Don't Fear the Bird


LAS VEGAS, Nev. — For those who are newbies in the kitchen and will prepare their first Thanksgiving turkey next week, here’s a bit of advice: Do not fear the bird.

If, on the other hand, you’re a turkey-roasting veteran, we have some ideas for you, too, so stay tuned.

But back to the basics. First, you have several decisions to make, starting with the turkey you purchase. If the group will be small and nobody really likes dark meat, consider a turkey breast. Otherwise, a whole turkey is the way to go.

Then we come to fresh or frozen? Those turkeys you see advertised at bargain prices at this time of year are frozen; you’ll pay more for a fresh turkey, and the price continues to rise for organic, free-range, kosher or any combination of the three. Frozen turkeys have their drawbacks — hence the bargain prices — including that it takes time and refrigerator space to thaw a frozen turkey, about one day for every four pounds of bird. (It’s safest to thaw in the refrigerator, although a cold-water bath — follow the instructions on the label — can be used in a pinch. Thawing a turkey at room temperature equates to setting a place at the table for the scourge of food-borne illness.)

Frozen turkeys also generally have additives designed to keep them moist. The problem with that is that if you decide to brine, those additives mean the turkey will probably be overly salty after brining. (You also don’t want to brine a kosher turkey, which has added salt.)

Yes, that’s another question: To brine or not to brine?

“The best way to get more flavor is to brine it,” said Peter Sherlock, executive chef of Green Valley Ranch Resort.

Brining — which involves bathing the bird in a solution of water, salt and flavoring sources — also helps to keep a turkey moist. But understand that you’ll need to have enough refrigerator space to keep the turkey in its bath. And it’s best to brine only turkeys that have no additives.

Roy Ellamar, executive chef of Sensi at Bellagio, suggests using alcohol in the turkey’s brine.

“I do a brine with bourbon, salt, brown sugar, lots of garlic and a little bit of ginger,” in proportions of 1 quart of water to 1 cup of salt, 1/2 cup of sugar and “as much bourbon as you like,” he said.

“You could use Wild Turkey,” Ellamar added, “because that would be a nice conversation piece.”

Refrigerate the turkey in the brine for two days, he said. Then take it out of the brine, let it dry overnight in the refrigerator and cook it in a smoker.

“You’ll have a beautiful breast to present, with a nice golden skin,” he said.

Cooking the Thanksgiving turkey outdoors has become more popular, with one industry group reporting that more than half of the consumers surveyed said they planned to cook their turkey al fresco, either in a smoker, on a grill or in a fryer. It’s a chicken-and-egg proposition, though; it may be because more men are cooking these days, or maybe more men are cooking because of the popularity of the outdoor methods. Butterball, for example, has taken pains to add a man to its Turkey Talk-Line staff.

“I think for most families, the man of the house cooks the turkey,” Ellamar said. “I think it’s more of a fun thing if it’s done outside. More and more men are cooking in the home these days. Any excuse to be outside drinking beer and cooking and using the grill one last time, I think it’s definitely the way people are going right now.”

If you plan to smoke the bird, Ellamar suggests experimenting with different types of wood chips; he likes to use white oak.

“And don’t forget to soak them,” he said, “so they don’t burn and end up scorching the turkey. Also, adding fresh herbs onto the chips — like rosemary and thyme — really adds some nice nuances.”

If you plan to use a turkey fryer, follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully; turkey fryers are the source of a lot of fires each Thanksgiving. (You’ll also need a place to discard the used oil.)

If you don’t plan to brine, consider a homemade seasoned salt.

“That’s easy to do at home, whatever flavor profile you want to add,” Ellamar said. “You could use star anise, Saigon cinnamon and orange zest — things that speak to the Asian tones. Put it all in the food processor and process it all and basically you’re going to make a salt rub. Season the inside of the turkey cavity with that. All of those spices and aromatics are going to come out when you cook.”

You wouldn’t want to do that if you’re stuffing the turkey, of course, because then your stuffing would come out awfully salty. Which brings us to stuff or not to stuff? That tends to be a regional thing, with Northerners stuffing and Southerners not stuffing, and the decision often is dictated by family tradition. But most chefs advise against stuffing because of the uncertainty of getting the various parts of the turkey and the stuffing to reach food-safe temperatures without any of it drying out. If you don’t plan to stuff, bake the stuffing — which you may now want to call dressing — in a separate pan.

