Engineer’s Notes on Cooking a Holiday Centerpiece Turkey

I have cooked turkeys twice a year for our dorm for several years. It looks like a lot more effort than it really is. People ask a lot of questions about it. Here are things I have learned about the process.

tl;dr: I have cooked turkeys and have some notes. Alton Brown probably makes better turkeys.

First prep:

  • People store lopped off pieces of the turkey inside the turkey. There are “giblets” in the front in what look like an ambitious waxy teabag, and the neck is stored in the rear cavity. There’s no head but it’s kinda like having your head in your ass, which is a nice thing to laugh about while wrestling with a gross dead raw carcass. It’s cheerful.
  • You should remove all of those stored pieces of turkey from the turkey before you brine or cook it. On the Christmas 2015 turkey they got brined by accident and it was fine.


Brine the Turkey

  • Brine the turkey to make it tender in the days before you cook it.
  • Brine is a mixture of a lot of salt and some other flavors.
  • I used a little bit of water cooked with some peppercorns, fresh rosemary, garlic, two cups of brown sugar, a cup and a half of salt, sliced peelings from orange peels (you don’t want the white part, just the orange part that smells good).
  • Then you cool the brine and add 3 cups of balsamic vinegar.
  • I like to put acids in brine because it makes the meat tender. That is how marinades work, but Alton Brown doesn’t put acid in his brines, so who knows.
  • Put the turkey in the brining pot and fill the rest of your pot with water. If your turkey is more than 15 lbs, scale the recipe.
  • You do not brine pre-treated turkeys (butterball turkeys) and some of the ones which arrive frozen
  • You put the raw turkey in a bucket or a giant pot and leave it there for a day or two before cooking
  • If you are fancy, turn the turkey upside down half way so both sides are brined evenly. Otherwise, just throw it in head first and stop caring.
  • The brining pot generally goes in the refrigerator.
  • The turkey is then rinsed and soaked for 15 minutes so it tastes like things other than salt.
  • Most brining recipes/guides advise you to soak/clean your turkey in your sink. Those people have never seen my sink. I re-used the cleaned brining pot.
  • The turkey can sit in the pan you will cook it in while you wash the brining pot.
  • You can brine a lot of other ways. Other methods of brining involve buying special plastic bags, checking on the turkey, turning it over on intervals, having a super clean refrigerator, and other kinds of work. I like the bucket/giant pot method because it is lazy. Just make sure you use food-safe plastic.
  • Alton Brown brines his turkeys in a bucket of ice outside the refrigerator.

This is Alton Brown. Alton Brown knows what he is doing. You can safely ignore everything said here and follow his directions instead.

Preparing the turkey

  • You prepare the turkey so it can go in the oven and so it has flavors on it.
  • If you brined the turkey, it wants to fall apart now, so you tie the legs back together with butcher’s twine (which you buy at the grocery store). This has the added bonus of making you feel like a Real Grownup Who Can Cook because it looks more like the movies.
  • If you want to put butter under the skin of the turkey, you have to do it now.
  • You put butter under the turkey’s skin by starting near a cavity and just running your fingers along the bordering skin to expand the gap between the skin and the meat. Then you slide chunks of butter under the skin and smoosh them along up to places you can’t reach. If you rip the turkey’s skin, no butter is staying in there, better luck in other areas. I did not get to do this on the Christmas 2015 turkey.
  • You can put things in the cavity of the turkey, like fresh spices or more flavored butter.

Once again, Alton Brown

Making flavored butter

  • Butter. Melt a little bit and put spices in it. We use orange zest, fresh rosemary, and peppercorns.
  • Orange zest is the shaved off non-white part of an orange peel. Best removed with a clean fresh wood rasp which you have not used for construction purposes. A fine cheese grater works in a pinch, or just peel with a peeler and cut it up with a knife. We’re not making candy here, we can be uncivilized.
  • Put the little bit of butter on the stove with the spices to get the spices in the butter
  • Cool the butter in the fridge and then mix a lot more (cold) butter in so the butter is all solid again.
  • If you get butter with salt in it, you are adding salt to your recipe. Since you soaked the turkey in saltwater, that is probably not needed.


Alton Brown specifically hates the method we used, though I didn’t find the video before cooking the most recent turkey. The turkey for Christmas 2015 is documented as-is as requested, but his instructions are probably a better idea: 30 minutes at 500 degrees + a fancy foil hat then 350 degrees until the thermometer tells you.

Christmas 2015 Way

Cooking Step 1:

  • The goal is to give the turkey a head start in a way that is really hard to burn it.
  • Put the turkey in a disposable pan. They are made of really strong aluminum foil-ish stuff and come from supermarkets. Some have wire structures under them for large turkeys. Alton Brown uses shallow pans, but he probably knows how to not spill turkey drippings all over the bottom of the oven where they burn and smell terrible. I, on the other hand, am sick of setting off smoke alarms when visiting people are judging my capacity to cook.
  • Cover the top of the pan/turkey with aluminum foil with the intention of it being somewhat airtight-ish. Tuck it in around the edges on the underside of the pan at least.
  • Put the oven on the lowest setting and leave the turkey in there for about 10 minutes for every pound.

