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.
- 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
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.