If you’re roasting the turkey in the oven and want to guarantee a nice golden skin, use an old Martha Stewart trick: Cover the turkey with four layers of cheesecloth soaked in a mixture of butter and wine.

When you peel off the cheesecloth, you’ll be rewarded by the sight of a picture-perfect turkey.

Now, about the roasting: Put the turkey on a rack in a somewhat shallow, uncovered roasting pan. If you don’t use the cheesecloth method you’ll need to baste, even if the turkey is labeled “self-basting,” to keep the breast from drying out while you wait for the thighs and legs to cook.

Bruno Riou, executive chef of Mix at Mandalay Bay, said he likes to coat the breast with butter and refrigerate it overnight.

“I cook it the usual way,” he said. “I baste the meat all along the process.”

Riou said he uses vegetables — carrots, onions and celery — in the roasting pan to impart flavor and moisture, and then uses them to make the gravy.

If the turkey comes with a plastic pop-up thermometer, toss it; an instant-read thermometer, available in nearly any supermarket, will give you a much more accurate reading. The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests the turkey be roasted until the leg meat reaches 165 degrees, according to an instant-read thermometer placed in the thickest part of the thigh. Some recipes specify a higher temperature, but Ellamar said to remember that the turkey will continue cooking after you remove it from the oven.

“Those things can climb 20 degrees in an hour after you pull it out of the oven,” he said. “That’s how you end up with dry turkey.”

Well, there’s another reason cooks end up with dry turkey: By the time the dark meat has reached a safe temperature, the breast meat may be overcooked or at least bordering on it. So the chefs recommend cooking the white and dark meat separately.

“To get the best color and the crisp skin, I always remove the legs and cook the legs and breast separately,” Riou said. “I cook the legs the same way, but they take a little bit longer.”

Ellamar said at Sensi, he’ll prepare the legs in a manner similar to duck confit.

“I’ll put them in a salt-sugar cure overnight and then cook them in duck fat,” he said. “When it comes out, I’ll pull the skin off and I’ll cook that separately and crisp that up.”

At Green Valley Ranch Resort, Sherlock said he will use a century-old method to cook the legs. He plans to stuff them with a mixture of giblets, mirepoix (that would be your classic chopped celery, carrots and onions), fresh chestnuts and focaccia, and then poach them.

“That’s what they did back then, if you want to try a bit of a different technique on the turkey this year,” he said.

Whatever you do, you’ll be carrying on tradition, or starting a new one.

Which may seem a little odd to Riou, a native of France who’s lived in this country for two years.

“This turkey thing is a bit new to me,” he said. “I like it. It’s challenging to get the bird moist.

“I like it, but by the end of the night, we sell so much turkey, it’s OK. I can wait another year.”

RECIPES:

ROAST TURKEY WITH SPICY RUB

3 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar

3 tablespoons kosher or sea salt

3 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons roasted cumin

2 teaspoons garlic powder

2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 12- to 14-pound whole turkey, thawed if frozen

6 tablespoon canola oil

Combine all ingredients except turkey and oil. Blend well. (May be prepared two to three days in advance. Store mixture in an airtight container at room temperature.)

Remove neck and giblets from body and neck cavities of turkey; refrigerate for another use or discard. Turn wings back to hold neck skin in place. Return legs to the tucked position, if untucked. Place turkey, breast side up, on flat rack in shallow roasting pan.

Brush outside of the turkey with half of the oil; rub outside and inside cavity with spice mixture. Cover and refrigerate 12 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Brush spiced turkey with remaining 3 tablespoons of oil. Roast approximately 3 hours, or until meat thermometer reaches 180 when inserted in the thickest part of the thigh. Remove turkey from oven.

Let turkey stand 15 minutes before carving.

— Recipe from Butterball

GRILLED TEA-BRINED TURKEY

5 lemons (divided use)

18 Earl Grey tea bags

11 4-inch-long rosemary sprigs, divided

2 cups coarse kosher salt

1 1/2cups (packed) golden brown sugar

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

12 cups ice cubes

2 turkey-size oven-roasting bags

1 22-pound turkey; neck, heart and gizzard reserved for gravy

One 12 3/4-by-9-by-2-inch disposable aluminum pan

1 celery stalk, cut crosswise into 3-inch pieces

1 medium onion, quartered

1/4 cup olive oil

Bring 6 1/2 quarts water to boil in large pot. Remove from heat. Using vegetable peeler, remove peel from 3 lemons (yellow part only). Add peel, tea bags and 6 rosemary sprigs to water; steep 20 minutes.