Cooking Step 2:

  • The goal is to heat the partially-cooked turkey to make it pretty on the outside and hot enough on the inside to be food safe.
  • Take the turkey out of the oven and remove the foil. The pan shouldn’t be very hot, but don’t place it down on anything easily melted.
  • Turn the oven up to 350F.
  • Rub the surface of the turkey with butter. Butter makes things brown and crispy when it cooks, so a little effort here to get it on all of the turkey really pays off.
  • Put the turkey back in uncovered.
  • Cook the turkey. Every 30 minutes take a spoon and scoop the juices from the bottom of the turkey pan back over the turkey. Alton Brown says we should cut this basting business out, and we plan to next time.
  • Beginning the 2nd time you scoop, check the turkey’s temperature with a meat thermometer. If it is 165F in the middle it is done. Get a meat thermometer like Alton Brown does which has a wire that comes outside of the oven so you can just check if the turkey is done.

Resting the turkey

  • Most meat other than fish needs to “rest” when it comes out of the oven. This means It finishes cooking due to existing internal heat and does not require any more heat.
  • Before you bring the turkey out to rest, prep everything that needs to be reheated before you serve it and get it all ready to go in the oven at whatever temperature.
  • Tell people dinner is almost ready and get them to collect each other.
  • Prep everything you want to re-heat in the oven so when the turkey is resting you can re-heat it all.
  • Remove the turkey from the oven and place it someplace where the hot pan won’t melt anything.
  • Cover it in foil in a very non-airtight manner. More like a hat which reaches past the outside of the pan. Bonus if you can keep it off the skin of the turkey.
  • Leave the turkey for 15-20 minutes.

Turkey neck and giblets:

  • Google “giblet gravy.” I haven’t found a recipe I really like yet. If you find one, tell me.

Turkey soup with the carcass (following days)

  • You have a turkey carcass. Having soup is cooler. It is a good meal in one of the following days.
  • Throw all the bones you did not serve back in the brining pot the night of the turkey eating.
  • It is probably a good idea to store the carcass in the brining pot overnight then cook the carcass when you have time for it.
  • Bring the pot out, fill it with water and throw it on the stove.
  • Add celery, garlic, peppercorns, and whatever else you have handy that makes soup stock
  • Leave it on a simmer for a long time (longer the better). You get diminishing returns when the carcass no longer has internal structure.
  • Remove all solid content and sort the meat from things which are not meat. Put the meat back in the soup.
  • Add celery, potatoes, carrots, whatever, and cook for an hour
  • It is soup

Yay turkey!

Turkey Log

Here is the turkey log so you can weigh this recipe against the turkey you ate and also decide if you want to take my word for anything:

  • Thanksgiving 2011: Guests ate it without inflicting casualties.
  • Thanksgiving 2012: Unreasonable beginner’s luck
  • Christmas 2012: Not as good, still decent
  • Thanksgiving 2013: Improved
  • Christmas 2013: Same as Thanksgiving
  • Thanksgiving 2014: No further improvement, extremely large turkey size meant cooking start time had to be moved back from now on
  • Christmas 2014: Still no further improvement
  • Thanksgiving 2015: Oven was turned off halfway by a confused and well-intentioned person. It was left off for an hour. Turkey was safe to eat. Patrick (2013? alumni) salvaged it by spending pretty much the whole resting period pouring the drippings back over the top to re-hydrate it.
  • Christmas 2015: First home-brined turkey. Brining is a massive improvement over previous turkeys.

A bunch more articles

Ok, decided that I’m probably going to start working more over here now. Here is a bunch of stuff I wrote.

The Fight is Not Over (about the need for more LGBT rights even though gay marriage is now legal, particularly the T part)

How the Silk Road Trial Changes the Internet  (this trial was super fucked, and it matters)

Harry Potter and the Quest for Personal Gain (a silly look at how an independent observer might easily argue that Harry Potter is a liar and a villain)

The Fresh Principles of Journalism (a silly thing about the first Democratic National Debate)

Ahmed Mohammed: After the Clock Stopped (a look at what happened to that kid who got in trouble at school after building a clock and then wound up with 15 minutes of fame on twitter. Spoilers: his family is leaving the country due to fear.)

Build Your Customer Base Backwards (I got bored of telling a bunch of new entrepreneurs the same stuff over and over so I wrote it down)

The Coddling of the American Conscience (people love finding a few activists who are crazy and using them to discredit any legitimate points the broader movement has)

Whoops, did stuff, here it is!

I forgot anybody might be following this and just started writing again on medium. I’ll try to start importing my other work onto here too.

Cyberpunk Dreamers: This World Needs You

Apple: Please Update Your 2FA and Support Policies to Protect Those Experiencing Online Harassment

Sexism in Tech: Don’t Ask Me Unless You’re Ready To Call Somebody a Whistleblower

The last one got interesting because it led to a huge discussion on ycombinator, which led to a discussion on /r/theredpill

I’ll try to add some of the older stuff too.

