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Monday, November 21, 2011

Kathy Gunst's Top Ten Turkey Tips

Chef Kathy Gunst's roast turkey. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

By: Kathy Gunst, Here & Now resident chef

1. To brine or not to brine? Brining is immersing the bird in a salt and spice solution. The idea being that it helps the bird stay moist. Fill a large bowl or cooler with salt solution, bay leaf, fresh thyme, a few peppercorns and more spices or seasonings. Place bird breast side up in solution for 12 to 24 hours. Rinse and dry thoroughly. Don’t let water get warmer than 40 degrees.

2. Defrosting: It’s 4 days before Thanksgiving, or 3 or 2 or OMG it’s tomorrow and my bird is still frozen. What to do? Fill the sink with cold water, add bird (in plastic bag) and let soak for 30 minutes. Change the water, refill and soak another 30 minutes. It will take a 10 pound bird about 5 hours to defrost this way. If you do it the slow way, in the refrigerator, it can take 2 to 3 days!!

3. Types of Turkey: What is a Heritage Turkey? If you haven’t bought a turkey yet you may not be able to be too choosy about this. It’s kinda’ late. Look for a fresh (not frozen) naturally grown or organic bird, and preferably a local one.

*The label “Organic” is regulated by the USDA and lets you know that the turkey was raised free-range, without antibiotics and fed and organic diet.

*A natural turkey is generally less expensive than organic one. You need to check the label to see if it is antibiotic free, hormone free. This is a label that doesn’t guarantee much these days.

*Free-range means the bird was not raised in a cage and was able to graze on grasses and grains.

*Heritage birds are closer to their wild cousins than the commercially raised turkeys most of us grew up with. They are said to be juicier with more flavor and lots more dark meat. If you love white meat you will be disappointed with a heritage bird. They are free-range and take longer to grow than other species.

4.Basic Equipment:

You don’t need a lot of special fancy equipment. You will need:

  • A good roasting pan. Make sure your turkey fits into tit and then make sure your roasting pan fits into your oven.
  • Racks are controversial. Many cooks feel that elevating the bird off the bottom of the roasting pan promotes even heat and crisp skin throughout. It also allows the fat and grease to drip down off the bird and into the pan, leaving you with wonderful bits of flavor for making gravy. I don’t generally use a rack, but many chefs do. Your call!!
  • Kitchen twine for typing the legs together
  • An instant-read thermometer is invaluable for knowing when the bird is ready. When it’s inserted into the breast meat it should read 165 degrees and dark meat should register at 175 degrees.
  • Aluminum foil or cheesecloth is important to have on hand so you can cover the breast met so it doesn’t cook too quickly while the dark meat continues to cook. Loosely cover the breast meat after it’s browned. You can also use cheesecloth (some cooks like to dip it into melted butter so it acts as a shield and a baster). And you want to create a loose aluminum foil tent on the bird after it comes out of the oven to keep it warm while you make gravy and get everything else ready.

5. Seasonings: Turkey meat is delicious and doesn’t need heavy flavoring. I season the inside and outside of the meat with good sea salt and freshly ground pepper. I also chop about 10 cloves garlic and place in a skillet with a stick of butter and some fresh chopped rosemary, thyme and sage. This is my flavoring butter. I spoon about half of it on the bird just when it goes into the oven and then baste a bit of it on every hour or so, creating a gorgeous glaze and a well seasoned buttery-garlic-herb-flavored bird.

6. To Stuff or Not and When? I adore stuffing and I love it most when it’s stuffed inside the bird’s cavity so it stays moist with juices. NEVER stuff a bird until just moments before it’s ready to go into the oven. You do not want to leave stuffing sitting inside a raw bird or BAD things will happen. Place any extra stuffing in a lightly oiled casserole and base with some of the turkey juices after it’s roasted for about 2 hours.

7. Getting Ready: You’ve seasoned the bird, you’ve stuffed the bird, now you want to tie together the legs (or drumsticks) with kitchen twine to keep them evenly elevated and encourage even coking times. You also want to tuck the wing tips back under the shoulders of the bird so they don’t burn or dry out.

Preheat the oven. Place some oil in your roasting pan and place the bird in the pan or on a rack. And get ready to roast….

8. High Temp-Low Temp? One of the most hotly debated questions is what temperature to use to roast the turkey? Some swear a low temperature and long cooking produces the moistest bird. Others favor the high temperature/fast roast method. I fall somewhere in-between. I like to start the bird out at a high temperature (425 degrees or so) for about 30 minutes to create a golden brown color and a crisp skin and then loosely cove the breast meat with foil and reduce the temperature to around 350 degrees and roast until ready. It always produces a moist, evenly-cooked bird with a gorgeous, golden-brown crisp skin!

9. How Do I Know When It’s Done? There are several ways to test a turkey. Remember that fresh birds cook faster than ones that have been frozen—only about 15 minutes per pounds versus 20 minutes per pound. The safest test is to use an instant read thermometer and the white breast meat should be 165 degrees and the thigh or dark meat should register 175 degrees. I also like to place a small, sharp knife into the thigh, just below the drumstick, and if the juices run yellow and not pink the bird is done. Check it before the allotted time because once it’s overcooked there’s not much you can do! You can also untie the legs and gently jiggle them; if they feel loose the bird is ready.

10. There’s so much turkey left! What to do with leftovers? The best part: the sandwiches, the pot pies, the stir fries, the soups. Be sure to save the carcass when you’ve eaten all the meat to make a fully flavored turkey stock. Also if you have lots leftovers be sure to freeze some in small packets to use in a month or two when the idea of turkey sounds really good—again!!


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  • Vivienne Metcalf

    I do not see the proper proportions of of salt to water etc. for the Brine, also quantities of how many herbs etc.

    Would you be kind enough to make this clear for me.   Thankyou. 

  • Mary Greenwood

    After years of preparing the Holiday Bird in various ways, some more difficult than others (turning every half hour or so was the latest that I have been using for a couple years, and I wasn’t impressed with the results) I am delighted to see Kathy’s simple approach to roasting a turkey.  Thank you, thank you!  Now for the chestnuts.

  • Elaine D.

    I made the butter – seasoning basting sauce, and it is FABULOUS!  My vegetarian friends like it, too, and will slather their dishes with this yummy sauce, too.  Now to put it on the turkey and POP it in the oven!

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