Remove tea bags. Add salt and sugar; stir to dissolve. Stir in lemon juice. Cool to lukewarm. Add ice to reduce temperature to below 45 degrees.

Place 1 roasting bag inside the second, forming 2 layers. Place inside large pot. Place turkey in roasting bags, breast side down. Pour brine over turkey. Tie bags tightly, eliminating any air pockets. Refrigerate 36 to 48 hours. (Or, place bags into large cooler, pour brine over turkey, and tie bags securely.

Pour ice over and around turkey in bags. Place lid securely on cooler. Check twice a day to ensure that turkey is covered with ice (some ice will melt).

Remove top rack from grill. Place disposable aluminum baking pan in center of barbecue (if using 2-burner gas grill, place pan on 1 side of grill; if using 3-burner grill, place pan over center burner).

Prepare barbecue (medium-low heat). If using charcoal grill, arrange coals on each side of aluminum baking pan, dividing equally. (You will need to add about 6 briquettes to each side of aluminum pan every 30 minutes to maintain temperature while cooking turkey.) If using 3-burner gas grill, light burner(s) on left and right, leaving center burner(s) off. If using 2-burner gas grill, light burner on side opposite disposable pan. Insert instant-read thermometer into top vent of grill. Maintain temperature at around 350 degrees.

Drain turkey; discard brine. Pat turkey dry. Pierce 2 lemons all over with fork. Stuff turkey with lemons, 5 sprigs rosemary, celery and onion. Tie legs together. Brush turkey all over with oil.

Place turkey directly on grill above aluminum pan. Close grill. Adjust temperature to maintain 350 degrees. Roast turkey until thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 175 degrees, about 3 hours. Transfer turkey to platter. Tent with foil. Allow to rest 30 minutes before carving (internal temperature will rise 5 to 10 degrees).

Serve with gravy.

Serves 16.

— Recipe from Bon Appetit

PERFECT ROAST TURKEY

1 20- to 21-pound fresh whole turkey, giblets and neck removed from cavity and reserved

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, melted, plus 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

One 750-milliliter bottle dry white wine

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 cup dry red or white wine, for gravy (optional)

Rinse turkey with cool water and dry with paper towels. Let stand for two hours at room temperature.

Place rack on lowest level in oven. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Combine melted butter and white wine in a bowl. Fold a large piece of cheesecloth into quarters and cut it into a 17-inch, 4-layer square. Immerse cheesecloth in the butter and wine; let soak.

Place turkey, breast side up, on a roasting rack in a heavy metal roasting pan. If the turkey comes with a pop-up timer, remove it; an instant-read thermometer is a much more accurate indication of doneness. Fold wing tips under turkey. Sprinkle ? teaspoon each salt and pepper inside turkey. Tie legs together loosely with kitchen string (a bow will be easy to untie later). Fold neck flap under and secure with toothpicks. Rub turkey with the softened butter, and sprinkle with remaining 1? teaspoons salt and pepper.

Lift cheesecloth out of liquid and squeeze it slightly, leaving it very damp. Spread it evenly over the breast and about halfway down the sides of the turkey; it can cover some of the leg area. Place turkey, legs first, in oven. Cook for 30 minutes. Using a pastry brush, baste cheesecloth and exposed parts of turkey with butter and wine. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to cook for 2? more hours, basting every 30 minutes and watching pan juices; if the pan gets too full, spoon out juices, reserving them for gravy.

After this third hour of cooking, carefully remove and discard cheesecloth. Turn roasting pan so that the breast is facing the back of the oven. Baste turkey with pan juices. If there are not enough juices, continue to use butter and wine. The skin gets fragile as it browns, so baste carefully. Cook 1 more hour, basting after 30 minutes.

After this fourth hour of cooking, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. Do not poke into a bone. The temperature should reach 180 degrees and the turkey should be golden brown. The breast does not need to be checked for temperature. If legs are not yet fully cooked, baste turkey, return to oven, and cook another 20 to 30 minutes.

When fully cooked, transfer turkey to a serving platter and let rest for about 30 minutes.

Serves 14.

— Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart Living

Heidi Knapp Rinella is the food editor at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact her at hrinella@reviewjournal.com