Booth Babes, Street Clothes, and GDC: Thanks But You sort of Made It Worse

I’m not a lady easily upset by the silly things that happen in male-dominated cultures. When I went on stage to speak at DEFCON 19 a series of events escalated to a portion of the audience shouting for me to take my shirt off. While I was a little sad that conference security had no idea how to de-escalate that (I sure hope they teach them now) and I had to do it myself, it isn’t fair to hold a whole conference, much less a whole culture accountable for the actions of about 2-dozen piss-drunk semi-asshole dudes who thought they were “just being funny.”  I was proud to speak at DEFCON 20 as a member of a community I dearly love, and I plan to apply to speak at DEFCON 21.

Yesterday was my first time at GDC, and for the first time I felt really uncomfortable at a conference. It wasn’t that anybody was being unkind, it was a simple numbers game. We all know there aren’t many lady developers, especially in video games. There are, however, a lot of companies that have hired women who are pretty but not models, dressed in normal street clothes to push whatever product they have. Products range from energy drinks to some developer program to help market your app. This meant that when you first met a girl, it was statistically safe to assume she was not technical and just there to push something. This assumption was remarkably hard to break. When trying to join lots of interesting conversations, I either had to be that asshole who casually drops her credentials, or deal with a few rounds of being told things were “complicated engineering stuff.”

Eventually, I found it socially easier to introduce myself as a tag-along to my boyfriend than to try to break my own path, and wound up spending most of the day either stuck to his side as my “see? I’m not here to be evil” mascot or walking around with other dudes. It was incredibly depressing. I met some really wonderful people in the game community who accepted me for who I am and who I am sure I’ll be friends with for a long time, but the overall atmosphere was very grim, and I was a little relieved to go home.

The only reason I find this to be worth bringing up is because even my extraordinarily egalitarian boyfriend didn’t quite see my plight until I explained it. He commented a few times on how few “booth babes” there were, only counting the ones who posed in bikinis with men holding plastic swords in photographs, and thought it was a great sign of progress. Me? I found them way easier to deal with than their plain-clothes counterparts. I’m not a model, nor was I dressed in stilettos and a bikini, so nobody would ever mistake me for being one of them. It was their plain-clothes fairly-ordinary-looking counterparts that made my life hard. Goodness knows, if I had the power to bring tons of other technical women at the conference that would be an optimal solution but barring that, selfish as it may sound, if I could have substituted all the plain-clothes promoters for traditional booth babes, I would have done it in a heartbeat. Then I’d be free to have a great time being what I normally am at conferences: a curiosity, an anomaly, and an excitable nerd.

Hacker Images

In early 2012 a hackerspace with the words Hacker and Dojo that I don’t want getting SEO linked to these images was having a lot of trouble with a series of news articles using the Dojo logo to round out any generic article about “bad guy hackers.” Sending take down notes was getting tiresome, and so one day a gentleman named Joel had an idea.

Perhaps we could make a “press” page where we could provide some guidance on how to learn more about “hackers” and “hacking” as well as provide images they can use for their articles. “Are you looking for an image of a badguy hacker? … Well, we aren’t really about that but here are some images you could use to convey that, I guess” – for extra points we’d sneak jokes into those images, for example, the “badguy hacker” could be using a keyboard plugged into a Nintendo, or they could be playing a video game that looks like “hacking”, or watching “The Net” and taking notes.

The result of this was beer and a hilarious photoshoot and an evening of dicking with SEO:

As you probably learned in the 1995 movie “Hackers,” all Hackers wear roller blades.

Roller Blades

This man is hacking so hard that smoke is coming out of his feet.
Hacker doing a Wiretap

This hacker has a ham radio and a wrench. He’s probably pretty ready to wreck your internet connection with those.
Security Hacker

Yesterday, we found one of our images in Wired.

It’s all about the little victories…

Edit: this just kept going

Conversations in modern medicine

So I went to the pharmacist today. Pharmacist rang up my medicine and, with insurance, it came to be about $430. Due to previous paperwork fail I have been unable to get my medicine for over a week and me walking away without my medicine is medically inadvisable. My pharmacist knows this.

Me: What is this? Did you get my new insurance? Did my new insurance raise the price?

Pharmacist: Maybe you have a deductible to meet?

Me: Yeah, but I use to buy this medicine without the insurance and it was $210. Why is it more expensive now? Can I read the bag? [reads] Yeah nothing has changed except now you’re giving me 60 30mg pills instead of 30 60mg pills.

Pharmacist: 60 pills is different than 30 pills

Me: Not when you’re prescribed two a day and because they are half as strong. If it is the same to you though, can you give me 30 60mg pills?

Pharmacist: We would have to redo all the paperwork with your doctor. Would you be willing to wait another week?

Me: Why is it so much more expensive to get double the half-sized pills then?

Pharmacist: We had to package them in two bottles.

Me:  Can you put them in one bottle?

Pharmacist: Do you want this medicine or not?