Learning how to roast the perfect turkey was a slow process because way back on that first Christmas, I had never cooked one before, and it wasn’t until the following Christmas that I had to cook one again. So you figure one a year, even for 30 years, only gives you 30 shots at getting it right. My mother hadn’t relinquished Easter or Thanksgiving back then and, puffed up on my victory over getting possession of Christmas, I didn’t argue. When the Clone got married, and we moved north to be closer, I started doing Easter and Thanksgiving, which upped my odds drastically of getting good fowl results.
I confess, though, that first year I read up on it. I had been given a thin (68pages) How To Cook Meat book as a wedding shower gift and thankfully turkeys were in there, but it gave options, of course. Brine it, don’t brine it. WTF was brine? Stuff it, don’t stuff it, but if you stuff it, don’t stuff it too stuffed or it throws the timing off. Great. Give me times then take them back. Trust your meat thermometer. Okay, if I’m trusting the meat thermometer why bother giving me times?
With great trepidation I unbagged the sucker and found all the goodies stuffed in the various orifices. The “parson’s nose” was the first disgusting bit of ick to get cut off and discarded. Bit of salt and pepper, basic stuffing of bread cubes and onion and chicken stock, and in the oven it went. Stabbed it with the meat thermometer, guessed the approximate number of hours, then went off to do other stuff while it cooked.
Back then I only had the basic cooking accoutrements. A broiling pan that came with the oven, a small enameled roasting pan and maybe a pie plate or two that some misguided optimist had thrown in as a shower present. And of course no one had told me a turkey tends to give off a lot of juice while it’s cooking…juice that should be siphoned off occasionally and set aside for gravy. I had used the bottom of the broiling pan as a roaster, since the roasting pan was way too small, so of course, when it filled and I started smelling smoke, I panicked. With visions of an I Love Lucy episode running through my head, I dashed to the kitchen, fought my way through the smoke, and realized the grease was dripping onto the oven coils. Still panicking, I grabbed the oven mitts, went to take the broiling pan out of the oven and stood there in horror watching as the turkey shot halfway across the room. Broiling pans, in those days, were shallow, with sloped sides, so with all the grease collecting, when I tipped it the slightest bit to get it out…the turkey sought its freedom. Not just the turkey, but half the grease in the pan.
Stupid heard me shriek and came running in from whatever he was doing. After slipping in the grease and crashing against the cupboards, he cleverly figured out the problem. Within an hour or two it would be hysterically funny, but at the time I was horrified and still panicking. It took us a while to figure out how best to slide through the spilled grease and pick a hot half-cooked turkey off the floor. Took even longer to figure out a simple washing was not going to ever get all that grease off the floor. He washed it about five times and every time I’d shriek when I saw a thin little line of grease creeping out from under the fridge or the stove. As for the turkey itself, well, it went back into the oven and finished roasting, but it was sort of smooshed on one side, and one leg had broken off, which started the tradition of carving it up in the kitchen instead of on the dining room table.
I’ve come a long way since that I Love Lucy event. I found, through trial and error, How To Cook The Perfect Turkey, the one that melts in your mouth, that gets eaten down to the last morsel. And keep in mind, I only ever cooked turkeys that were over 20lbs, so I still flounder a bit when faced with a smaller version. Anyway, whether you want it or not, here’s my method…no brine involved *snort* (I did try the brine thing one year, but honestly, it didn’t make a smick of difference and only freaked me out leaving a turkey in salt water overnight)
Firstly, I make my stuffing. About a month before Turkey Day, I start saving all the bits of bread or bagels or buns that normally would go out to feed the birds and I stick them in a bag in the freezer instead. Gives it a nice blend of mystery that can include rye bread, wheat bread, french stick, onion buns…etc etc. I fry up two thick loaves of pork sausage…the big ones…breaking it up as it fries into small pea-sized bits, then I dice up half a dozen onions and an equal amount of celery and fry them in the sausage grease. I add about a tbsp of ground sage to this mix when it’s almost done, when the onions are transparent and starting to caramelize. That get set aside to cool a bit whilst I go nuts with the food processor and crumbleate all the bread bits. Not really fine crumbs, but mealy with some chunks for texture. If I have to start from scratch, it takes 3-4 loaves of bread to make up the amount I need, and yes, I have a hugemongous mixing bowl, restaurant quality, that all this fits into nicely. When the bread is crumbed, I add more sage, about another tblsp, then toss in the sausage mixture. That gets all mixed up together and tasted to see if it needs more salt, pepper, sage. The beauty of pre-cooking the sausage and onion mixture is this ability to pre-taste to get the sage right. At this stage I’ll chuck in a cup or so of turkey stock*(see pithy note further down), just enough to moisten the bread a teeny bit so it holds together.
