffing the birds (full of stuffing themselves) one inside the other.
This seems to be a nearly foolproof method as the layer of duck fat around the middle bird seems to keep the whole amalgamation moist. But there’s something like 12 hours of prep involved if your boning-knife skills are as slow as mine.
More recently I returned to the roast method, only now I brine my bird first and leave it unstuffed. That seems to help a bit. Picking a young bird is also a good idea. Smaller turkeys are easier to cook.
My favorite technique for turkey I adapted from what I’ve learned cooking game birds. For birds with white breast meat such as pheasant and quail I like to short cut the field dressing process by skinning them, and then butchering them to some degree before cooking.
Note that I didn’t say “pop the breasts.” Some hunters save nothing but, concluding that there’s not enough meat on the rest of the bird to bother. That misses the real value of all those bony parts such as the back and neck, or the sinewy legs. They contribute valuable flavor to a game bird stock that is the base of a quality sauce.
For pheasants I like to cut out the backbone and spatchcock the birds, cooking them in a cast iron skillet under the pressure of a heated, foil-wrapped brick. Quail are reduced even further. I butcher them down to just the tiny breasts. Everything else, including the legs, goes into the stock pot. The breasts get a quick sear followed by a careful finish in the oven.
I used to pluck my birds as the skin provides a thin, but valuable layer of protection from the hot pan. Game bird skin, however, can have some off flavors. And plucking a bird takes about 10 times longer than skinning. To compensate for the lost insulation I layer pancetta over the meat before it hits the heat. Thinly sliced American bacon also does the trick, but here I prefer the subtler taste of the Italian-style cured pork belly.
The game bird cookery helped me figure out the best way to handle a turkey is in parts. This results in a properly cooked bird, with juicy meat throughout. But you don’t get the Norman Rockwell wow factor of bringing a whole bird to the table to carve in front of your guests. On Thanksgiving, at least, that’s a tradition worth preserving.
If you’re going to do the whole bird thing, at least try this: don’t slice off layers of breast meat in the traditional fashion with the knife held parallel to the rib cage. This exposes the grain of the meat in a way that creates a dry, granular mouthfeel.
Instead, carve off the breast in one intact piece, and then cut thicker slices perpendicular to the grain front to back. I don’t know if this method actually preserves the juiciness of the meat, or just makes it seem so. But that’s a distinction not worth making. If it tastes better, that’s what matters.
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