On to the bird…I still remove all the little packages from the orifices and whack off that disgusting parson’s nose. The giblets and neck go into a pot of water and simmer away with some garlic to be used later as a base for the gravy. I’m not fond of touching raw meat, so on go the surgical gloves and I start stuffing the main cavity of the corpse, then under the back flap in the smaller hole. I then slide my fingers under the layer of skin that covers the breast, carefully separating it from the meat so that it forms two deep pockets on either side of the breast bone that run right to the back of the bird. These two big pockets get stuffed too. I’ve graduated to a large, deep lasagna pan for roasting, so in it goes, looking like Fat Albert. Next comes sliced bacon, and I look for the packages with the least amount of meat and most white fat. The bacon goes on top of the bird in strips, covering everything from the tip of the drumstick to the stuffed ass end, with a double layer over the breast meat. Next comes a tin foil tent…it usually takes three long strips to cover the whole thing, being careful to leave at least a half inch between the bird and the foil. And if you go around the edge after it’s tented and tuck the foil down into the lip of the pan, the juices run INTO the pan, where a conveniently torn little hole later on allows the end of a baster to go in and collect up the juice.
I figure out a rough timetable for the beast to cook, starting it off at 350 for about two hours, then taking it down to 325 for the remaining three or four more. I’ve found that free range turkeys cook faster for some reason, and butterballs take way longer. In any case, I have a meat thermometer stabbed into the thigh meat…one of the newfangled ones that has a probe in the meat and the little box with the readout on the counter, so I don’t even have to open the oven and poke around to see how it’s doing. I usually pop the beast in the oven by 9 am at the latest, and as I said, some take 5hrs to cook, some take 7 or 8. The 5hr one happened about ten years ago and threw me for a loop. I went so far as to stab all four of my meat thermometers into the bird thinking the first one had broken. But they all read the same thing, so there I was with the fully cooked bird at 1 in the afternoon when company wasn’t due to arrive until 5. This was when I discovered Towelling, and now I put the bird in deliberately early in order to let it sit in on the counter wrapped in about eight layers of beach towels. Yup. Beach towels. Eight of them. Doubled over and draped over, under, and around the still-tin-foiled bird for however many hours it takes to finish the rest of the cooking, welcome guests, nosh hors doovers, glug wine etc etc. It doesn’t get touched or peeked at or moved, just sits there all bundled up in it’s warm towel bundle and when it’s finally time to unwrap it…it comes out steaming hot and moist. The stuffing gets scooped out, the meat gets carved, and voila….Perfect Turkey every time.
*turkey note from above. Being Polish, I waste nothing. After every scrap of edible sandwich meat has been peeled off the cooled bones, I toss everything, bones, skin, clingy bits of meat not worth salvaging, even stuffing that has hidden in some nook or cranny…everything goes into a big soup pot then gets covered with water and sits at a rolling simmer for 12-14 hours. At the end, when the bones are boiled clean, it gets run through a strainer and the stock is put back onto the stove and kept at a hard rolling boil until it’s reduced to maybe three inches of liquid at the bottom of the pot. This is turkey juice nirvana. After it’s cooled and the fat is skimmed off, it goes into portion-size ziplock baggies and frozen…to be used as a base for soup or for gravy.